By Adam Hoge-
EVANSTON (CBS) Chris Collins was introduced as Northwestern’s 24th head men’s basketball coach Tuesday.
But that may have been the second most important development inside Welsh-Ryan Arena.
This week, Collins left his safe job in Durham, N.C. where he was the associate head coach at Duke — second in command to Mike Krzyzewski — and moved to Evanston, where he’ll take on one of the biggest challenges in the country: turning Northwestern’s basketball program into, well, something.
“I’ve always wanted to go somewhere where I could create my own program and kind of blaze my own trail,” Chris Collins said Tuesday after a press conference in front of reporters, administrators and boosters.
Collins certainly has that opportunity in Evanston, where he’ll attempt to be the first coach at Northwestern to lead the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament.
But Collins’ vision for Northwestern goes well beyond simply making the NCAA Tournament.
“I promise everyone at this school and at this university that I will give my all to make this program respected nationwide,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not about getting to one NCAA Tournament. It’s about doing more than that and hopefully one day building a championship program here at Northwestern.”
While longtime observers of Northwestern basketball will roll their eyes at that statement, such a vision — even if incredibly optimistic — is exactly what the program needs. In this day and age, where making a field of 68 is hardly a challenge, the simple goal of just making an NCAA Tournament is exactly what’s been wrong with the Wildcats program for years.
Collins has much higher aspirations than that. He has been patient with his opportunities, turning down other job offers before landing the right one. For most coaches, Northwestern is not the right one. But Collins is not like most coaches. He’s from the area and has spent most of the last 20 years either playing at or coaching at Duke — a similar school that has blossomed into a basketball powerhouse.
He’s ready to come home. He knows about winning. And he plans to do it at Northwestern.
But before you state the obvious and say Northwestern can’t be Duke because of the increased academic standards for student-athletes and lack of facilities, hold up, because Tuesday may have signaled an important change for the program.
Putting today in a vacuum, Collins’ goals are unrealistic. But if eventually given the proper resources — a new arena, a new practice facility and relaxed admission standards for his players — they might not be.
And Tuesday, Collins spoke like a coach who is confident he’ll get what he needs.
Asked specifically by CBSChicago.com if the academic standards were discussed during the hiring process and if he thinks they will be adjusted in the future, Collins said: “The commitment from President Shapiro and Dr. Phillips to build a top notch basketball program is there. They have a vision. It’s not going to be an overnight fix, but I believe that those guys are committed to giving me what I need to make this a successful program.”
That’s not exactly a yes, but it’s a far cry from a no. And one can only imagine the associate head coach of Duke — where relaxed admission standards have played a large part in Mike Krzyzewski’s success — would only take the job at Northwestern if he knew he would receive the necessary resources to avoid sounding like a complete fool at his introductory press conference.
Perhaps Collins’ greatest attribute is that he knows exactly how Duke gets it done. He knows what Northwestern needs. And indications from within the NU program are that both President Morton Shapiro and Athletic Director Jim Phillips are indeed committed to giving Collins the necessary resources. If nothing else, it helps that Shapiro is a sports fan.
“We have to get this basketball program going,” Phillips said Tuesday. “There’s too many of our programs that have had incredible success for us not to be good in basketball.”
Of course, even with the resources, Collins will have his doubters. But that’s nothing new for a coach’s son.
“I’m used to that,” he said. “When I was in high school and my dad (Doug Collins) was coaching the Bulls, I was expected to be great. People got on me and I always thrive in those situations and I try to embrace it.”
The results as a player and an assistant coach back that up. And the hiring of Collins represents a departure from Bill Carmody, who while being a good coach and a great guy, was also mellow and not exactly the kind of guy who could publicly sell a program.
“I got to get on campus,” Collins said. “I got get to the students. I got to get into the city. I want to be visible. I want people to see me and equate that with Northwestern basketball. I think that’s very important and that’s something I intend to do.”
Collins gets it. And so does his athletic director.
“Sure, it’s a nice story, but we all want it to be a nice story a year from now, three years from now, five years from now, seven years from now,” Phillips said. “I get all that. It’s not about winning the press conference.”
The standards have been set. Now it’s time for Collins, Phillips and maybe most importantly, Shapiro, to execute the plan.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.