By Chris Emma-
(CBS) EVANSTON, Ill. — A clear-as-day missed goal-tending call had Chris Collins irate with referee Jim Burr. Northwestern’s first-year coach was jumping up and down on the floor with his arms outstretched, showing his disapproval to the botched call as play continued on.
Behind Collins was the backing of a sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena crowd. Loud boos sounded through the 62-year-old gym, backing the Wildcats as they worked to rally against Nebraska on Saturday. Those standing and shouting in anger included Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, ESPN personality and NU alum Michael Wilbon and Wildcat football coach Pat Fitzgerald.
And most importantly, there were more than 8,000 others dressed in Northwestern purple. The student section was packed to capacity, and the old-school wooden bleachers were packed to the rafters.
For years during Bill Carmody’s run as head coach, the Northwestern fan base was torn with where the Wildcats’ future could go. Collins has rejuvenated the program in his first year, with his overmatched team overachieving in the brutal Big Ten. The fans have come out to support the Wildcats — an enthusiastic sellout crowd for a noon Saturday tip-off with bottom-dwelling Nebraska serving as strong evidence.
This is what Collins imagined for the future of Northwestern’s basketball program.
“It was awesome,” Collins said of the fan support following the Wildcats’ 53-49 loss to the Cornhuskers. “So, so pleased with the turnout. I was hoping that would be the case, because that’s what my guys deserve. They’ve been playing so hard and battling. They’re so proud to be wearing the jersey with Northwestern on it.”
This is the same Welsh-Ryan Arena that has historically been a neutral-site game for Northwestern, as visiting fans pack the venue to drown out the purple. Perhaps things are changing.
A Northwestern program filled with infamy is invested in its promising young coach, with billboards of Collins plastered all across Chicago. The marketing efforts are intended to bring a new audience of basketball fans to Evanston but also to energize a tired alumni base.
The Northwestern players have responded to Collins’ call, exceeding expectations in one of the nation’s best conferences with a 5-6 record that includes road upsets at Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota. When the Wildcats returned home, the fans were out in force.
Fifth-year senior Drew Crawford — who has played in rare Northwestern games with postseason implications — has experienced more than any other Wildcat. He declined outside offers to take his final year of eligibility with a rebuilding team, likely not expecting to see success of this season.
“The school has been so supportive of us — the student body, all the alumni,” Crawford said. “It feels great to come to a game and see it packed like that, everybody loud. I just hope they stay with us.”
With the school’s best-ranked recruiting class coming in for next season and a young team growing in a tough conference, the future of Northwestern is bright. Collins has his Wildcats in prime position for postseason success in the coming seasons—maybe even the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance.
These Wildcats have played their best basketball in important games, even sparking the slightest bit of postseason promise. From the casual fans to the students and alumni, Northwestern fans are taking notice.
“We need that kind of support,” Collins said.
As Northwestern’s fan base unites around its new coach and rising program, the support will only grow stronger.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmmaScout.