Driving to Raleigh-Durham International Airport with his family, Collins dialed up an old Duke connection—someone whose skillset made him an ideal Director of Basketball Operations.
Somehow, the call went to voicemail, so Collins left a message. He then boarded the short flight to Chicago, which only delayed the inevitable: Chris Lauten said yes.
"He planted the seed to see if it was something I would be interested in," Lauten said. "It was."
Lauten, the former Duke student manager, expected that an opportunity like this would arrive for Collins. He watched him help to lead the Blue Devils, knowing this infectious enthusiasm would one day translate to a head coaching position.
And after five seasons as Coordinator of Basketball Operations at the NBA D-League, Lauten planned to inquire about openings on the Collins staff.
Instead, he benefited from the "Duke family," one that he and Collins hope to replicate in Evanston. Lauten's application was not submitted by call, or by résumé. It came from the thousands of hours he spent in Cameron Indoor Stadium from 2003 to 2008, hoping to impact the fabled program. Along the way, he earned respect from players and coaches—culminating in the call he missed.
"It's a fraternity," his friend and former Duke player Jon Scheyer said. "From Coach K all the way down to the freshman manager, there's responsibility. There are expectations. And any task, [Lauten] would get done."
When you look up "Chris Lauten" on any search engine, the offering of news clips will be sparse. The Director of Ops rarely makes headlines. In fact, Lauten began his job in Evanston nearly two weeks before anyone took notice.
At every stop thus far, Chris Lauten has made a quiet impact. He built his own reputation starting from the bottom. Now, he arrives to a basketball team hoping to accomplish the exact same thing.
In the Mirror
When Lauten was in eighth grade, his family (based in Orlando) traveled to Washington D.C. for a vacation. The North Carolina Triangle seemed the natural halfway point to rest, so they stopped to visit Duke and young Chris fell in love.
Upon returning home, he posted what he called a "clichéd message" on his mirror. It provided a constant reminder of his dream school, and that never wavered during his high school years.
His other love was basketball. Lauten played alongside future Georgetown and Indiana guard Jeremiah Rivers in high school. And when in doubt, he turned to Jeremiah's father–Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers–for guidance. It likely changed his life.
At Marquette, Doc Rivers made one of his closest friendships with a student manager. Lauten hoped to stay around the game and Doc offered advice that would later define his professional career.
"He talked to me about the bond he developed, and the family culture they had at Marquette and that we had at Duke," Lauten said. "It's what we hope to create [at Northwestern] from our coaches through our players and our managers: Just being part of the family."
Lauten arrived at his dream school in 2003, and never hesitated to join the program. He asked to get involved; they handed him a towel. Suddenly, he was part of the national powerhouse basketball team, and in the midst of an atmosphere that permeated all of campus.
He worked his way up the managerial ladder. He understood the importance of responsibility, watching coaches and players put in the effort to win championships.
"It's not your normal undergraduate experience," he said. "You're at practice an hour before the players and an hour after the players.
"Having to learn those life skills–time management, attention to detail, professionalism–as an 18-year-old, there wasn't a better training ground for me."
Here's the thing: He also knows Chris Collins better than anyone else in the NU program. They went to the Final Four together. They lost in the first round together. From Collins and Mike Krzyzewski, Lauten learned about winning values.
"It's important to have a shared vision and culture, and that's something that we've talked about developing here at Northwestern," Lauten said. "That was some of the appeal in Coach Collins' mind for me, because I had gone through it. I know how he likes to operate."
When Scheyer heard that Lauten joined the new-look staff in Evanston, he hardly skipped a beat.
"I wasn't surprised," he said. "It shows just how great a reflection he made on Chris."
The Duke Family
At Duke, managers would help any time recruits visited campus. Lauten was always tasked with touring around Scheyer—then a five-star shooting guard at Glenbrook North.
Scheyer committed to Duke on May 17, 2005. The top-tier recruit faced obvious comparisons to Collins, as they attended the same high school. The next season, however, the once-dominant Blue Devils program began to look vulnerable.
The year before Scheyer arrived on campus, Duke went 32-4 and earned the first overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. After two clean wins, everything fell apart.
The Blue Devils somehow lost to Glen Davis and LSU in the third round. Then, star player Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick graduated. In Scheyer's first year–and Lauten's fourth–they faced the typical high pressure but lacked the talent to overcome adversity.
Duke went 8-8 in ACC play–its worst mark since the 1995-96 season–and lost to VCU in the first round of the Tournament. Lauten returned for a fifth year, and despite the team's better regular-season effort, they bowed out in the second round.
"We struggled a lot in Jon's first two years, which were my last two," Lauten said. "We went through some battles together, and I developed some very close relationships. Jon has remained one of my closest friends."
Like Lauten, Duke players fought for their success. That team evolved in four years, and eventually won the national championship.
When Lauten moved on, he and Scheyer stayed close—providing the perfect miniature of this lasting family concept. It's not lip service. Even as their career paths diverged, with Lauten in New York and Scheyer trying to form his professional career, they kept in touch.
"There hasn't been a week we haven't spoken," Scheyer said.
Lauten finally left Durham in 2008. He missed being part of a team, but he always relished the climb.
Lauten knew he wanted to stay in sports, which–as everyone knows–can be tough as hell. After completing his degrees in sociology and history, he began his offseason of uncertainty. He worked at several camps, including the NBA Draft Combine, and tried to make connections. The plan worked.
The D-League, with headquarters in New York City, hired Lauten beginning in the 2008-09 season. While keeping the elaborate operations group organized, he played an integral role in helping the league build its reputation.
"It was awesome to be in that environment," Lauten said. "You could have a hand in changing things, which I loved."
Every day, he watched players fight for a chance at the NBA. This hit home after Scheyer suffered a brutal eye injury in the 2010 NBA Summer League. He tried out for the Clippers–at less than full strength–and was released. His career arrived at an early impasse, so he called Lauten. Shortly after, Scheyer joined the Rio Grande Valley Vipers D-League team.
"You have to fight and grind," Lauten said. "I want a team of fighters and scrappers. That's what the D-League requires. You've got to live it; you can't just be there going through the motions."
On top of the inspiration he gleaned from the process, Lauten made use of his extensive connections. He helped former Duke star Christian Laettner land a coaching job.
There's this common thread for the hundreds of players (and the coaches) who file through the D-League ranks. You have to battle for every opportunity.
"To see guy earn that call-up… That's why the league is there," Lauten said.
In the early years of the Chris Collins era, this work ethic might characterize the NU basketball program. Collins has not been handed the most talented roster in the Big Ten, but he's especially open about valuing players who share this overwhelming passion.
Staff members, too. He called Chris Lauten because he trusted him–after Duke and the D-League–to do a damn good job and love the experience like none other.
"Once he outlined his vision for the role," Lauten said, "it was as close to a no-brainer as there could be."
In recent weeks, the core staff has met to discuss goals. They never mention the most notable fact about Northwestern basketball: They're the only power conference team that has never made the NCAA Tournament.
Collins, Lauten, Tavaras Hardy and Patrick Baldwin (with Brian James soon to come) are building culture from the ground up. They discuss the type of student-athletes they envision wearing purple. They're starting to build relationships with current players—ones who will be necessary for short-term success.
Most of all, they share the common vision. Everyone is in it for the long haul, hoping to build championship-caliber teams.
"You look at the enthusiasm around the football program and sports in this community-at-large. People want to see this team take off," Lauten said. "There's certainly right now a great energy and buzz around the program, so it's really our job as a staff to sustain that."
For Lauten, part of that involves drawing from past experiences. He wants to select two passionate freshman managers each year—ideally candidates who can work with the team for their entire undergraduate careers. Just like at Duke.
Yes, of course, his roles include those outlined in the initial press release. He'll work with scheduling, travel, et cetera. He's also an organizational godsend who wants to leave a more significant impact.
"The most important thing for me," he said, "is helping to create and sustain a culture here. That's really important when starting something new—bringing certain habits to our program."
Collins and Lauten learned from the best coach in college basketball history. They observed the day-to-day habits of champions and are bound together by this common past. They believe that one day–not now, but later–NU can accomplish what is now unthinkable.
"It's a mindset that every day we're in the office, what habits are we building?" Lauten said. "How are we getting better? Is the time that we're putting in today going to allow us to get to this better destination?"
The culture begins in this room, with these people.
Chris Lauten wanted to get started quickly—almost too quickly. Any move involves complications. He needed to find residence, settle down and grow comfortable with the new job.
He's currently staying with the Scheyer family in Northbrook—just a short commute away from Evanston.
Jon was recently hired as an assistant coach at Duke, effectively ending his playing career. He, like Lauten, will be around the game for many more years. And before his job begins, Scheyer is also living at home.
"It worked out perfectly," Scheyer said. "It's been fun having him around."
They met in Durham, with their careers already headed in separate directions. One navigated his way through a startup basketball league. The other struggled to make it in the pros. After all these years, they ended up in the same living room, awaiting their promising futures.
This is why Chris Collins and Chris Lauten are so focused on establishing culture. This is why they believe in top-to-bottom accountability.
At the end of the day, it always gives back.