It was an unconventional hiring process, in that everything worked out perfectly. Jim Phillips found his ideal candidate, they made arrangements shortly after an interview in Atlanta, and Chris Collins took the podium at Welsh-Ryan Arena on April 2nd—preparing fans for something brand new.
When the Bill Carmody era came to an end, Phillips quickly identified one of his primary goals in finding a new head coach. Carmody never loved recruiting. He closed better than most gave him credit for, as evidenced by an impressive 2012 signing of Sanjay Lumpkin, but his classes never quite broke through.
Phillips reiterated one of his primary expectations for Collins at the introductory press conference: “Someone who enjoys and has demonstrated success in recruiting… Someone who will thrive on the recruiting trail, which is the lifeblood of every elite program in college athletics.”
Many bemoaned the lack of facilities, which holds little traction. Others fretted over NU’s lofty academic standards—ones that ruled out Mislav Brzoja after he literally posted a 4.0 GPA at Traders Point Christian Academy.
But Collins, meanwhile, has made stunning recruiting strides in less than two months at Northwestern. Several highly touted prospects are considering NU, which doubles as a PR boon and positive sign for this program.
Four-star talents including Trevon Bluiett and Vic Law have praised the coach for his style, while insisting that the Wildcats are in contention for their respective commitments. Casual fans hang on every word from Tyler Ulis and Reid Travis. Recruiting analysts sit in wonder at how many AAU prospects Collins has contacted; this wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly.
“With Chris Collins coming in, it doesn’t get any better than him,” Bluiett said.
Yet we’re still missing the “how.” How has Chris Collins shaped his vision for the program? And more importantly, how–in such a short period of time–has he convinced people to believe in Northwestern basketball? The answer lies in his simple but thorough pitch.
The first casualty of Collins’ tenure was the Princeton offense. He made immediate efforts to distance himself from the old system—one that often restricted individual talent and alienated the NU fan base.
This firm rejection of the Princeton echoes throughout his staff. One of the most common misconceptions during the coaching search was that Tavaras Hardy–then considered among the candidates–would have continued Carmody’s offensive style. He, too, wanted the change.
During that emotional April press conference, David Kaplan of CSN Chicago tossed Collins an opportunity. He asked about the Princeton offense, wondering how Collins would change after 13 years of the same thing.
“I don’t believe in having a strict system that I’m just going to plug the guys into from year to year,” Collins said. “That’s just not how I coach.
“I want to put my star players in a position to be successful, and then complement them with the right pieces so we can win.”
Recruits were listening. His mindset appeals to a broader base of players, and marks an exciting change for this new-look program.
Four-star small forward Vic Law of St. Rita HS (Ill.) represents the strong in-state effort from this staff. What stands out about Collins? What could potentially make NU a more appealing option than, say, Florida State?
“He’s unique in that he’s not a system coach,” Vic Law said. “He works to all of his players.”
Tyler Ulis also fits this new mold. The potential program-turning floor general seems comfortable leading any offense. At Marian Catholic HS and with Team Meanstreets (AAU), he can create plays off of the dribble. Rather than restraining his ability, Collins plans to embrace it.
“He’s talking about how he wants to change the style of play, and how he wants to get up and down the court,” Ulis said. “That would fit me very well.”
In past seasons, the Princeton inevitably became a part of the recruiting discussion. Even Josh Cunningham said that before the change, he had to consider how the Princeton fit his game. For him, it would have been fine. For others, well, not so much.
This attempt to personalize his program has resonated throughout the high school basketball circuit. People look forward to seeing his team—even with the expected growing pains. And for the better, players want to be part of something different and something fresh.
Collins has also been expert at selling his background. Take Trevon Bluiett, for example. The four-star shooting guard holds offers from several high major schools, including Michigan, Florida and Butler. Those teams have reached Final Fours under their current head coaches, yet if you ask Bluiett, Collins owns the most impressive pedigree.
“He has all of the keys and all of the ideas from an NBA-level head coach,” Bluiett said. “That always helps.”
The role of Doug Collins was widely debated in the days leading up to his son’s hiring. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that “NU could wind up with Chris and Doug,” an absurd suggestion to insiders but a fair reflection of enthusiasm surrounding the family. We knew Doug would play an influential role in some capacity—just not in what way.
Really, it’s the sum of his experiences that gives Collins this veteran presence and widespread appeal.
First, there’s Coach K. The Duke reputation gave him experience with recruiting top-flight players, and he refused to slow down upon arriving in Evanston. Marcus Bartley–one of the team’s most serious 2014 targets–even grew up cheering for the Blue Devils. In person, Bartley said he was “really impressed” by Collins. The MacArthur HS (Ill.) prospect visited on Tuesday, as the team hopes to lock down the point guard of its future.
There’s his experience with USA Basketball and the gold medal to show for it. Finally, there’s Doug, who became choked up when his son was officially announced as a head coach—finally. With his father in attendance, Chris talked about the importance of his mentors.
“I plan to take all of the knowledge and wisdom, and everything I’ve learned from those coaches,” he said. “Now, it’s on me to create my own style, and be my own coach.”
His reputation is already making players listen.
After the 2012-13 debacle, Northwestern fans were left without hope. Rumors about Carmody’s dismissal swirled during the Welsh-Ryan finale against Penn State, with the best argument for retaining the embattled head coach something along the lines of: “Well, the team was injured.”
Even with decent returns on the recruiting trail–with Jaren Sina and Nate Taphorn–the team didn’t appear any closer to its first tournament berth. So Phillips made the difficult decision.
First, they needed a coach who exuded confidence. Collins stood tall, claiming that “there are plenty of players and young men out there that want to be part of a situation like this.” Next, he had to find them, and he needed them to believe as well.
Near the beginning of April, he visited Vic Law, re-extended his offer and expressed his vision for the program.
“It went very well,” Law said of the visit. “He got a chance to really introduce himself and show me that the tradition is about to change. He laid out a plan to show me how I would affect Northwestern as part of his first real recruiting class.”
There’s another constant: Here, you can make history. Here, there’s this sense of repressed energy surrounding NU basketball. Director of Basketball Operations Chris Lauten simply gestures towards Ryan Field. It wasn’t always a frenzy. For some players, like Bartley, building the elusive “winning values” figures largely into the pitch.
“You want to be a guy who started it all,” Bartley said. “This will be the first group of his guys. It’ll be the building block for the rest of the program, and set the tone for a winning program.”
It’s about Collins finding guys like himself—guys who know this team is headed for a better destination.
NU needed a head coach who believed in the program. The ensuing reward? Recruits are starting to believe him, too.