Was there ever really any doubt?
When Northwestern hired Chris Collins to replace Bill Carmody as head coach, they got a guy who spent four years playing for and thirteen coaching under the legendary Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.
It’s well known that Coach K does things his own way. That way has led to four NCAA Championships and 957 wins, along with two Olympic gold medals. Duke haters can say what they want, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone in basketball without a high level of respect for Krzyzewski.
For a long time, the best-case scenario bandied about for Northwestern basketball was something along the lines of “Duke Midwest.” So you take the Duke guy out of the program, dress him in purple, deck him in UnderArmour and throw him out on the recruiting trail. What do you get?
Well…something like what you’d find back in Durham.
But on a serious note, Nick Medline alluded to this back when Northwestern was searching for a “stretch four,” a term I detest and something that thankfully concluded when Gavin Skelly popped for the Cats this week.
Although prototype forward Ryan Kelly was a McDonald’s All-American and Skelly was largely a mid-major target before Collins got there, you get the point. They filled a need for size and added a high-character, team-oriented kid. Sound familiar?
Make no mistake, the Tao of K has made its way to Evanston. Let’s take a look, albeit a contemporary one at what greases the wheels of the Blue Devil recruiting machine.
Without looking, how many scholarships has Krzyzewski extended to the 2014 class?
Including a few kids that turned Coach K and his Duke powerhouse down, 11. Eleven scholarship offers from a school that can pretty much recruit whoever it wants. To play the comparison game, UCLA has reportedly offered more than 25 players in this class. Defending national champions Louisville recruited upward of 20 kids to date while putting together an already stacked group.
The takeaway here is that Duke recruits extremely selectively. Coach K and his staff identify what they need and prioritize the guys they want. Of course there are more than 11 kids good enough to play there—but they don’t all get those elusive offers.
So when Coach K sits down in your living room and tells you he wants you, you listen.
After all those years sitting next to K on the couch, asking mothers for glasses of water and their sons to come slap the floor in Durham, it comes as no surprise that Chris Collins has done much of the same in just a handful of months at the helm.
By our count, Collins has offered just nine players (next time an unheard of foreign import playing at a prep school in Montana reports an offer, double check the facts). It might not sound like the best method for a program trying to get back off the ground and into the tournament, but it’s worked. Just ask Vic Law or Gavin Skelly.
When Law hopped on board, the only other small forward with an offer was his buddy Josh Cunningham. Skelly committed after NU had begun to back off on power forwards Paul White and Reid Travis.
The recent commits knew they were Collins’ guys (he hadn’t offered many others) and the only kids getting the opportunity to play in Evanston were kids of a high caliber. It all matters.
Another curious thing about Duke? Their recruits get to know the entire staff. I had the pleasure of covering the second half of Chicago sensation Jabari Parker’s high school career, and though Coach K closed on him personally, it wasn’t a one-man, or even a two-man job.
You still hear stories of Krzyzewski, early in Parker’s senior year, rolling up to a Simeon open gym in a limo. A couple of months later, as Jabari prepared to make his announcement on national television, I sat there on the bleachers as he pulled out that blue t-shirt with a huge smile on his face.
Who came up in Parker’s post-decision press conference? None other than Chris Collins, a longtime friend of the family. When asked the eternal question regarding “Chicago ties” (Coach K, after all, is from the area) Parker joked that Collins wasn’t from Chicago, but “from Northbrook.” The relationship between the two was certainly a strong one.
And when I stood in the tunnel in Peoria back in March after Simeon and Parker won their fourth straight state title, who was there waiting for Jabari?
It was Jeff Capel who was there to witness history and congratulate Parker on his team’s remarkable achievements. Maybe Coach K was having dinner with his wife that night, maybe Collins was out golfing with Duke beat writers, but it doesn’t matter—the fact is that Duke often deploys its assistants interchangeably.
After the regime change, Vic Law heard from all three of Tavaras Hardy, Patrick Baldwin and Collins. When Hardy left for the Georgetown post, it was Armon Gates who entered the picture and picked up the slack given the prior relationship from his time at Loyola.
Who identified and led Gavin Skelly’s recruitment? By all accounts, Baldwin. But who was in Orlando to see him in July? Armon Gates. And it was Collins who personally closed the deal and made the big man an offer he couldn't refuse.
Recruiting is a team effort at Northwestern, and the term “lead recruiter” should be taken with a grain of salt and used loosely by media from here on out. You can bet Tyler Ulis would have received texts from President Morty Schapiro, Willie the Wildcat and Jitim Young by now if all were legal under NCAA regulations.
But when talking to Krzyzewski, there’s one thing that always comes back into my mind.
The day Jabari committed, my close friend and well-connected Chicago basketball figure Daniel Poneman and I spoke at length with Parker’s brother Christian on the sidelines of Simeon practice. He went anecdotally through his brother's recruitment, a gold mine of information that would all be behind a paywall if I still officially wrote for Scout.
There’s one specific story Christian told me that I’ll always remember, one that will probably make me the annoying old guy at the nursing home in 60 years. It culminated in this quote:
“Jabari, you’re the best,” said Krzyzewski, standing in the Parkers’ living room. “And I know that, because I’m the best. And I believe in you.”
It’s also worth noting that an extremely excited Coach K stood up for the duration of that in-home visit—the family noticed. But it’s probably more important to note that Krzyzewski’s strongest selling point was, and will forever be, himself.
Coach K’s body of work speaks for itself. I don’t need to go into any more detail. And anyone remember Collins’ biggest recruiting pitch?
Although he’s a first-time head coach, his winning résumé sets him apart.
He’s coached the best with USA Basketball and can develop pros. He played with some of the best at Duke and understands what makes a winning program tick. And he’s learned from the best in Mike Krzyzewski.
Collins has brought all of that with him to Evanston, complete with his easily spelled surname, as Northwestern enters uncharted territory on the court and the recruiting trail.
Leave the floor slapping in North Carolina, coach, and we’ll be all good on the North Shore.
Formerly a staff writer at PurpleWildcats.com, Jeremy Woo is a Chicago basketball freelancer and contributor for Zagsblog.com.