I wonder if this will ever leave his bedside table — the picture that started it all.
I imagine that in five or six years, around the time Chris Collins will be universally loved in Evanston, a modernized Northwestern men’s basketball Twitter account will throw back to this image. It will be accompanied with a good trivia answer: Collins earned his first career win against Eastern Illinois.
That night, a Saturday, was quiet. The students traveled to Welsh-Ryan Arena–many more than usual–and cheered for a team similar to the old ones. The Wildcats won but gave up 15 unanswered points during one stretch and did very little offensively.
More than seven months ago, Collins was named as Bill Carmody’s replacement, joining a program of historic futility. So detached from the process, we tried to standardize the impact: “Chicago roots” and “Basketball Fitz” were some notables.
But this season opener was about the motivated players. They have their own stories. Jershon Cobb returns from his yearlong suspension; Drew Crawford stayed with Northwestern in an act of pure loyalty; Alex Olah is a formerly under-recruited and currently lovable seven footer with lofty potential.
As a collective unit, though, they’re playing for Collins. He’s tied his reputation to one of the most difficult jobs in college basketball. He’s outwardly poised like a 10-year veteran head coach.
And there’s something else. Despite the very average scene, it seemed significant being there, as though you could brag about it years from now. I feel like I will.
This is what Chris Collins has created: a Saturday that already meant something.
You still can’t discuss Collins without mentioning his predecessor, who sparked divisive reaction among the fan base for years. People who, frankly, know nothing about basketball criticize the Princeton offense to this day.
Carmody’s firing seemed inevitable but–dare I say–a little bit unfair. He lost Cobb to that suspension, and when Drew Crawford underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, the general opinion was that it bought him one more year. He’d return the two upperclassmen with elite point guard recruit Jaren Sina and try for the NCAA Tournament.
A year before, my friend Chris Emma asked Carmody if he ever considered retirement. Carmody answered and we’re not sure whether he was serious. He said that if he did, he would grow tomatoes.
If he were joking, then it simply represented his offbeat sense of humor — which always manifested itself at the right moment.
If he weren’t, then it makes perfect sense. Carmody was simply old school. He ran what was arguably the purest basketball program. Aside from the tournament drought and his bad taste in centers, he led an admirable team.
When Carmody was fired, he departed with grace. I imagine that somewhere in New Jersey, he’s cheering for the guys he recruited, with his team in good hands.
Chris Collins was not a rejection of what Carmody tried to build. It was the logical progression. He appears to enjoy outlining his mindset to the media, one of the true lovers of the pure game.
And Collins understands the very process of building a program. In his introductory press conference, he spoke about the necessity of building culture, and part of that is already here.
When highly touted point guard Bryant McIntosh de-committed from Indiana State, Chris Collins refused to hesitate in pursuing a future standout.
He and Armon Gates (part of his stellar group of assistants) almost immediately called McIntosh and outlined their plans to make him a major priority.
Never mind that McIntosh earned offers from schools including Memphis, Missouri, Vanderbilt, Clemson and Florida State. Collins wanted the point guard and got him.
In one July AAU game, McIntosh slammed home an alley-oop dunk with Collins in attendance.
McIntosh said that later on, Collins contacted him and congratulated him on his first dunk. With this sarcasm and confidence, the head coach hauled in his third commit.
Forget the apologetic attitude. There’s something uniquely appealing about the idea of leading a school to its first NCAA Tournament berth. McIntosh, Vic Law and the other early joiners can be the initial group.
The Carmody regime would likely have taken NU to an NCAA Tournament with Sina and some other decent recruit (perhaps Wade Baldwin, who eventually committed to Vanderbilt).
This was Carmody’s problem: No one ever felt as though he positioned Northwestern for long-term success. Even if they made the 2012 Tournament–without that killer loss to Minnesota–the Wildcats would have faced questions the year after and the year after that.
I’m sure that during his interview at Parker Search Firm in Atlanta, Collins explained his intense vision for the next several years. Whatever he said worked. Northwestern offered him the position minutes later.
Calling this the “perfect fit” is almost insulting. There’s no perfect fit for NU, not with its academic restrictions and Welsh-Ryan Arena and complete lack of prestige.
This required such an obvious risk. He arrived to a lacking roster, without Crawford’s return guaranteed. If Collins gets consistently crushed in the Big Ten, he joins the starting lineup of failed Coach K protégés as head coaches.
Belief was the constant. It echoed through his first press conference and didn’t feel clichéd. Because you need that here, or you will lose.
It’s almost funny to think that is by far Collins’ weakest team. He sat on the Duke sidelines for 13 years, and when he reached Evanston, everyone wondered about expectations.
Rather than set ideal win totals for the first season, Collins instead stressed the value of each player. I’m sure Sanjay Lumpkin read about Collins referring to him as the “glue guy” and took some pride.
He’s embraced and pushed JerShon Cobb, calling him a potential leading scorer. That should only be the case if Crawford gets injured again, but Collins has used the media to vent high hopes for many of his players. If you believe it, it can happen, right?
But this season begins with Drew Crawford. The two appear to have an excellent dynamic, and Collins has the ideal senior leader with which to begin his Northwestern tenure. We don’t know the true details of Crawford’s decision to stay, but the senior gave up a certain NCAA Tournament appearance wherever he wanted and chose to play with a young, untested core that might sniff the NIT.
There’s something new, though. They try really, really hard.
I have yet to hear the word “underdog” or the asinine “prove people wrong” comment, but the Wildcats play with the core values of both. Several guys worked on gaining muscle and stamina. Others, like Cobb, completely changed their games to accommodate a new system.
Look up and down the roster, and you see players who could use the fresh start. It was time for Jim Phillips to fire a respected coach not out of spite, but stemming from the belief that things like this would happen. The word “momentum” doesn’t suffice.
The PA announcer congratulated Chris Collins on his first career victory. The crowd cheered.
Collins went back to the team room. They snapped the photo.
He walked to the podium before his postgame press conference, and sweetly made a point of hugging his children.
He was positive in spite of the lackluster showing, and praised JerShon once again.
I’ve had the pleasure of interacting individually with Collins, as have many media members. We’re all impressed.
Saturday’s victory was quiet, simple, and even unimpressive. But the players are celebrating him, and we are celebrating him, because Chris Collins knows he will change Northwestern basketball.
Yet we play the biggest role. We believe him.