'All In': When Northwestern landed its future

'All In': When Northwestern landed its future

An oral history of Chris Collins' first recruiting class at Northwestern.

There are many compelling aspects of Northwestern Basketball's Class of 2014.

There's the landing of Vic Law, the first Top-100 talent in program history, on a national holiday. There's the steal of the de-committed Bryant McIntosh from the likes of Memphis and Purdue. There's the sudden pledge from Johnnie Vassar, who spent four years at four different high schools in four different states before finishing out Chris Collins' first year on the recruiting trail.

But what makes us shake our collective heads about it all these months later is how Collins and his staff recruited so aggressively without coaching a single game together. Armon Gates developed a crucial relationship with Gavin Skelly on his first day of the job. The entire staff sold Law on a vision that was just beginning to take form. After a year of futility and still without an NCAA Tournament berth, Northwestern landed a class of commits that forced the Wildcat faithful to pay attention.

PurpleWildcats.com has obtained all of the below quotations independently.

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Several 2014 commits were initially targets of Bill Carmody and his Northwestern staff. Carmody was fired as head coach March 16 after a disappointing 2012-13 season marred by injuries.

Vic Law, small forward, St. Rita (Ill.) High School: I took an unofficial visit to Northwestern only because it was close to Chicago. They hadn't heavily pursued me. Coach Carmody offered, but I didn't think there was a lot of interest.

Jordan Ash, shooting guard, St. Joseph's (Ill.) High School: Coach Carmody and his staff offered me my freshman year. I'm not sure if I was really a priority to Coach Carmody. His style of recruiting was way more laid back.

Gavin Skelly, power forward, Westlake (Ohio) High School: I had never heard of Northwestern before Coach Collins was there. They sent me the standard letters letting me know that I was on their radar, but I didn't really know the school until about three or four months before I committed.

Bryant McIntosh, point guard, Greensburg (Ind.) High School: I didn't know of Northwestern before Coach Collins got there.

Law: When Coach Collins was hired, it was all over SportsCenter and the Chicago papers. Chris Collins isn't an average name. Just seeing his enthusiasm opened my eyes up. I was like: "Let me look at Northwestern again." It wasn't until Coach Collins came to NU that I realized how much the program wanted me.

Scott Phillips, High School Basketball Analyst, Comcast SportsNet Chicago: Chris Collins brought immediate name recognition to Northwestern. A lot of recruits were interested in the Duke and Team USA connections.

Skelly: I remember, the head guy of my AAU team took us to a Duke game once, and we actually got the tickets through Chris Collins. I didn't know that until he reminded me when we first met. He said, "I was the guy that hooked you up with the tickets." I was like: "Oh, you're that guy!"

I didn't really know much about him, but my dad knew him as Doug Collins' son. So we spent a day researching him, watching his highlight tapes and reading articles about him. He was killing it in the Duke reruns and his high school clips. We realized that with his background, he was going to be the one to change Northwestern. That's what made our heads turn.

Phillips: Northwestern needed some new blood. Bill Carmody was obviously a very good coach, but he didn't have the best personality for connecting with recruits. I think they needed someone younger. Carmody wasn't the most engaging personality. In this modern era of recruiting, kids want more attention than what Carmody was giving them. He had some trouble delivering guys to the doorstep and closing the deal on players they could have realistically landed.

Patrick Baldwin, Northwestern assistant coach: From our first meeting as a staff, we were focused on finding guys that fit Coach Collins' system. Skill guys who can shoot the basketball and play multiple positions; kids that were long enough to make the switches required in our defense.

Armon Gates, Northwestern assistant coach: We wanted to hit the ground running. We wanted gym rats—guys that loved the game.

Law: When I took my first visit with Coach Collins, he showed me some of the best-looking parts of campus that I hadn't seen before. I hadn't seen much of the lake or downtown Evanston. When I narrowed down my schools, I figured it would be crazy to not include Northwestern.

Phillips: I spoke with Vic Law at the Swish-N-Dish AAU event in early April, right after Chris Collins was hired. He was immediately interested. Law saw Collins' vision.

Collins installed a staff comprising Pat Baldwin, Armon Gates and Brian James. Baldwin was a former Wildcat guard arriving from Missouri State. Gates joined from Loyola, where he was actively recruiting various Northwestern targets. James was an assistant under Doug Collins with the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers.

Gates: Vic's sister played for our women's program at Loyola. He was always around, and once I thought that I might be getting the Northwestern job, I told him that I wanted him to be on board with me. He told me that he would automatically consider a school that I was at.

Law: I saw that they just needed one really good player to prove that there was nothing wrong with going to Northwestern. I took it upon myself to be that person. Once I did commit, everyone was like: "Why did you commit to Northwestern when you could have gone to an NBA factory?'" But Northwestern is unique in its own right.

Baldwin: Coach Collins needed that first marquee recruit to ring in the future. Vic Law fit the bill.

Gates: Vic's like a little brother to me, honestly. The dad trusts me; the mom trusts me. Coach Collins sealed the deal, and I was the bridge.

Law: When I called Coach Collins, I asked him what he was doing for the Fourth of July. He said that he was barbecuing, normal stuff. Then I told him that I was committing. I heard him drop his phone.

Gates: I was jumping up and down, screaming. We were the happiest coaching staff in the country that day.

Baldwin: You always have some anxiety when a kid shows some interest and narrows down his list. But on that Fourth of July, it was like fireworks in the office. Vic wanted to be the difference maker.

Johnnie Vassar, point guard, Jserra Catholic (Calif.) High School: When I heard that Vic committed, I was like: "Okay, that's a good pick up." They had something going on.

Ash: I knew Vic for a while through St. Rita. But when he committed, I had a second thought, thinking: "Chris Collins knows what he's doing." When he chose Northwestern, it caught me by surprise.

I was jumping up and down, screaming. We were the happiest coaching staff in the country.

Phillips: It sent a message that Northwestern can recruit with the big boys and make a statement in Chicago.

Baldwin: Vic got to know all the other kids that ended up committing. We were walking on campus one day, about a month ago, and he said: "You guys can say thank you!" He helped us get all these other kids signed. He's a very personable kid, and our other guys paid attention to that.

The July 2013 evaluation period was crucial for Northwestern. During that time, coaches were able to watch players compete on the AAU circuit. It proved especially important for a new staff building the rest of the ‘14 recruiting class.

Skelly: Coach Baldwin was really urging me to commit fast. He kept calling my parents saying: "If we offered a scholarship, would you commit right away?"

McIntosh: About an hour after I de-committed from Indiana State, I got a call from Coach Gates and Coach Collins. We talked for about 40 minutes. I was shocked. They were the first ones to contact me, and it was so quick.

Vassar: I first got in contact with Northwestern after the Reebok Camp. I was on the same team as Vic Law. I was amazed at how much attention they were showing right away.

Gates: We're aggressive with our recruiting. When we find a kid we want, we go balls to the wall. We don't sound like a used car salesman.

Jeremiah Kreisberg, Yale transfer: The staff is really straightforward. Some schools make promises they obviously can't keep. Northwestern isn't like that.

Skelly: They wanted to get a class together quickly, and they said that they would keep searching for someone to take that spot. I didn't know how I felt about it. I was trying to focus on other schools too, but Coach Baldwin kept pushing it, so it stuck in my mind.

Scott Lindsey, shooting guard, Fenwick (Ill.) High School: The way they treat me now is the same as the way they treated me when we first met. They're really down to Earth. They were always honest about how I played or what they thought.

Phillips: The staff is so young and dynamic. They have a lot of NBA ties, and kids are receptive to that. They got involved in a number of high-caliber recruits so quickly. They did a great job laying the initial groundwork and now they're following through.

Skelly: It was August 1, and I called the coaches after a tournament. I told them: "If you offer me a scholarship, I'll commit to you guys." Coach Collins said: "Perfect. If you're committing to us, then we'll commit to you."

Baldwin: We were extremely serious about Gavin. We sensed from the family that they felt it was right. He was going to take on some other schools that we didn't want to go up against. So when we had him on campus, I wanted to give him that extra push to make the decision.

Skelly: And that was sort of it. There never was an official scholarship offer call. I still give them a hard time about that. They never actually offered! It's kind of funny. I committed myself to the school.

Gates: Northwestern always had bigs that were extremely skilled but slow footed. Gavin is laterally quick with a high motor. He's a hybrid guy who's so physical. He's a funny, goofy kid.

Baldwin: We wanted to get it done as soon as possible.

Three-star point guard Bryant McIntosh de-committed from Indiana State during the AAU season. He quickly drew interest from several high-major programs, including Memphis, Florida State, Xavier, Creighton and Purdue. Northwestern needed a point guard.

Gates: Bryant McIntosh wasn't on our board, but when he de-committed, I knew the name and I wanted to jump right away. My former boss at Loyola saw Bryant McIntosh play, and I knew Indiana State had a steal. This kid was a high-major point guard.

McIntosh: Coaches Gates and Collins were probably at every single one of my games. Maybe they missed one or two. Northwestern doesn't offer very many people. When they did, I knew it was serious. They only offered about 10 people in my class, and it immediately became a standout offer.

My grandmother had cancer, and Coach Gates talked to her often to see how she was doing.

Gates: Bryant loved the way Duke played, and that's the system we want to implement. I showed Coach Collins film, and after he was able to see Bryant play at an open gym in July, that was his guy.

McIntosh: Coach Gates really wanted to reach out to the people that would help me with my decision. My grandmother wasn't very healthy; she had cancer, and Coach Gates talked to her often to see how she was doing and made sure that she was in good spirits. That was one of the most meaningful things to me. That sealed the deal.

Baldwin: It was around August when we knew that we had a chance to land a talent as special as Bryant.

McIntosh: My grandma gave me the idea of committing with a poker chip. Coach Collins was talking about going all in, so I got the chips and wrote All In on them.

They came to my school around 3 p.m. that day, and after an open gym and dinner, Coach Collins was saying how he thought it was time for me to join him on this journey. I laid the chips down on the table. He said: "Are you committing right now?!" He was jumping around. Coach Gates had this goofy smile on his face, even though I think he knew it was coming.

Gates: His grandma gave him the idea. You see kids announcing on YouTube or putting on a hat on live TV, but this was way cooler.

I'll always remember two things about his commitment: the poker chip and beating my brother to the punch. One time, I was on the phone with Bryant when he got a call on the other line. He clicks over and hears: "This is Coach Gates from Florida State." Coach Gates?! He was already on the line with a Coach Gates! It was my older brother Dennis. I still hold it over his head.

Fenwick shooting guard Scott Lindsey became the fourth commit under Chris Collins on Sept. 23. But Northwestern found itself one member shy of a full class as it struggled through the start of the 2013-14 season. Jserra Catholic point guard Johnnie Vassar became an immediate target because of his high upside.

Vassar: Before the visit, I had no leader or anything like that. My mother wanted me to commit before I even knew the school, because she was all for it from an academic standpoint. I kept telling her, "we'll see after the visit."

Baldwin: Johnnie's recruitment was very quick. We didn't have a player like that from an athletic, explosive standpoint. He just shoots off the floor, like he's shot out of a cannon. Johnnie wanted to settle down. He was at many different high schools, and he wanted a stable situation. He wanted to slow down and focus on basketball.

Vassar: I was looking for what felt right, and when I was on campus, I was ready to commit on the spot. Coach Collins said something like: "If you think you would fit in here…" and I cut him off, because of course I did. I committed just like that.

Law: It was cool to see that other good players believed in the vision that I bought into.

Vassar's pledge rounded out the class of 2014. Collins wasted no time beginning his next class, and after Mike Turner, Chier Ajou, Kale Abrahamson and Aaron Liberman chose to transfer, the Wildcats had some scholarship flexibility. Skelly and Alex Olah were the only frontcourt players.

Ash: When I first met Coach Collins, I was pretty nervous actually. When we got to his office, he started telling me genuine things about the program. He looked into my eye the whole time. I knew he was sincere in his interest. I didn't feel like he was sending me a recruiting pitch; he was sharing his passion with me. He told me why he came to Northwestern, and what he planned to do. He told me that our class could be the first one to take Northwestern to the Tournament.

I want to be a part of history. I don't want to be forgotten.

Bryant McIntosh: I was kind of a part of why Jordan Ash committed. I came to campus for the Ohio State football game, and Jordan was there. We connected, and I told him that he needed to join us already and stop messing around.

Phillips: For them to continue that Class of 2014 momentum with a kid like Jordan Ash signifies that this isn't just a flash in the pan. It's sustainable. Chris Collins is going to have his fair share of Top 100 kids in the area looking at Northwestern.

On March 12, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Jordan Ash had committed to Northwestern.

Ash: About a week earlier, people leaked information that I had committed before I even called Coach Collins. It was all over Twitter. They were guessing, but they guessed right. Vic called me five minutes after it was circulating and started yelling in my ear, he was so excited. It wasn't an easy decision for me, though. Harvard and the other Ivy League schools couldn't offer me until I took the ACT, so I thought: "Do I want to wait it out and possibly miss out? Or do I want to just go ahead and get it over with?" I had a feeling in my heart that this is where I was supposed to be.

Kreisberg: I went alone on a Thursday for 24 hours, rather than a high schooler coming all weekend and driving around in a golf cart. But I got to meet all the assistants and work out with the team. Coach Collins gave me the whole shpiel about why he's at Northwestern and what his vision is.

He told me exactly how he sees me fitting in, and he explained how I could help this program right away. I knew going into the visit that if they offered me, I would accept. So I committed right on campus. I said: "Let's get this done," and he just said: "Great." That was it.

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Vassar: I went to the game against Brown. I can't remember if they won or lost that game. I think they lost. But Vic came to the game, as did B-Mac and Scott. We all talked for a while, and now we talk every day or every other day.

McIntosh: Our whole class texts with each other all the time. Vic in particular is always smiling. He's the type of guy that likes to jump around and everything. He and Jordan talk a lot of trash.

Vic Law: You can't really predict the future. We'll hopefully lay down the blueprint. Our goal is to turn Northwestern around as fast as we can.

Skelly: My dad said: "Look, this program is about to change. Do you want to be a part of it?" I want to make history. I don't want to be forgotten.

Northwestern is the only school that hasn't gone to the Tournament in D-I history. This is Chris Collins' first recruiting class. In respect to Kentucky and Duke, they're always consistently great teams. But everyone remembers the class from Florida Gulf Coast.

That's the type of thing I want to be a part of.

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