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The Sideline: Slow and steady, Chris Collins marches Northwestern out of ignominy

May 12, 2015

Welcome to The Sideline, a series of profiles of Northwestern’s coaches where The Daily’s sports staff provides detailed looks into the lives and personalities of all 19 varsity coaches.

A small, nondescript picture frame rests on men’s basketball coach Chris Collins’ desk. Instead of holding a photograph, it displays a list of names.

“It’s all Hall of Fame coaches in their first year of coaching,” Collins explained. “They were all under .500.”

The motivational memento serves as a reminder of the lofty ambitions the coach has for a program that has never made the NCAA Tournament. Beyond scrubbing that claim to infamy from Northwestern’s name, Collins is committed to building a perennial winner in Evanston.

Fittingly, the frame also includes the record of Collins’ former coach and longtime mentor, the legendary Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K was 11-14 in his first year of coaching at Army, but went on to build Duke to a perennial powerhouse and five-time national champion.

Collins went 14-19 in his first season at Northwestern.

Rebuilding the Wildcats’ historically unaccomplished program isn’t easy, but so far everything is going according to plan for the Illinois native at the helm.

Local roots

Collins hails from nearby Northbrook, Illinois, and attended Glenbrook North High School, which at the time was a doormat of Illinois high school basketball.

“When I went to high school at Glenbrook North, they had no basketball success,” Collins said. “People told me not to go there.”

Despite the challenges of playing on a historically unsuccessful team, Collins blossomed into a star. During his senior season, he led the state in scoring by averaging 32.1 points per game and was named the 1992 winner of the Mr. Basketball of Illinois award.

His performance and accolades were enough to make him a recruiting target for a Duke team that just won back-to-back national championships.

“It just felt comfortable to me,” Collins said on choosing the Blue Devils. “The opportunity to play at a high level in the ACC with Coach K as my coach, I thought it was too good to refuse.”

And like many high school standouts, Collins took time to adjust to the rigors of a higher level of competition. His freshman season, playing on a talented team that included future seven-time NBA All-Star Grant Hill, Collins averaged just 12.7 minutes per game, an experience he calls his first exercise in adversity.

But Collins persevered and broke out his sophomore year, starting 30 games, averaging 10 points per contest and helping Duke all the way to the national championship game, where the Blue Devils lost against Arkansas.

The success didn’t last.

“The first day of practice my junior year, I broke my foot,” Collins said. “That was the toughest year of my life in basketball.”

His minutes shrank to 16.1 per game, he posted a career-low shooting percentage and Duke slipped all the way to last in the ACC.

Collins blames a poor attitude for his performance that year and still thinks there’s more he could have done to make the team better. But he also credits that harrowing season with building his character and helping define the rest of his life.

“That was the year I learned what I was made of,” he said.

And he recovered, surging back his senior season to post career highs in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and shooting percentage. Collins was named an All-ACC player and had his eyes on the NBA, but that plan disintegrated when he reinjured his foot on Duke’s Senior Night.

Unable to participate in the pre-draft process critical for any NBA hopeful, Collins instead traveled overseas to play professionally in Finland.

“I was the leading scorer in the league, I had the ball in my hands,” Collins said of the experience. “It was kind of a rehab stint, really.”

He put up video game numbers in the Finnish Korisliiga, but found his time off the court to be a drain. Collins was far from home in an era before the convenience of digital communication and describes the experience as lonely.

He returned to the United States in 1997 and received a training camp invite from the Minnesota Timberwolves, making it all the way until the final day of camp before being cut from the roster. Collins was devastated. After missing his best shot at making an NBA team, he faced a difficult choice.

“I was at a crossroads,” he said. “Do I want to continue my dream of playing, or do I want to move on to a career in coaching?

Following his father

Collins opted for the latter path, taking a job as an assistant with the WNBA’s Detroit Shock. At the time his father, Doug Collins, coached the NBA’s Detroit Pistons.

Chris Collins identifies his father as one of the two main mentors in his life — the other being Krzyzewski — and said Doug Collins helped teach him the ins-and-outs of basketball growing up.

“The main way I learned from (my father) was just sitting on the couch, just the two of us watching games together,” Chris Collins said. “We were not just watching as fans. I was learning to see the game through the eyes of a coach.”

And even to this day, Collins’ father remains an active participant in his son’s life and coaching career. Collins said his dad’s involvement is more about general philosophy than specific game strategy, and appreciates his players have a chance to know “one of the smartest guys in the game” who also understands the process of rebuilding a basketball team.

Doug Collins, now an analyst for ESPN, still finds time to attend his son’s games, and even made headlines in February with his dramatic reaction to Iowa forcing NU into overtime.

Given the close relationship he’s always shared with his father, it comes as no surprise the younger Collins was a natural fit for the sideline. After just a year in the WNBA, he received a call from Tommy Amaker, who coached Collins as an assistant at Duke and was then the head coach at Seton Hall, to join Amaker’s staff.

Not long after in 2000, Collins found his way back to his alma mater, and it was with the Blue Devils that he truly earned a name for himself as a coach.

Collins worked primarily with backcourt players as an assistant and tutored a litany of talented guards at Duke. One of his brightest pupils was Jon Scheyer.

Now an assistant on Krzyzewski’s staff himself, Scheyer blossomed as a player from 2007 to 2010 under Collins’ guidance. The two shared a close bond because of their similar backgrounds: Like Collins, Scheyer also attended Glenbrook North High School and was named Mr. Basketball of Illinois.

Scheyer credits Collins with much of his development as a player.

“I remember, many different times, having heart-to-heart meetings in (Collins’) office,” Scheyer said. “Some of it was tough love, some was encouraging, pick-me-up meetings, but it all really changed who I was as a player and helped me to really get a lot better.”

The impact of players like Scheyer, who was second team All-America his senior season, made Collins a rising star in the coaching world. Krzyzewski promoted Collins to associate head coach at Duke in the summer of 2008, which made Collins the heir-apparent for the Blue Devils if Krzyzewski decided to step down.

But the ageless Coach K never did and Collins became restless, so after the 2013 season Collins left Duke to take his first head coaching job.

A NU era

He couldn’t have picked a harder place to start.

The Cats are notorious as the only school among the Power 5 conferences to have never been to an NCAA Tournament, and a tradition of losing is deeply ingrained in the program. Previous coach Bill Carmody stuck around for 13 seasons, long enough to compile a very underwhelming 192-210 record with the team.

Yet Collins embraces the challenge and draws extensively on his past experience as a reminder NU won’t be stuck in the cellar forever.

“By the time I was a senior (at Glenbrook North), we were a top-five team in the state,” Collins said. “That was a challenge I took on, and I view this as very similar.”

The coach has compiled a 29-36 record at NU so far, which is impressive considering the uphill battle Collins has faced in his first two seasons.

Scheyer said Collins is focusing on building a culture at the program first, and noted Collins’ grit and passion for basketball seem to be rubbing off on the team.

“This past year they had a few really tough losses in the Big Ten,” Scheyer said, “but you could see how hard the team was playing. They’re developing his personality.”

Collins wants rebuilding at NU to be a deliberate process, and he said he models his plan for the Cats based on teams like Virginia and Notre Dame, similar programs that have sustained annual success despite high academic standards.

The coach is able to take such an extended view because of the vote of confidence he has from his boss, athletic director Jim Phillips.

Phillips said Collins is laying a foundation for the program and told The Daily in March “there’s no question” the team is moving toward the goal of making the NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t know if it’s three years, I don’t know if it’s five years, I don’t know if it’s six years,” Phillips said of evaluating Collins’ progress. “I’m not going to box us in at, ‘it has to be done by a certain date.’ All I know is we’re heading in the right direction, we absolutely have the right leadership here, he’s doing a great job.”

And the signs of that progress are obvious. Collins improved NU’s winning percentage in his second season and led the Cats to finishing 10th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten in 2014-15, compared to 11th out of 12 teams in 2013-14.

He’s also blazed unprecedented success for NU on the recruiting trail, signing the No. 31 class in the country in 2014 according to ESPN and inking three more well-regarded recruits in 2015.

And the talent on the roster is showing improvement. Freshman guard Bryant McIntosh started the 2014-15 campaign in the shadow of classmate Vic Law but was named to the postseason Big Ten All-Freshman team. Juniors center Alex Olah and guard Tre Demps also each showed significant improvement this season, with the latter earning an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention, suggesting Collins brought his knack for player development to Evanston.

The coach also believes the team is primed for success after facing the adversity of two losing seasons. Collins points to overcoming his own hurdles in college as an important springboard during his playing days.

“When you look at my career, you think ‘Oh, you went to Duke,’” he said. “No, I had to go through the ups, the downs, and then back up and learn how to work through those things.”

Collins said he frequently draws on his personal experience when teaching his players about overcoming their own struggles, and cites NU’s 5-2 finish to the 2014-15 regular season as evidence of the Cats’ resiliency.

And with that in mind, the coach is optimistic about next year but also careful to not look too far ahead.

“We can’t just fast-forward to March,” he said. “You have to win in November and December, forget about the Big Ten.”

Collins is excited about an overseas trip to Spain NU is taking in August, believing it will jump-start his third campaign at the helm, but his goal remains the same: build a successful program, not just one successful team.

Bringing the Cats to the promised land of the postseason, even just once, will enshrine Collins forever in the eyes of the NU faithful.

But the coach has his own sights set a little higher. And maybe someday he’ll have his name and 14-19 record unceremoniously displayed on another coach’s desk.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BobbyPillote

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