Putterman: Optimism warranted after Chris Collins hire


Alex Putterman, Reporter

Response to the hiring of Chris Collins as Northwestern’s men’s basketball coach was almost unanimously positive but often only cautiously optimistic. Columnists across the web warned that the program wouldn’t magically improve at the sound of Collins’ whistle.

In fact, it very well might.

Collins is NU’s dream hire. He’s among the highest profile and most highly regarded assistant coaches in America. He’s sat next to perhaps the greatest college basketball coach ever for 13 seasons. NU has never been to the NCAA Tournament, but Collins can’t even count his Sweet 16 berths on two hands.

The resume goes on. Collins worked with Mike Krzyzewski’s U.S. Olympic gold medal teams in 2008 and 2012. He’s from the Chicago area and has recruited the area for more than a decade. He was a star college player himself, and his father is an NBA coach.

But the finer points of the 38-year-old’s impressive pedigree aren’t even the point. What should have NU most psyched is what this hiring signals for the basketball program’s progression.

After NU fired Bill Carmody, Collins was the name analysts most often suggested as a replacement, and it immediately seemed that athletic director Jim Phillips had Collins pegged as his top choice. Though the target may have seemed ambitious — Coach K’s heir apparent? Really? — Phillips got his man. Of everyone in the country NU could have coveted as its next coach, the decision-makers chose Collins, and Collins, the top choice, agreed to come along.

This was no matter of settling for the guy who would agree to coach a desperate program. NU didn’t hire a flash-in-the-pan small-conference coach who has never played past mid-March. NU didn’t hire a middle-aged assistant from a second-rate program. NU didn’t hire some has-been, recently dismissed from superior teams after failing to achieve expectations.

NU hired the top assistant at the top basketball program in the country. A young and hungry tricenarian who has recruited and coached the best of the best for more than a decade. That extremely qualified man looked at the Cats’ program and decided it fit his standards.

We’ve never had a Chris Collins before. Before coming to NU, Carmody coached Princeton to a pleasant but not Earth-shattering degree of success. Pre-NU, Kevin O’Neill failed to lead Tennessee to a winning record during his three-year stint there. Ricky Byrdsong’s career highlight was a 15-12 season at the University of Detroit Mercy before arriving in Evanston.

With each hire over the past 20 years, the Cats have pulled down a more qualified candidate. And with each hire they have improved to at least some extent. We know what improvement over the Carmody era means for NU basketball.

A guy who brought All-Americans to Duke won’t be satisfied with two-star recruits. And a guy who helped Krzyzewski win hundreds of games in the regular season and dozens more in the postseason won’t be satisfied with early off-seasons.

NU will make the NCAA Tournament some time soon. And we will do so with Chris Collins as coach.

Unbridled optimism is warranted.