Walfish: Chris Collins understands Northwestern’s needs

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Josh Walfish, Sports Editor

Chris Collins gets it.

If his remarks at an introductory news conference Tuesday are any indication, the new men’s basketball coach understands what Northwestern needs.

Collins is aware the team has to establish a culture of success and associate that narrative with NU basketball. He understands he has to draw more fans clad in purple into Welsh-Ryan Arena and make it a true home court advantage. The Northbrook, Ill., native grasps he has to sell Chicago and the full experience rather than the chance at history.

But most importantly, he recognizes his work won’t stop once NU makes the NCAA Tournament. In fact, that is exactly when his work begins.

I’m not going to lie: I was cautiously optimistic that Jim Phillips made the right hire when it was first announced last week. Collins has the pedigree and experience to be a very successful head coach, but not having actually had the title before was risky.

I had concerns about whether he truly understood what Cats fans needed, as opposed to what they wanted. I had concerns about whether he saw this as a stepping stone to bigger and better jobs.

All of those questions were answered by Tuesday’s press conference.

Pat Fitzgerald came to NU as a football player when the Cats were still seen as the perennial lovable losers. Their run to the Rose Bowl in 1995 was seen as a Cinderella story and more of a fluke than a trend. Now fans are disappointed if NU doesn’t make a bowl game, and nobody around the country is taking NU lightly anymore, especially after the win in the Gator Bowl.

This is the exact transformation the basketball program needs to undergo under Collins. The Cats have to move past being the program stuck in a pity party and become a program nobody wants to play. They started to get there under Bill Carmody, but they must continue the journey under Collins and make even more strides.

Collins made it clear he wanted to complete the transformation, saying, “I will give my all to make this program respected nationwide … It is not about making just one NCAA Tournament … My goal is to build a top-notch basketball program.”

The road to becoming an elite basketball team will be bumpy, and it will take many years to reach that level, but at least Collins understands he can’t try to emulate his dad Doug or his former boss Mike Krzyzewski. Collins wants to be his own coach and build his own program independent of what Coach K has done at Duke. He will always be linked to the Blue Devils, but he will not be defined by them.

Chris Collins is determined to build NU’s program his way. He will, of course, use his vast resources for advice, but instead of giving the suggestions, Collins will now be making the final call.

Despite all my early skepticism, I can now say with full confidence Chris Collins was the right hire for NU. He understands the issues and he has the big ideas to take NU to the NCAA Tournament and beyond.