Challenges Aplenty for Chris Collins at NorthwesternPosted by KTrahan on April 1st, 2013
Northwestern announced the hiring of Duke associate head coach Chris Collins as its new head coach last week, and on Tuesday, the Collins era will officially begin in Evanston with an introductory press conference. There was little drama in this coaching search — everyone knew all along the job was Collins’ if he wanted it, and he took it, citing the chance to come home (he’s a Northbrook, Illinois, native) and lead a high-major program. But Northwestern isn’t just any high-major program. Truthfully, it could be the toughest job in all of college basketball. The Wildcats have never been to the NCAA Tournament, and while their last coach, Bill Carmody — a terrific coach in his own right — got NU to heights it had never seen before, the program still lagged far behind most of the Big Ten as far as sustained success goes. Carmody was in Evanston for 13 years and the challenges got even tougher for him throughout his tenure, as he explained in his final press conference.
“There’s not much different now about what Northwestern offers than it was when Kevin O’Neill was here and (Ricky) Byrdsong and Bill Foster and all those,” he said. “So everyone knows, people have talked about it, it’s sort of like an arms race. So the gap might be widening that way.” These challenges — particularly the lack of good facilities and Northwestern’s stringent academic standards — will still be there for Collins. The question now is if NU is willing to do anything to change them, or if Collins will have to work around them. Facilities-wise, the football program is currently receiving its long-awaited face-lift, so it’s unlikely that basketball will get a similar upgrade in the near future. But what about academics, which could potentially be changed right away? Nobody is expecting NU to accept everyone who applies, but right now, the perception is that the Wildcats won’t bend for good players like Duke, and maybe even Harvard, will.
This story — maybe true, maybe not — best illustrates the perception that is there: As the anecdote goes, Tommy Amaker — former Michigan and current Harvard head coach, who played at Duke — interviewed for the NU job before the 1993 season. He gave the administration two academic resumes without names and asked if those players would get into NU. The administration said no. Those were the resumes of former Duke stars Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley. The perception is that NU won’t bend for good players, and if it’s true, that’s an issue Collins may need to address.
Still, it’s unlikely that NU will change much. Rather, athletic director Jim Phillips said in a press conference two weeks ago that he wants the new coach to embrace what the school already has to offer — quality academics, proximity to Chicago, et al — than focus on its flaws. In that respect, Phillips thinks he got his man in Collins, who has already had to recruit talent with some academic restrictions at Duke.
Even with the challenges, Collins is in a decent position to succeed. Unlike Carmody, he’ll have full support of the fan base, and he has a lot more going for him in recruiting than Carmody did. Some fans have called him a “basketball Fitz” — a reference to football coach Pat Fitzgerald, who has won fans and recruits over as an energetic, exciting, young coach. Collins has ties to the NBA — his dad, Doug, is currently the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, after all — and we shouldn’t forget his close relationship with Mike Krzyzewski and Olympic basketball. Those perks will certainly help him sell NU in recruiting, academic standards aside.
At Northwestern, there are always going to be challenges for the head coach in recruiting. Phillips was looking for someone he thought could work around those challenges, not come in and demand unrealistic changes. Now, Collins is about to embark on a journey with a goal that Bill Carmody, Kevin O’Neill, Ricky Byrdsong, Bill Foster and so many others couldn’t accomplish — get Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament. Phillips seems to have gotten the perfect fit, but even for a coach as celebrated as Collins, the obstacles are certainly aplenty.