There’s always a risk involved whenever a school hires a new coach. For Northwestern, the decision to hire Chris Collins as coach appears to be a gamble, as Collins has never been a head coach at any point in his career. The son of NBA Hall-of-Famer and current Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doug Collins, the longtime Duke assistant under Mike Krzyzewski will finally get his first opportunity as a head coach as he takes over a struggling Northwestern program looking to, once and for all, make the NCAA Tournament.
There’s no doubt that Collins, a 38-year-old native of north-suburban Northbrook, brings a winning pedigree to a program that desperately needs it. Well-known for the infamously strict academic standards set upon its student-athletes, Northwestern holds the dubious distinction of being the only school from a power conference to have never made the NCAAs.
The program came close to getting over the hump in recent years under Bill Carmody by making four NIT appearances in the last five seasons, but close was no longer good enough for athletic director Jim Phillips. Yes, Carmody led the Wildcats to “unprecedented success” over 13 seasons, but attendance at Welsh-Ryan Arena was consistently abysmal and the facility had become outdated. After a trying 13-19 campaign this past season, the administration felt it was time to move in another direction.
During his introductory news conference on March 27, Collins promised to make history and lead the Wildcats to their first ever NCAA tournament. That’s a tall task given the program’s bleak tradition, but the foundation all starts with the head coach. Collins must first instill a winning mentality into his players, convincing them that, as evidenced by the football program, it is possible to win at Northwestern despite the obstacles in place.
Fortunately, Collins might have the pieces to field a competitive team in his first season, which in turn would allow his players to buy into his message. However, that will largely depend on whether its best player, 6-5 guard Drew Crawford, returns for his final year of eligibility. The fifth-year senior took a medical redshirt last season following surgery on his right shoulder, and he has yet to decide if he’ll return next season or transfer to another school to pursue his Master’s Degree.
Losing the do-everything Crawford, an All-Big Ten third-team selection in 2011-12, would certainly be a tough blow for the Wildcats, as he averaged 16.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 steals per game in 2011-12. With or without him, though, Collins will need to continue to sell his message to players and recruits. After all, he did help recruit dozens of elite players to Duke, another school with an outdated facility (not to mention strict academic standards). But of course, Duke is considered one of college basketball’s bluebloods, whereas Northwestern has the stigma of losing attached to it.
Collins will likely be given a three-year grace period as the program transitions to a new era. That should give him enough time to recruit and coach his own players before it can be determined if the risk paid off for Northwestern. There is always the possibility that a coaching hire doesn’t work out, and if Collins fails to reward everyone with a Cubs-like drought-busting tournament appearance, his own career could be at risk.
Since public opinion is always swayed by wins and losses, we won’t be able to fully judge Collins until next season. But given his Chicago ties and strong basketball background, along with the similar academic standards between Northwestern and Duke, it already appears that Northwestern has found its man.