Collins chooses path of greatest resistance
Posted March 28, 2013
I guess it would be unnatural if your children lived with you forever. Sometimes you just have to let them go and find their own way, even if they choose to tackle seemingly impossible tasks.
Chris Collins has done just that.
For the last dozen years Collins has taken a seat on the Duke bench alongside Mike Krzyzewski. In 2008, his title was elevated from Assistant to that of Associate Head Coach, and it's been about that long that people have wondered just when he was going to leave.
That time has come.
Collins was announced as the next head coach at Northwestern University Wednesday afternoon and is expected to take over for the departed Bill Carmody whenever Duke's season comes to an end. Considering the Blue Devils' next opponent – Michigan State Friday night in a Sweet Sixteen game in Indianapolis – that could mean Saturday. Or maybe the Blue Devils will catch fire, win twice at Lucas Oil Stadium and it'll have to wait a another week until after the Final Four in Atlanta. The Devils have been known to do such things, you know.
But, unlike past Duke assistants who left the Cameron Indoor Stadium nest for places like Delaware (Mike Brey and David Henderson), or Seton Hall (Tommy Amaker) or Missouri (Quin Snyder), Collins has chosen to start at a place with less college basketball success than every single major conference school. And, when I say 'every', I mean like ALL OF THEM.
Northwestern University has failed to qualify for every single one of the 75 NCAA men's basketball tournaments. And, you thought the Miami Heat's 27-game winning streak was impressive.
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the Wildcats program has produced five times as many 20-loss seasons (10) as 20-win seasons (2). They have just two first-place finishes in the history of the Big Ten, the last coming in 1933, a half dozen years before the start of the NCAA tournament. And, while Northwestern has spent a total of 12 weeks IN the Associated Press college basketball poll in their 109-year history, Collins' current and soon-to-be former employer has spent two weeks OUTSIDE those rankings during the dozen years he's been on staff at Duke.
Oh, and in that period of time, Duke has spent 56 weeks as the number one team in the country. Talk about culture shock.
I guess there are many ways you can look at it. You could easily say that the Wildcats have nowhere to go but up. I mean, since they've never made the NCAAs, they'd name streets after Collins in Evanston if the program ever qualified. Heck, they might even name the court after him. The Big Ten is the top athletic conference in the country, and they're about to rewrite the revenue rule book as soon as the next round of media rights contracts are signed, so we can expect that Collins will be well-compensated. As for job security, Carmody was given 13 years to make it work before they said farewell.
Thirteen years! That's better than tenure.
On top of that, factor in that Collins is a Chicago kid, who grew up watching the Michael Jordan-led Bulls pursue greatness and will undoubtedly be welcomed home by the Windy City basketball community. Collins has the basketball pedigree that any school would envy in a head coach. His father, Doug, was a great college player, a very good pro and a very good coach throughout his NBA career.
Chris' experience at Duke can't even be measured. Forget the championships, Olympic gold medals and all of the great players he's been a part of for just a second. For about 20 years, first as a player and then on the bench, he's been learning from the very best coach in the history of the college game.
In fact, you could make an argument that Krzyzewski is among the greatest coaches in the history of any team sport. Put Coach K on the list with Bill Walsh, Scottie Bowman, Phil Jackson, etc., and understand that Collins, who is incredibly smart, had to absorb enough to negotiate what is certainly going to be a rocky road to success in the Big Ten.
Collins has an incredibly difficult task ahead of him. Northwestern is a spectacular academic institution, and that will only increase the degree of difficulty. But, unlike the football program, which is coming off a fifth consecutive bowl appearance, there is exactly no tangible success upon which to go out and recruit the level of talent necessary to compete in, what has become, the best college basketball conference in the country. The Michigan schools, along with Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin and (eventually) Maryland are going to make this a very rough neighborhood for Collins at Northwestern.
Coaches want to win. In order to do that you have to have good players. But players want to know two things: are we going to win, and can you get me to the NBA? It's been a long time since Northwestern has won enough to play significant games in March. And, unless you remember the name Evan Eschmeyer, whose 3-year NBA career ended a decade ago, it's been nearly 30 years since another former Wildcat played in the Association.
There is no doubt that Collins is ready. His roots and experience have prepared him for this moment. And, as a native son, they'll embrace his return and help him along as best they can. But, he's chosen about as difficult a road for his first coaching gig as anyone I can recall.
Chris Collins is going to be a very good head coach. I only hope we'll be able to tell by looking at the standings.