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May 29, 2013EVANSTON-Chris Collins has a lot on his plate these days.
Northwestern's new head basketball coach just finished compiling his staff and is currently working to attract recruits to sign with the Wildcats. His family will soon move to the Evanston area, and he will transition out of the hotel that he has stayed in since taking the Northwestern job. There are offensive and defensive schemes to be developed and a tough non-conference schedule for which to prepare.
Still, Collins has added another item to his to-do list.
When the former Illinois Mr. Basketball from Glenbrook (Ill.) North arrived in Evanston for his April 2 press conference, he spoke about more than competing in the Big Ten, making an NCAA Tournament and building a top program. Instead, he also singled out his desire to get onto Northwestern's campus and interact with the student body.
Compared to the introverted personality of former head coach Bill Carmody, this was a promise that brought a level of excitement to campus. After all, any recent public appearances by the basketball team had been done without Carmody.
During Northwestern's Dance Marathon in early March, several football players and head coach Pat Fitzgerald joined over a thousand student dancers for a few minutes to dance to Sir Mix-A-Lot's Jump On It. The previous night, the basketball team also made an appearance. Carmody was not with the team.
Hardly any students were surprised.
However, Collins' promise seems to signify a shift toward more interaction, and he has already made good on his word.
During Northwestern Associated Student Government's meeting on May 15, Collins spoke to a group of more than 50 senators for over 20 minutes about his vision for the basketball program's new direction -- a change that will heavily rely upon the students.
"It was very important for me to come here tonight to get to talk to some of you guys. I want to do more of this," Collins said. "It's very important for me and our program to have a better connection with the student body."
As Collins continued to speak, he stressed that the relationship would need to be based on mutual dependency. The team needs the students to come out and support them, just as the fans need a better product to watch. If this can be accomplished, he said, the program can flourish.
Collins certainly is not wasting any time in his attempts to turn the Northwestern program into a winner. If he has his way, this is not going to be a five-year rebuilding project.
"You guys don't have that kind of time," Collins said. "I want to win this year."
But, as the 38-year-old head coach looks to lead Northwestern to its first NCAA Tournament berth, he realizes the culture change won't be completed overnight.
"I think it's one step at a time," Collins said. "You have to start with the little things, and that's what we have to embrace. And we have to control the things we can control."
Jared Swopshire scored 16 points, the Cats forced 15 turnovers and then-Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith questioned the resolve of his Gopher squad.
The win was one of few highlights in a 2012-13 season that ultimately ended with nine straight losses, a sub-.500 record and Carmody's dismissal.
The problem was that no one was around to see the win over Minnesota, an eventual tournament team.
Even for a late-starting Wednesday night game, the turnout was pitiful. The student sections were largely empty, save for the first two rows, and when the clock ran out, only three students attempted to rush the court.
Unfortunately, the problem didn't get better. As the season continued and the injuries and losses piled up, attendance dropped and the excuses got louder.
"The shuttles don't run frequently enough."
"I have a midterm tomorrow."
"We're going to lose. Why should I bother?"
These are exactly the attitudes that Collins has to work to change: those that stem from the people who choose to write the Cats off. He'll have to win those fans over before replicating a Cameron Indoor Stadium-esque atmosphere at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Speaking at the ASG meeting, Collins expressed his frustration with this type of outlook.
"It always saddened me to see what the atmosphere was like at home games," Collins said. "We have to all do a better job, where you guys feel ownership of all the teams.
"If you walked into Cameron Indoor Stadium it's old, it's rusty, people would term it a little bit of a dump. But I tell you what, when we play our home games, there's no more magical atmosphere than those 15 or 16 nights and those students right on top of the court. And that's what we have that's so unique. When I first got the job everyone said we needed a new arena. I don't think so.
"I think we need a better atmosphere. And the atmosphere comes from the students. It doesn't come from the season ticket holders and donors."
Still, Collins made it clear that he is not looking to copy the situation he had in Durham.
"It's not about creating another Duke," Collins said. "To me, it's about creating a better Northwestern."
And so, Collins is looking for ways to engage the student body, ways to ensure that repeats of the Minnesota game don't occur in his first season in Evanston. During his time with the ASG Senate, he asked for ways to increase the feeling of student ownership and accountability among the student body.
"We're trying to accomplish things that have never been accomplished, and we're going to do it in a new way," Collins said. "It's been a stale environment; it's been a stale product. There's not much excitement. To me, that's what we have to change."
Among the suggested ideas were public places to watch away games, further improvements to the shuttle system and more interaction between the basketball team and the student body. The overall sentiment seemed to be well intentioned, but Northwestern basketball hardly seemed to be at the top of the priority list for many students who spoke.
As Collins began to respond, however, his energy and desire permeated even those who hadn't taken the time to look up from their computers during his 25-minute speech. It was then that students put their phones back in their pockets and began nodding. In a matter of moments, he had the attention of the entire room.
In that instant, the troubles that Northwestern will face in the coming seasons seemed conquerable. Despite the need to recruit great players in the face of tough academic standards and shoddy facilities, Collins made success seem possible.
"I'm really passionate about this, because it's something we can really change," Collins said. "Everybody talks about Northwestern basketball and what they haven't done. You know what? I don't really care what they haven't done.
"It's a new start. It's a new beginning. It's a new energy."
"As we move forward with our program, we will always have high character, because that's what Northwestern is about" Collins said. "Those are the guys who we're going to strive to bring in here: guys who can play basketball, but guys who are bright, guys who have character and want to be part of the Northwestern community."
After listening to almost any interview with head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, it certainly should. The Wildcat Way is commonly associated with the football program, and it is founded on the very premises about which Collins speaks. So don't be surprised if this ideal works its way from Ryan Field over to Welsh-Ryan Arena.
It's just one of the clearly articulated changes to this Wildcat basketball program that Collins aims to implement.
Much attention has been paid to the passion and energy that Collins brings to this Northwestern program. Whether it was the emotional reaction Collins showed during his introductory press conference or the serious tone his voice gained at the recent ASG meeting when talking about his desire to win, the young head coach certainly brings a new fire to a program that he says is starting from scratch.
But while Collins' youth and exuberance has led many to equate him to the basketball version of "Coach Fitz," his determination to adhere to high values will likely provide more long term success than any sort of charisma would on its own. And while Collins certainly understands the student body's infatuation with Fitzgerald, he is determined to build his own identity at Northwestern.
"He's done a great job and the results are phenomenal, but I want to be myself," Collins said.
Only time will tell if this recipe ultimately works out, but initial results appear positive. Among the signs that the Northwestern hire is working: Collins has built relationships with coaches of several Chicagoland high schools, including Whitney Young head coach Tyrone Slaughter. Further development of these relationships can only help him attract talent to the Northwestern program.
He has also put together a staff that combines a familiarity with Northwestern, and a set of previous relationships Collins has built over the years. Tavaras Hardy, a holdover from Carmody's staff, and Patrick Baldwin are former Wildcat players, while Brian James, who is expected to be officially added to the staff soon, coached Collins at Glenbrook North High School and was most recently on Doug Collins' bench in Philadelphia.
While the manifestation of this hard work may not be apparent in Collins' first year in Evanston, the success will indeed follow.
Northwestern, however, is not Duke.
A bad season in Durham won't keep the Crazies from packing Cameron. Fans were shocked and disappointed when second-seeded Duke fell to No.15 Lehigh in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, but head coach Mike Krzyzewski didn't need to beg students to give the team another chance.
In a perfect world, Collins would lead his team onto the floor at Welsh-Ryan and be greeted by the roars of the Wildcat faithful. Purple would be the dominant color and cheers of "Go U, NU" would drown out the play call from the opposing team's point guard.
And Collins wouldn't need to concern himself with shuttle schedules and fan giveaways.
No one expects the same level of support to exist in Evanston as does in Durham -- at least not yet. But the responsibility to engage the fan base lies in different hands at Northwestern.
Collins may have joined Krzyzewski in the ranks of head coaches, but he also gained an implied position out of necessity.
Collins can't just be Northwestern's coach. For now, he must also be Northwestern's biggest cheerleader.