Top ’Cat: How did Collins succeed at NU when so many others failed?

Walking into Welsh-Ryan Arena, it's hard not to think about the coaching ghosts haunting the building since the McGaw Hall era.

The legendary Tex Winter spent five years as head coach at Northwestern but produced only losing seasons in the 1970s. Rich Falk pulled off some memorable upsets but managed just one winning record.

Next up was Bill Foster, who took Duke to the NCAA title game in 1978. How could he not succeed? Well, he didn't. Foster went 0-for-7 in trying to produce a winning season.

Ricky Byrdsong went to the NIT in his first season, when Pat Baldwin, Kevin Rankin and Todd Leslie were seniors, followed by three straight years of single-digit win totals.

Kevin O'Neill brought a big personality and also made the NIT with center Evan Eschmeyer, but he lasted just three years before jumping to the NBA.

Bill Carmody arrived next from Princeton and lasted 13 seasons in Evanston. The best he could do was four straight trips to the NIT, reaching the third round in 2011 before losing to Klay Thompson and Washington State.

There's always optimism when a new coach arrives, but there was no reason to believe Chris Collins would be the one to finally break through NU's brick ceiling of miserable basketball history.

What he's done is nothing short of miraculous. The Wildcats finally made it to the NCAA Tournament in 2016-17, Collins' fourth season. That same year, they snapped a streak of 49 consecutive non-winning seasons in the Big Ten.

Now Collins and Northwestern have made it to the NCAAs two years in a row, three total. They'll face Florida Atlantic (11:15 a.m. Friday, CBS) in Brooklyn.

On Selection Sunday, Collins admitted it's tough to appreciate the enormity of this accomplishment.

“You're not really in reflection mode because we're in attack mode,” Collins said. “We're trying to continue to win. I think, though, once the season ends and we get into the spring and summer, with a nice adult beverage, I'll probably sit back and reflect on how special this has been.”

Maybe Collins isn't the best person to describe the impossible dream coming true. So let's turn to NU assistant Brian James, who goes way back with the Collins family. He was Chris' high school coach at Glenbrook North, then left that job to join Chris' father, Doug Collins, on the Detroit Pistons' staff in 1995.

“I've been with one or the other for 22 years,” James said. “I've either coached Chris, coached with Doug or coached with Chris.”

As Northwestern assistant Brian James looks on, Chris Collins gestures to players during the first half of an exhibition game against McKendree in Evanston, Ill., Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) AP

For starters, how similar is Chris to his father? A couple noticeable differences are Chris does a better job of keeping his emotions in check on the sideline, and he's had a much different playing experience. Chris was a good college player at Duke but didn't play in the NBA and was focused on coaching at an early age. Doug Collins was the No. 1 overall pick, as well as an Olympic near-hero in 1972.

“As he's gotten older, Chris is a lot like Doug,” James said. “I thought Doug was a master NBA coach in terms of adjustments during a game. If you're going to play us a certain way, OK this is what we're going to do.”

The college game has also shifted to make things easier for teams like Northwestern. Players who will stay in school for four or more years have become more valuable than future NBA lottery picks. There's more room for well-coached teams to succeed.

“What he's done is built an offense suited to our players,” James said. “We're not trying to put a square peg in a round hole. He's really done a good job of making these pieces fit, and he's continually tweaking his offense.

“He's good at watching tape of the other team, seeing what they do well and what they don't do well. Then we'll put in five, six new plays for every game, and our guys are smart enough to handle that for the most part.”

A couple additions to the coaching staff have helped. Former SIU head coach Chris Lowery came aboard in 2022 and is in charge of the defense, allowing Collins and James to focus on offense. Point guard Boo Buie became a star after Collins added Talor Battle, Buie's older brother, to the staff three years ago.

Collins admitted there were some dark times along the way, especially when NU crashed following the success of 2016-17. It left plenty of folks wondering if the fun was over in Evanston.

“Things happened and I wish I could have been better in that moment,” Collins said. “We dropped back to the bottom four in the league. The house kind of burned down and we had to build it again.

“To me, it was harder the second time, because there was so much negativity around us. The first time, when you get a new coach, a young coach, it's like, 'Oh, the new guy's here, he's going to do it.'”

The next test will be to keep the tradition going after Buie graduates. But Collins has already proven anything is possible now at Northwestern.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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