Northwestern hired longtime Duke assistant Chris Collins on Tuesday night to replace the fired Bill Carmody, hoping he can finally lead the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament and into the upper echelon of the Big Ten.
In many ways, Collins seems like a logical fit given his ties to the area, Northwestern' s academic similarities to Duke and his basketball pedigree. He is from suburban Northbrook, Ill., about 15 miles from the campus in Evanston, played for the Blue Devils and spent the past 13 years on Mike Krzyzewski's staff. He is the son of Doug Collins, the former Chicago Bulls head coach now with the Philadelphia 76ers.
"I'm so grateful ... for the opportunity to lead the men's basketball program at one of the premier universities in the world, to compete in the Big Ten Conference, and to do so in my hometown," Collins said in a statement released by the school. "Northwestern University is a special place that strives for excellence in every regard, and our program will be no different. I can't possibly thank Coach Krzyzewski and Duke University enough for preparing me for this day."
His task at Northwestern is to get to the NCAA tournament. That's something the Wildcats have never done, although they came close in recent years under Carmody. He was let go after 13 seasons.
Collins is a former Mr. Basketball in Illinois who became a star guard and team captain at Duke from 1993-96. He played overseas before starting a coaching career that included stints with the WNBA's Detroit Shock and with Tommy Amaker's staff at Seton Hall. Collins joined Krzyzewski's staff in 2000 and was promoted to associate head coach in 2008.
"He has a tremendous pedigree as a basketball coach and will be an outstanding leader for Chicago's Big Ten team, and mentor for our student-athletes," Jon Phillips, Northwestern's vice president for athletics and recreation, said in the university's statement. "After a thorough and comprehensive search process, there is no doubt he is a perfect fit for this institution and our men's basketball program."
Collins, who has never been a head coach, interviewed last year for the job at Illinois State — his father's alma mater — before withdrawing, saying it wasn't the right fit. The Redbirds ultimately hired Dan Muller from Vanderbilt's staff.
Now, Collins is taking over a program that raised the bar in recent years, but couldn't quite reach the NCAA tournament.
Carmody ranks among the most successful coaches at Northwestern with a 192-210 record, and the Wildcats were usually able to hang with more talented teams because of their Princeton offense even if they came up short.
The lack of an NCAA berth ultimately did him in. The switch comes after a particularly difficult season that was marked by season-ending injuries to key players Drew Crawford and Jared Swopshire along with guard JerShon Cobb's yearlong suspension for violating team rules. The Wildcats lost their final nine games to finish 13-19 and missed the postseason after four straight NIT appearances, an unprecedented run for the program.
Besides the tough academic standards at Northwestern, the Wildcats play in Welsh-Ryan Arena, by far the smallest in the Big Ten with a capacity of just over 8,100. It's something Carmody pointed out after the season-ending loss to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament.
Northwestern has unveiled plans for a complex that includes new lakefront facilities for the football team, a multipurpose indoor facility that seats 2,500, a diving well adjacent to the existing swimming pool and an outdoor practice field for varsity and club sports along with intramurals. New locker rooms, weight rooms, sports medicine facilities, meeting rooms and offices are also part of the plan, along with a new parking structure. There are no concrete plans to renovate the arena.
Collins, however, has managed to help recruit players to a school with an old arena and strict academic standards. Of course, Duke also has that great tradition, something Northwestern lacks.
Now, Collins will try to accomplish what Pat Fitzgerald has with the football team and build a competitive program despite the obstacles in place.
"They'll get a great coach. He's been a great coach here," Krzyzewski said before the hiring. "My guys are terrific, and he's been with me for over a decade and he's been terrific — not good. He's got a great basketball mind, competitive personality, team guy, a great guy. But he's a great basketball guy, too. And anybody who would get one of my guys would be getting somebody pretty special."
Collins is the second Krzyzewski assistant in five years to earn his first head coaching job at a private, academically elite school in a major conference: Johnny Dawkins left the Duke staff to take the top job at Stanford in 2008.