Collins drawing on famous mentors to lift Northwestern

Collins drawing on famous mentors to lift Northwestern
October 15, 2013, 8:30 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Chicago basketball fans know the name Collins.

Doug Collins coached the Bulls out of the depths of the NBA during the beginning of the Michael Jordan Era. And now another Collins is trying to do the same thing. Chris, Doug's son, has the task of pulling Northwestern basketball out of the Big Ten basement.

Collins comes to Evanston after 14 years as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, but the key factor for the Wildcats might be how Collins steps out of the shadow of his famous mentors.

"I think the best advice I ever got from (father Doug) and from Coach K is, whenever you get that first opportunity to be a head coach, just be yourself," Collins told Comcast SportsNet's Chuck Garfien during Northwestern's basketball media day on Tuesday. "Don't try to be your dad. Don't try to be Coach K. Try to be you and put your own imprint on things and use the things you've learned as you become a better coach and as you grow into the position. And that's really what I've tried to do."

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Though Collins clearly is his own coach, he said he shares the competitive fire of his father and has learned a ton from the responsibilities handed to him by Coach K. It's a third mentor, though, that might help in ways the other two couldn't.

Collins said he's talked a lot with Pat Fitzgerald, the Northwestern football coach, who has built a quality program with the challenges at an academic institution such as Northwestern. It's the consistently competitive level Collins hopes his program soon reaches.

"He's been such a great resource," Collins said. "He's been so successful, and he's had to create a buzz in their program, get an energy going and create a belief in their players and the school that it can be done at the highest level in football. It's a great model, and he's been a great role model for me, in that respect. I can lean on him. He knows this place better than anybody. He went here as a student athlete, has now coached here for a long time, and he's really helped me in the transition, big time."

But, no matter how personally successful Collins is, he'll be judged by the win-loss record of his team. It won't be easy to pile up the victories, either, in a conference such as the Big Ten with its bevy of basketball powers. What was the new coach's feeling when he saw the conference schedule for his Cats?

"I got sick to my stomach," Collins laughed. "I looked at about the first five or six games, and I got real down real quick. But then I just said, 'Let's go one at a time.' It'll get here when it gets here, after the holidays. It's a great league. That's why you want to play. You want to play against the best, you want to play against the best teams, the best-coached teams, and that's what we have in our league. It's an exciting challenge for us."

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But the biggest challenge for Northwestern remains getting to the NCAA tournament, something the Wildcats have never done. Of teams that play in the conferences referred to as "BCS conferences" in football circles — the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12, SEC and what used to be the Big East — the Cats are the only one to never make an appearance in the Big Dance.

So, in Collins' assessment, is Northwestern close to ending that unfortunate distinction?

"You certainly hope that. That's why you play," he said. "You go into every year having high aspirations. We have some veteran guys that have played in a lot of big games. We've had guys that've been real close, a game or two away from being there. Everybody in my locker room has that goal going into this season. We're going to go in there, we're going to try to improve.

"That is a goal of ours, but it's not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is we all want to build a program that's sustainable through the years. And that's when we're going to know we're where we need to be. It's going to start, though, with one team, and hopefully that'll be this year."

The Wildcats start their regular season Saturday, Nov. 9, against Eastern Illinois in Evanston.