Northwestern's introduction of Chris Collins as their new head basketball coach on Tuesday brought back memories for me of 1992, when I was privileged to coach the Illinois AAU State Champions. Collins was a starring member and our team, loaded with talented players who would all go on to solid, if not spectacular, careers in college and for some, the NBA.
Looking back on those days I am reminded of the type of young man that Collins was, and I am not surprised at the type of man he has turned out to be. Now at the age of 38 he's embarking on his first chance to be a head coach. Collins was always a tremendous competitor, but playing on a team that boasted eight high major Division I players including Wisconsin guard Michael Finley, 7-1 center Rashard Griffith, Notre Dame star Ryan Hoover and DePaul guard Peter Patton, it would have been easy to be obscured. But there was no doubt that the leader of that team was Collins.
My fondest memory of that team -- which also speaks to the relentless determination of Collins -- was in the Illinois State Championship game in the spring of 1992. Our team rolled through the state tournament undefeated and advanced to a championship matchup against the Chicago Public League team made up of a collection of tremendously talented stars. The tournament format was double elimination and the Public League team had already suffered a loss in pool play. Our team was undefeated, which meant our opponents would have to beat us twice to claim the title.
There was tremendous grumbling from our opponents at the prospect of having to beat us multiple times when no one had come close to defeating us in the earlier rounds of the bracket. They felt that if they beat us, that should be enough to claim the title. The AAU hierarchy said no, the rules stated that the format was double elimination. Collins and his teammates heard the complaining and he called a meeting of the team. "If that team can beat us they can have the title," he said loudly.
"Let's agree to waive the rule and play them one game, winner take all for the state championship," he suggested.
His teammates needed no extra prodding as they were in complete agreement. Collins turned to me and said loudly enough for our opponents to hear him: "We want to take on their challenge if it is okay with you. If those guys can beat us once they can have the championship. They better come ready to play,"
The intensity in the gym was thick and I had never seen my team so focused on the task at hand. Four minutes into the game we were up by 15 and at the half we led by 25. We went on to win in such a dominating fashion that the result of the game wasn't as interesting as the clinic those kids put on in blowing out a very formidable opponent.
That is the Chris Collins I remember, and that is the Chris Collins that Northwestern has hired as their new head basketball coach. A high-character, high-energy and tremendously talented guy who will be a huge shot of adrenaline into the Northwestern program. I can't tell you how long it will take for him to get his team into the NCAA Tournament, but I can promise you that his team will embody everything he stood for as a player and as a coach. Tuesday was a good day for Northwestern and its basketball program, and their future together will be even better. His history promises it.