With the firing of Bill Carmody as Northwestern basketball coach on Saturday, athletic director Dr. Jim Phillips and the Northwestern administration have begun the search for his successor. The Carmody loyalists pointed to his steady improvement of the program over the past handful of seasons and the tremendous number of injuries that hit the team this year as reasons for keeping him in place.
Those in favor of making a change, point to the failure to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament for 75 straight years, despite the fact that the first ever Final Four was played on Northwestern's campus. They also look at declining attendance and a lack of "buzz" around the program as reasons for pursuing a new direction and adding a shot of enthusiasm into the program.
[Related: Carmody out as Northwestern's head coach]
It is expected that a large number of high-profile candidates will show serious interest in the open post and the challenge of building a basketball tradition at a school that has no history of basketball success, but that has seen high-level success in other sports. In looking at all of the potential options that could be available to Phillips and Northwestern, it seems obvious to me that although there are some very good coaches who would be solid hires, one name stands out above all the rest.
Duke associate head coach Chris Collins, who grew up in suburban Northbrook, has been a part of the Duke program as a player and coach for over 20 years and is the perfect fit to take on Northwestern's challenge. He is a high-energy and detail-oriented guy, who is well respected in the profession and has established tremendous recruiting contacts, which have helped Duke establish itself as the No. 1 program in America.
Full disclosure is necessary here, because I have known Chris Collins for 20+ years, from his days as a Chicago Bulls ball boy (while his father Doug was the Bulls head coach), to his time playing on a state-champion basketball team for which I was the head coach. He is a quality basketball mind and an even better person. He is well-respected and well-liked. He will bring tremendous energy and passion to the job, should he get it, and will remind many of Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald -- who is fast approaching legendary status on the Evanston campus.
Collins was an elite high school player at Glenbrook North before going on to play at Duke. He joined head coach Mike Krzyzewski's staff in 2000 after spending two years as an assistant to Tommy Amaker at Seton Hall. He has climbed the ranks to the position of associate head coach on the Duke staff, in addition to coaching for Krzyzewski and USA Basketball. He has been a part of two national championship teams and he has two Gold Medals on his resume from coaching for Krzyzewski in both the Beijing and London Olympics.
His resume speaks for itself and, as someone who knows him exceptionally well, his character and class are off the charts. He is the perfect fit for the Northwestern job and is someone who I believe will take the program to the next level. Will it be easy? Obviously not; because good coaches have been at Northwestern before and they have not been able to achieve any measure of consistent success. However, I believe in athletic director Jim Phillips and his passion and vision for the athletic department, and I believe that he will give the next coach what he needs to be successful to take the program to postseason play on a regular basis -- including that elusive NCAA Tournament.
Many observers of Northwestern basketball believe that Welsh-Ryan Arena is outdated and is a detriment to the program's success. While it doesn't quite measure up to some of the arenas that other Big Ten teams call home, it must not be used as an excuse for a lack of success. Can it be improved? Definitely. But a new arena, or a multimillion dollar renovation, is not in the plans for the next few years. However, a new practice facility can accomplish much of what a team needs to compete with the schools that it recruits against. Players spend most of their basketball time in practice and in the basketball offices -- not in the arena that is used on game day. Why not improve the practice and office facilities so that the players and coaches have what they need on a day to day basis to be successful? A new arena can come someday, but it is not essential for landing the right candidate or building sustained success.
Some have pointed to Collins' lack of head coaching experience as a detriment to his chances of securing the position, but everyone needs their first opportunity to prove themselves. Assistants are always getting a chance at the professional level in all sports. Does anyone wonder about Tom Thibodeau now? He had no major college head coaching experience when the Bulls tabbed him as their head coach three years ago. How about Roy Williams, who was named the coach at Kansas with no head coaching experience, but a long run as an assistant at North Carolina? There are plenty of examples of assistants who have gone on to great success when they get their opportunity to be a head coach, and I believe that Chris Collins will be one of them.
Northwestern basketball needs an infusion of fresh energy and enthusiasm to take it to the next level in the journey to the NCAA Tournament. The man to lead them on that path is Duke's Chris Collins, a former Chicagoan. It's time for Dr. Jim Phillips to bring him home.