Year 1 to Year 2: A chat with Northwestern coach Chris Collins
In this short series, SI.com has spoken with several coaches entering Year 2 at their current jobs about what they learned in the first year and what they’re looking for next season. Next up: Northwestern's Chris Collins.
Northwestern, infamously, has never made an NCAA tournament. But in his first year as a head coach, after spending 13 seasons as an assistant with Duke, Chris Collins managed to make the Wildcats intriguing all the way into February, when they were .500 in Big Ten play and 12-11 overall. A limited roster beset with key injuries ultimately backslid to a 14-19 record and a 6-12 finish in the league, but there is renewed hope for that a ticket to the Big Dance is coming soon. SI.com spoke with Collins about a roster filled with new faces, a home arena that will be improved by the end of the summer and the expectations for the 2014-15 season.
SI: This was your first year at Northwestern as well as your first year as a head coach. What were the biggest lessons learned to apply to Year 2?
CC: Well, for me, especially doing it for the very first time, when you're a rookie first-year coach at a new place, and going through everything for the first time, it's so overwhelming. Just because you're so eager, you're fired up, you have ideas and everything is coming at you from all kinds of directions. You're burning it at both ends and you're just trying to survive each day. So it's fun, but you feel a little bit overwhelmed. You learn things you like. For me, just dealing with the demands of being a head coach for the first time -- learning how to prioritize what are the most important things, making sure you're taking care of your guys, you're attacking recruiting, and then filling in with whatever's left, doing some of the other things you need to do to help run your program.
And for us, we had such turnover with our roster. We have 13 guys on our team this year -- seven of them are new players, whether it be freshmen or transfers. We had to deal with a lot of things, and it's a lot of fun. But you kind of feel like after the first year, the waters are starting to steady and calm a little more, and you can kind of settle in to how you want to do things. The first year, you're kind of throwing a bunch of things out there and trying to figure it out without having that experience.
SI: Is there anything you know you want to change or adjust going into Year 2?
CC: Last year, with me coming in, the guys didn't know me, I didn't know them. So when we did all of our offseason stuff, I was really the guy that handled all of that. I wanted them to get used to my style. And my assistant coaches, we were a new group together as well. They had to get to know me and what I expected and how I wanted things done. The biggest change at the end of the season -- it's such a long year now in college basketball, and you have to delegate responsibilities to your staff, not only off the court but on the court as well. So probably the biggest change for us this whole spring and into the summer, I'm allowing my assistants to have even more of a voice. I was just kind of an observer in the spring workouts. If all (the players) hear is my voice, no matter what, they're going to get tired of that. I kind of took a step back at the end of the season, and as we went into our offseason skill development stuff, I allowed my assistant coaches and staff to handle that and let my voice get away from that a little bit. So now when we get going here into the summer and into the fall, I can kind of come back in and they're not used to me being the guy that's always talking.
SI: What's on the checklist for the summer?
CC: Because we're going to rely on a lot of freshmen to help, we need them to be ready right away. My main thing is for six veteran guys with seven new guys to become a team, and to get those new players and young players up to speed with the way we do things. The thing I'm most proud about is, our veterans now take pride in the way we train and the way we practice, how we prepare. The biggest challenge this summer, more than putting in plays or the Xs and Os stuff, is getting our new players up to speed with how we do things here, and the intensity, and how hard we play. Especially with our defense. That was something that we hung our hat on last year. As we improve offensively, and we add more scoring, I still want us to be a top defensive team. That's something that takes practice and takes communication and the guys need to learn to play together.
SI: How do you make that happen with limited windows to work?
CC: There's a lot of teaching involved ... And one of the things I'd like to do -- we're having different groups play together each day. They need to learn one another. There's a lot of new players, and the veteran guys have gotten better and stronger. We're not locked into, 'These are the five that are starting.' We have plenty of time to figure that out. I want to give all the guys a chance to compete. That's the biggest step forward in our program -- we're going to have more competition in practice on a daily basis, where guys are pushing each other for spots. It forces everybody to be ready to go.
SI: Who are a couple guys who need to make significant leaps in order to get where you want to go?
CC: [Alex] Olah's improvement the last month of the season was really encouraging and exciting to watch. He needs to become an elite big man. He needs to become a guy who's a solid double-figure scorer and rebounder and defensive presence. And he became that at the end of the year, and he needs to continue to build on that. A big thing is we need [JerShon] Cobb to be healthy. He's never played a full season in college without missing games due to injury. He's a fifth-year senior, and we need him to have that kind of year for us, the same way [Drew] Crawford did last year. [Tre] Demps had a great year and has a really defined role for us, but the veteran guys who are coming back -- [Dave] Sobolewski, [Sanjay] Lumpkin, [Nate] Taphorn -- we need those guys to continue to improve. And with the young guys, there's always going to be a transition. How quickly can they transition from being good high school players to effective college guys? We're going to rely on a lot of the freshmen to play. It's going to be important for them to have good summers and falls so we can come out of the gate in the preseason and be ready to play well.
SI: A million years away from playing a game, but would you still expect Tre Demps to come off the bench?
CC: I don't know. I'm open to anything. I will say that I love that role for him, and he's comfortable in that role. He and I have had conversations -- his dad is an NBA guy. He sees what Jamal Crawford does, and what a guy like Jason Terry did, and you see Manu Ginobili come off the bench. Those are guys, even though they come off the bench, they finish the game and they're go-to guys down the stretch. That's what Tre was for us. I don't see that part changing. But we have to figure out, with all these new guys, what is going to be the right combination. Tre might be one of our best players but still not be a starter. We have to figure that out. He's confident in that role, and he likes it and it was good for our team. There's a possibility that could happen, but the next couple months, we'll see how our team shakes out.
SI: You weren't unfamiliar with the place itself, growing up just outside of Chicago, but actually coaching at Northwestern -- what about the place did you learn that you have to adjust to or maybe use more of?
CC: Coming in, I was excited about the opportunity, to build something at the highest level where they haven't had the level of success everybody wanted or hoped for. But you're also a little bit nervous. You don't know until you get somewhere and you live in it day in and day out and you're around the people and you see your environment and what you're competing against. For me, after going through a year, it makes me even more excited. I see such great potential. The thing for me that's most important is to continue to be patient. I have a "win now" mentality. There's no one more competitive than me or wanting to win as much as I do. With that being said, we have to continue to make steps. I do want to do it the right way. To do that, we have to build. It's not going to be a quick fix. Our young guys have to be developed. Our veterans have to be developed. And we have to keep taking steps forward, we can't take steps backward. After being here a year and playing in our league, I'm even more excited and enthusiastic about the possibilities of what we can do here.
SI: There will be four new video boards in Welsh-Ryan Arena by the end of August. What does that say to you, and what else is there in the near-term in terms of infrastructure improvements?
CC: What that showed is that there is a commitment to win, and everyone here is on board, and it's a collective effort to put us in a position where we can be successful. For the school to make that kind of investment, and little renovations in Welsh-Ryan to make our game experience that much better, I think is huge. And it will continue. It's going to be one project at a time. This is a great first step. Obviously the next big project is the lakefront facility, which we'll have some components in there, with training, academics, that will really benefit our basketball program. Once that is done, football will be moving everything over to the lake. Then what will be the next step for us? How do we want to utilize our space in the best way possible, in terms of where we practice, our game situations? I think everyone is thinking long-term with that. But in the short-term, to be able to get this [video board] project done this year -- it'll look like a new building. The guys are really excited, our staff is excited. It was a great step to show everybody that we're serious about being a top basketball program.
SI: If you have a vision of how you want things to look a year for now, what would that be?
CC: I just want to take another step forward. And I don't know what that is. I don't want to put a number of wins on it. The step forward this past year was creating a foundation and culture of our program and to see how hard our guys played and competed. We had some big wins, we had some games we didn't play as well, but it was more about our effort on a nightly basis and the way our guys trained and the way our guys practiced and prepared and how hard they competed. To me, that was a step forward, even though it might not have always been measured with wins and losses. This year we have to take another step forward. We have to play better in the non-conference, there's no question about it. That hurt us last year. I think a realistic goal for us this year is to try to be a postseason team. We were a couple wins shy of that this year, and I think that's a realistic goal for our team. But to do that, you can't just fast-forward to March. You have to prepare each day and you have to take care of business with each game that's in front of you.