EVANSTON, Ill. – It’s not a short walk from the home bench at Welsh-Ryan Arena to the locker room. You have to take one right turn into a hallway followed by a right turn into the auxiliary gym and then still a few more steps to the doors. Plenty of time to have your insides scraped raw by the echoes of celebratory yelps from the other team piled up on your floor.
Northwestern left that scene behind on Dec. 27, after playing fairly badly and then surging back to put itself in a position to beat DePaul with four seconds left, only to lose the game in those last four seconds. So on the walk to the space in which he’d address his team, Chris Collins had to suffer through this unfamiliar stabbing frustration, again, and figure out exactly what to say.
Then the Wildcats’ first-year coach entered the locker room. “There were a lot of guys crying,” Collins said after a recent practice. “So it showed how much they cared. Not that I ever questioned it. But at that point, it’s not about yelling at them.”
These are the peculiar time-space rips endured by the 39-year-old who took on the burden of making Northwestern truly relevant for the first time ever, basically. Hiring Collins was a play for the future. The school has top-to-bottom clarity on that. But here, now, come the daily slaps of adversity like the former Duke player and assistant hasn’t endured in years, and the battle to protect the competitive resolve required to build this thing at all.
On Thursday night, Collins’ first Big Ten season begins. It is a piano dropped on Northwestern’s head. First, No. 4 Wisconsin. Then road trips to Michigan and Iowa. Then Illinois and Michigan State at home. Then a trip to Indiana. In this league, maybe there is no safe corner to scurry to anyway. But knowing this is all about tomorrow won’t dull the aches of today. And, actually, it can’t.
“It’s funny, the people that are closest to me, they reach out to me because they know how competitive I am,” Collins said. “So they do know. I can’t lose that competitive spirit. So I’m never going to get to a point where I’m numb to losing. When you get to that point, it carries over to your players. And then you’re in a lot of trouble.
“Losing is never going to be OK. Now, I can be proud of the effort. What I tell the guys is, I’ll live with the results, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to be OK with it. If you fight and do what we want you to do and you’re all-in, I’ll live with whatever happens, win or lose. But I can’t lose that competitive spirit. If I do, I lose a lot of myself.”
Northwestern is 7-6. By comparison, Collins’ former employer, Duke, won 30 times before losing its sixth game last season on March 31, 2013.
If there is refuge, it is in candid agreement on what needs to be done to fix this. Collins’ lone apprehension about the job – one that intrigued the Northbrook, Ill., native for some time – was the administration’s commitment to being good. Nine months in, he says he has no questions about that. Athletic director Jim Phillips, meanwhile, felt immediate chemistry with Collins’ competitiveness but had to wait to see how his new coach would assimilate to an environment with specific, even onerous standards. Collins hasn’t overstepped on a transcript, Phillips said. And Collins and his assistants even stopped by the department holiday party to mingle with staff and colleagues two days before a game.
In practices and games, Phillips, a basketball guy, has noted the consistency of a coach in a situation unlike any he’s seen before. “There’s a big difference between disappointment and being discouraged,” Phillips said in a phone interview. “OK, at times during the year you’re going to be disappointed. What I don’t want is for him to be discouraged. I don’t get any of that from him. He’s been pretty level. I haven’t experienced a lot of highs and lows with him. That’s mature. That’s really having an idea of what you want to do and what you want to get accomplished.”
Collins has let that be known on the most fundamental levels. Managers track statistics in five-on-five scrimmages to chart out efficiency points. That is something former coach Bill Carmody did, too, but Collins takes it one step farther and posts the numbers in the locker room for all to see.
“We weren’t as detailed like that,” senior forward Drew Crawford said. “Now it’s something everyone sees every day. If guys are struggling multiple days in a row, it’s evident. That puts emphasis on what you need to do to improve.”
In this accountability, if not in the game-day results, Collins has solace. “Wining and losing matters,” Collins said. “With whatever you do. A lot of the drills we do, there’s a winner and a loser. If you lose, you have to run or do push-ups. There’s a consequence. That’s part of that culture, building those standards.”
Speaking of building: Collins talked in a back gym with rolled-up wrestling mats left over from the Midlands Championships scattered next to the practice floor. A facility upgrade is decades overdue. This is as plain as the snow drifts outside Welsh-Ryan Arena. But a $230 million lakefront facility – mostly driven by football success – is the priority, bringing academics and sports medicine and strength and conditioning and nutrition for all programs under one roof, on campus.
Everything is theoretical now, and Phillips declined to get into specifics, but ideas for how to approach a next phase of renovation up Central Street are certainly in the air. The south end of the football stadium could be rebuilt to match the refurbished north end. Welsh-Ryan Arena could be rehabbed or razed. Inside that discussion, there is talk of spinning the court to a north-south alignment (for whatever reason) or even building down, so that the basketball floor itself is below ground level.
In the short-term, Northwestern could add cushioned seatbacks or – in what is a more prominent but attainable line item – replace the scoreboard in Welsh-Ryan Arena. “In due time, and I can’t tell you the time frame, we have to do some things at Welsh-Ryan to enhance the fan experience and help (Collins) recruit a little more, for sure,” Phillips said. “But no promises have been made and certainly there’s nothing that is a definite that we’re going to do.”
Wisely, with good perspective, Collins doesn’t push this, either. “Every year, we have to do a little more,” he said. “Over time, we’ll get to where we need to go. I’m not even concerned about it.”
If there is not satisfaction at Northwestern, there is not concern. Collins realizes his important work takes place literally behind black curtains on that auxiliary practice floor; Phillips said his basketball coach was perhaps most frustrated earlier in the year when the schedule bunched games together and left little time for teaching and development.
When DePaul beat the buzzer and broke the Wildcats' hearts in that 57-56 win on Dec. 27, Collins pointed his team to a middling first half that cost them, not just one final play. And then he retreated to his office to watch the film, a long pass and short pass connecting dots over and over to a Billy Garrett Jr., game-winner, blaming only himself for not saying the right thing or calling the right defense in the huddle.
About a week earlier, he’d spent an hour or so at that holiday party, another small but not insignificant gesture to integrate himself as opposed to cocooning himself as he builds. Collins is part of this, in for the long run, while the short run is something he hasn’t seen before. He can’t be anything else but himself during it, or else he won’t come out the other side. “A lot of what I learned from Coach K – it’s real when you use your instincts,” Collins said. “You can’t fool players. Players know when it’s not real. I know I’m going to make mistakes but I want to be real with these guys. I want to tell them the truth, I want to be honest with them. I might not be right all the time but I want them to know that what they’re getting from me is real. In any situation, positive or negative, I’ve tried to be real with my emotions. And see what happens."