The off-season hiring of Chris Collins at Northwestern is the latest attempt at Northwestern to hire the right coach to take the Wildcats to their first NCAA Tournament. When he was hired, many saw him as the next Pat Fitzgerald. Fitz is a Wildcat through and through. Although Collins went to Duke, he grew up in the Chicago area and saw his father lead the Bulls to their first playoff series win in the Jordan era.
In eight season as a Head Coach in Evanston, Fitzgerald is 54-45. He took over for Randy Walker at the age of 31 following Walker's death. Sitting besides Mike Krzyzewski for the last 13 years, Collins waited for the right opportunity. Amazingly in the era of wunderkind coaches like Shaka Smart Brad Stevens and Josh Pastner, Collins is taking his first Head Coaching Position at the age of 39. The former Glenbrook North star returns home for the first time in over 20 years.
He faces the task of taking the Wildcats dancing for the first time in school history. The task although daunting is reachable. When former Northwestern Football Coach Gary Barnett proclaimed at his introductory news conference that he would take the Purple to Pasadena, that had to be met with a lot more skepticism than Collins leading Northwestern to its first NCAA Tournament birth.
Ironically when Collins' father was fired by Jerry Reinsdorf with the Bulls in 1989, the Chairman proclaimed that the elder Collins was the right man to take the Bulls from A to B, but not further. The same might be said for Chris Collins' predecessor, Bill Carmody.
In the 75 year history of the NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten has received 229 NCAA Tournament Bids. Those have resulted in 47 Final Fours and 10 NCAA Championships. Eight years before the NCAA Tournament, Northwestern won the mythical Helms Foundation National Championship with a 16-1 record.
More recently, Bill Carmody has set a good foundation for Collins to build on. They went to three straight NIT's from 2009-11. The Wildcats were one game away from New York in 2011 before falling to Washington State in overtime in the Quarterfinals.
The Wildcats did not make their postseason appearance until 1983. They defeated Notre Dame on St. Patrick's Day and then lost to DePaul on a Kenny Patterson buzzer beater in the next round. NU has only had six NIT appearances all-time.
Behind the guard tandem of Seniors Drew Crawford and Jershon Cobb, the Wildcats are off to a 2-2 start. Although he will lose Crawford and Cobb, the future looks bright in Evanston.
Collins has ESPN's 21 ranked recruiting class for the fall of 2014. He signed four players for the early signing period. The star of the class, Vic Law told the Tribune's Teddy Greenstein "All roads of my recruitment....led to Northwestern" Law's father indicated in an ESPN.Com article that had Carmody still been the head coach his son would have signed somewhere else. "had Carmody still been there, we never would have considered Northwestern"
Carmody did not leave a bare roster for Collins. David Sobolewski, Tre Demps, Sanjay Lumpkin and Alex Olah give Collins a good base to build around when Crawford and Cobb graduate next spring.
The Wildcats .409 winning percentage all-time shows the battle Collins will have. Carmody has arguably put Northwestern in a better position to win now, maybe more than ever. Injuries seemed to derail promising seasons during his tenure. Kevin Coble was a budding superstar before quitting after getting injured and Crawford injury last season was probably his undoing.
Some have questioned antiquated Welsh-Ryan Arena and the lack of tradition at Northwestern. Collins is the perfect foil for the challenge ahead. He has recruited a great class right off the bat and has one of the best student sections in the Big Ten. If he can lead Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament in his first three seasons, his status among Northwestern legends should be cemented. The only question remaining is how long will he stay at Northwestern.
Mike Krzyzewski is 66 years old, how much longer he remains Duke coach remains to be seen. Collins has to be the front runner to replace him.
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