Northwestern's rookie basketball coach has rebound on his mind

Ex-Duke assistant's hoop dream: Get men's team to NCAA tourney for the first time

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When a Big Ten basketball coach agrees to address a ballroom full of bankruptcy experts, that's saying something.

And rookie Northwestern basketball coach Chris Collins' speech Friday before the Turnaround Management Association's Chicago/Midwest chapter left no doubt that he viewed NU's basketball program as in need of a reorganization — and that he was the man to lead it.

"This past year was a really tough year," said Collins, 39, who spoke sans notes for nearly 40 minutes. "There were four guys on the team that were injured, had to miss the whole season. ... I think they lost their last 10 games. So I was coming into a situation where there was a lot of beaten-down guys. Kind of a negative atmosphere."

Before joining Northwestern, Collins spent 13 years as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, his alma mater, where he played from 1993 to 1996. He majored in sociology, but his remedy for Northwestern sounds an awful lot like a business school case study.

He described returning players as having "equity" in Northwestern. And he used the word "culture" as often as anyone in human resources would. He wore a dark suit and purple tie, making him indistinguishable from other guys in the room.

The first step in his turnaround "project" was to get to know the players.

"I had to get to the guys that already had (shed) blood, sweat and tears, that had equity at our school," he said. "And I had to start developing a relationship with those guys and figure out who was going to be a part of us going forward and maybe who wasn't going to be a part of us going forward.

"I wasn't going to come into a situation and just start yelling at guys. ... Because I was always taught you can't start speaking the truth until there's trust. You have to get trust before you start having tough conversations."

And showing up at practice isn't enough — "you have to spend time outside the arena," he said.

"I always felt like coaching when I grew up was all about X's and O's or strategy or matchups or managing the game," Collins said. "And all those things are very important. But the No. 1 thing I learned about being around Coach K for the amount of time I was around him was that the No. 1 aspect of coaching was developing trusting relationships with players."

Step 2: Don't immediately dump people.

Cleaning house "so that everybody knows you mean business" isn't necessary, he said.

But ...

Step 3: Surround yourself with loyal people.

"We have our video coordinator, but he's the only guy from before," Collins said in an interview before the speech. "I've replaced the three assistant coaches and the director of basketball operations, who are the four main members of my support group. All of them are new. It was important. If I'm talking about a fresh start, then we should have a clean, fresh start."

He brought in his coach from Glenbrook North High School, Brian James, who previously assisted Collins' father, Doug, for three seasons at the Philadelphia 76ers. James has coached in the NBA for about 15 years.

"He's also like part of my family," Collins said. "So I know he'd take a sword for me if he had to. You have to surround yourself with people who are going to be loyal to you ... because it's tough out there. Just like with what you do. You can't have in-house fighting. You can't have in-house people trying to stab you in the back."

Krzyzewski often hired former Duke standouts as assistants. So Collins hired Patrick Baldwin, a former NU guard and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, who graduated in 1994. And he hired Armon Gates away from Loyola University Chicago. Collins described Gates as "young and energetic" and "a really good recruiter" — and from Chicago. (Given that Collins said "in-state, local talent" was his primary target, geography matters.)

Finally, he said he needed someone to "keep him organized." So he hired a former head manager from Duke, Chris Lauten, as the director of basketball operations, to run "our offense."

Oops. Collins meant "office."

"I'm thinking basketball right now," he said. "On a side note, I got a little extra bounce in my step because tomorrow's our first day of practice. So I'm thinking offense-defense because my mind's spinning about getting my practice plan in for tomorrow."

Step 4: Delegate.

"There's a tendency of head coaches to micromanage every aspect," Collins said. It's "another thing that Coach K was a master of, and I think he grew into this role. When I played, he was a lot like that. He was a younger coach and full of energy and fire, and it pretty much was his show."

But as Krzyzewski aged, Collins said he gave his assistants increasing amounts of responsibility.

"I want my assistant coaches to feel like (the team is) theirs too," Collins said, later asking, "Why would I hire good people if I'm not going to use them and allow them to do their jobs?"

Step 5: Work on the brand.

"Because of last year and a lot of the losing, the brand had taken a hit," Collins said. "It was a little bit of a stale brand. For me, it's been my goal to try to create a little bit of a buzz."

He said he wants his players to "get all the glory" and "all the media stuff" — once they hit the court.

"Right now I'm the face of that because we haven't played any games," he said. "I haven't been a head coach before. So there is nothing to point to other than my vision, my goals, my beliefs and where I've come from, my background."

Step 6: Focus on the long-term.

He's not going to chase quarterly earnings. Collins said he wasn't going to "cut corners" and "grab kids who don't fit with what Northwestern is about," meaning kids who don't care about school.

"The project at Northwestern is not about just getting to the NCAA tournament," Collins said before acknowledging that the milestone was the "800-pound gorilla" because Northwestern has not achieved it. "I took on this job and this opportunity to build a program. And when you have a program, that's not just having one good team. A program is when you have a good team year in and year out and compete at the highest level."

Step 7: Exude confidence.

"We're going to get to the NCAA tournament. I don't know if that's this year, next year. But that's going to happen."

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582.

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