Grace period short for Collins

Natural confidence and charm impressive traits for NU coach but he will be judged against peers in Big Ten

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Collins the 24th head coach in program history

Back when Chris Collins was a ball boy for Bulls games when his father, Doug, coached the team in the late 1980s, the precocious teenager reveled in the crowd reaction at old Chicago Stadium whenever he got a chance to practice his jumper.

"The more they cheered,'' Doug Collins recalled Tuesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena, "the farther Chris stepped away to shoot.''

With a captive audience again encouraging Collins as he faces the longest shot of his basketball life — ending Northwestern's 75-year NCAA tournament drought — the Wildcats new coach arrived emboldened by natural confidence and charm everybody remembers about the boy they watched grow up.

As fond as those memories of the hometown hero will remain, the reality is the Chicago area's perception of Collins began to change the moment he stepped onto the stage wearing a purple tie and a "N" lapel pin. To his credit, Collins not only realized but embraced the idea that his narrative needs altering now; that as a Big Ten head coach he isn't Doug Collins' son or Mike Krzyzewski's disciple as much as Tom Izzo's peer.

For Northwestern basketball to reach the level Collins envisions — "It's not about going to one NCAA tournament, it's about doing more than that,'' he said ambitiously — he must be held to standards set by the best teams in the country's best conference. No coaching pedigree should make Collins immune to the third degree if he blows double-digit leads at home or burns unnecessary timeouts. For Collins' own good, evaluate him on his future, not his past, and against the coaches in the league instead of his scrapbook.

"I am my own guy,'' Collins said. "I am going to blaze my own path and this is the right place for me to do that.''

With eloquence and an edginess that suits him, Collins could not have made a stronger first impression during an introductory news conference that interrupted an impromptu homecoming gathering of the Glenbrook North High School alumni committee. College basketball observers often wondered what Collins was waiting for as he stayed at Duke as an assistant for 13 years despite having opportunities to become a Division I head coach. It turns out he was waiting for this, a rare chance to combine personal comfort with professional challenge in an environment as welcoming as it is familiar.

"I always felt in my heart I would know when it was right and when this situation came about, I felt it in my heart,'' Collins said. "It's a slam dunk.''

Unofficially, Tuesday's score was Chris Collins 127, Doubt 43. It doesn't mean Collins will outcoach Illinois' John Groce but he won the news conference in convincing fashion even without factoring in the lump-in-your-throat moments shared with the proudest dad in America. For the record, Chris Collins' voice cracked first mentioning his family in the front row. But with moist eyes and a nostalgic expression, Doug Collins always seemed a sentence away from sobbing tears of pride everybody would have understood.

Speculation swirled about the 76ers coach joining his son's staff but, for Chris' overall development, Doug serving as doting father makes more sense than as assistant coach. They have similar, high-strung styles and a more placid veteran assistant on the bench might complement Chris better. The Collinses also share a gift for gab on display as Doug recounted the job advice he once gave his son based on a career as a rebuilder of NBA teams.

"I said, 'Chris if you're looking for that ideal spot, it's not going to be there because they're not going to need a new coach,' '' Doug said. "There's something to being the first. … Do you want to chase somebody's legacy or create your own?''

At Northwestern, history guarantees that question answers itself. Full of energy and idealism, Collins comes to Evanston with only the baggage he could fit in an overhead compartment. Considering the ethical compromises athletic directors at UCLA and Rutgers, in contrast, made recently concerning head coaches, Northwestern AD Jim Phillips hiring someone of Collins' integrity qualifies as reaffirming to those who still believe character matters.

"He absolutely exudes what we want,'' Phillips said.

Collins figures to find out admitting impact recruits into Northwestern will prove trickier than it was at Duke. He might discover packing Welsh-Ryan Arena without making serious upgrades will be harder than his enthusiastic response made it sound. No, Tuesday won't be the last time Collins bristles at comparisons to other Duke assistants. Yes, he lacks head-coaching experience. But when was the last time so many people felt this pumped about Northwestern basketball because of its coach's personality?

Collins only expects the cheering to get louder. And everybody knows how much he relishes that.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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