NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski was on hand Tuesday as new Northwestern head men's basketball coach Chris Collins was introduced to the media.
The father, as a player, had performed always with a fire burning in his belly, and it remained there still even after he retired and was doing little more than facing off against his young son in their family's driveway. He would roughly jostle the boy there in their games of one-on-one, he would mercilessly drill the boy there in their games of H-O-R-S-E, and never, ever, would he concede and let the boy win.
"But you're supposed to let me win," the boy would whine after many of those games.
"Your first instinct as a parent is to protect your son," the father would once say, thinking back on those moments. "But life's not that way. You get bumped. You fall down. And the measure of a man is how you handle hurdles in life."
The boy, even then, was undaunted by life's many hurdles and so he stayed after his dad, stayed after him ardently and finally beat him when he was a blossoming 14 years-old. "I was trying to hold him. But my (once injured) leg (which ended his career) wouldn't go," the father, Doug Collins, would remember of that moment.
"It was fierce," remembered the boy, new 'Cat basketball coach Chris Collins. "He wasn't about to give over the reins. There were some elbows thrown. It was pretty ugly. It was a great moment. He was pretty mad. . . But I'm glad (he raised me that way). I think that just made me real competitive as a young kid, and ever since then I've loved challenges. Some people have said, 'He can't do this.' 'He's too small.' 'He's too slow.' 'He can't really jump.' I look at all those things as challenges, but I've always been pretty confident in my own abilities. Not to the point of being cocky. But I've always believed in my ability to do things. I just try to go out and not prove people wrong. But to show people I can do it."
Those memories were offered up over a decade ago, back when Chris Collins was a callow freshman guard at Duke. Yet they aptly explicate the foundation of the 38-year old man who was officially introduced as Bill Carmody's successor on Tuesday at a press conference at Welsh-Ryan Arena. "The guys will find out, it's going to be tough work," he said there at one point, testifying to that truth. "We're going to get after it on the court. Anyone who knows my personality knows that's who I've always been as a player and as a coach. We're going to have to step up and compete. We're not going to back down."
"I understand there's a lot of work to be done," he more tellingly said at another point. "I'm not afraid of that. I'm a competitor. When I went to Glenbrook North (where he was named Illinois Mr. Basketball as a senior), they'd never done anything in basketball. People wanted me to go to other high schools because they didn't think I could win there. We started a culture there and it became one of the best basketball programs on the North Shore and still is to this day. Certainly when I went to Duke it was already established. But I had to go through tough times there as well. My junior year, Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) got sick (and didn't coach the second half of the season) and we went from the national championship game to last place in one year. Then my senior year, we had a group of guys, we had to dig down and get the program going again.
"So I'm not afraid of the work that needs to be done. I'm ultra-competitive. I'm passionate about what I do. To me, in life, if you love doing something, you want people to know about it. I know when I played, I was real energetic on the court, and some people liked it and some people didn't. But I always wanted the world to know I loved what I was doing. It's no different in coaching. I love coaching. . .(and) we're going to build a winner. I'm confident. I'm excited. But I also know it's going to take work. I'm not afraid of the work I'm going to have to do to get this thing going. I'm in it for the long haul."
His experience stretches beyond Duke, where he was an assistant for the last 13 years. That is one thing to remember about Chris Collins, who also played in Finland, assisted Nancy Lieberman in the WNBA and served on Krzyzewski's staff while the latter guided the U.S. men to gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Championships and the 2012 London Olympics. That explains why, on Tuesday, his father would say, "He's ready. He's ready to roll. He's been ready for awhile. If you guys had the chance to see him with the U.S. Olympic team and see him coaching the pros, and the opportunities that Coach K has given him-- the thing that Coach K has done along the way, not only has he developed these guys as men, but as an assistant coach, you coach. You don't just recruit. You're on the floor coaching. That sometimes gets lost in the, 'Well, he's never been a head coach.' Well, nor was I when I came to Chicago at 36 (to take over as coach of the Bulls). Somebody's got to give you your first opportunity. Dr. (Jim) Phillips (the 'Cat AD) and Mr. (Morty) Shapiro (the school president) have given him that opportunity, and I know he's going to run with it."
He is also a realist. That is one more thing to remember about Chris Collins, who knows full well that many have opined that the 'Cat facilities have hampered their quest for basketball success. "My goal for Welsh-Ryan is let's make it a heck of a home-court advantage," he would say Tuesday. "Let's get these seats packed. Let's get everybody wearing purple. Let's see what it's like when you have 8,000-plus people in here going crazy for Northwestern basketball. . . If you walk into Cameron Indoor Stadium (Duke's playpen), no one goes in there and talks about how state-of-the-art it is. You talk about the atmosphere because of the people that are in it, and the hunger of the crowd, and the excitement. That's what we have to build. We have to put a product on the floor the people are going to be excited about."
He is, in addition, a pragmatist. This is one more thing to remember about Chris Collins, who was taught by the master basketball minds of both his father and Mike Krzyzewski. "One thing I believe about coaching is you should tailor what you do based on your personnel," he would say Tuesday, echoing the approach of those mentors. "I will create a system that I feel is going to benefit the pieces we have. I don't believe in having a strict system you plug guys into year-after-year. That's not how I coach. I want to showcase my star players, my best players. I want to put them in a position to be successful, and then complement them with the right pieces."
He is, finally, just where he wants to be. That is the final thing to remember about Chris Collins, whose emotions were palpable enough on Tuesday that his voice sometimes cracked as he answered questions. "It's a dream come true," he said at one of those moments. "To be in basketball my whole life and to now be sitting up here as the head coach of Northwestern of the Big Ten, the highest level of college basketball, it's pretty overwhelming-- in a good way. I just think how hard I've worked to get here. It's a special day, for sure. . .
"You may all talk about going to the NCAA Tournament and those things and, sure, that's going to be a great milestone when we get there. But my goal is to build a top-notch basketball program. I want to be here for a long, long time. It's exciting for me to put my imprint on this university, on this school. It's an exciting day. It's a good day. It's a good day. I'm really excited to be here and I can't wait to get to work."
The father, on Tuesday, is reminded of those games they played so long ago on the family's driveway, and he smiles. "He's a competitor. He's been around a competitive dad. He's always been in a competitive environment," Doug Collins then says. "I never let him beat me in horse or any of those games. To me, that's false praise and to me false praise sometimes is much more deadly than the truth. Because kids start thinking this is the way it is when the truth is, 'You know what, you've got a long way to go.' I mean, if Chris were afraid of challenges, he never would have gone to Duke. Everyone said he would never play at Duke. But he went down there, scored a thousand-something points, started on a Final Four team, became the bridge with the other guys when Coach K got sick to get them back to the NCAA Tournament, and then sat next to Coach K for 13 years. So he's been around competitiveness, and that's what this is about."
The son also smiles when reminded of those games. "It made me the competitor I am," Chris Collins then says. "He never let me win at anything. That was a lesson. So you know when you win, you've earned it. So even though I didn't know it, and I was crying a lot and was upset, it feels that much better when you win because you know nothing was given to you."
And did those games help prepare him for his new challenge here?
"Absolutely," he finally says. "I feel, I've been so fortunate my whole life to be around basketball and great coaches and players, everything I've learned has prepared me for this day. Now it's on me to take it and run with it."