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What We're Building

Apr 28 2017
Photo by
Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire
Photo by
Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire
Chris Collins
HC: Northwestern
Apr 28 2017

April is a good month for spring cleaning. Especially for a college basketball coach.

By April recruiting is under way, but spring workouts are still a few weeks out. And in Chicago, if you’re lucky, the weather is just getting warm enough to open the windows and let in some fresh air.

But more important for me: April is a chance to spend some time by myself, sitting with my thoughts as I go through old papers and clean up my office. A chance to step back and reflect on the year.

And this year?

Wow. What a year it’s been. One of the single best years of my life.

This year, I had the privilege of witnessing 14 young men do something that had never been done by anybody wearing a Northwestern men’s basketball uniform — something a lot of people didn’t expect them to do.

That’s a rare thing in life. It’s an honor they’ll get to carry with them forever. And I couldn’t be prouder of them.

But I’ll get to that in a moment. I was telling you about spring cleaning.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Images

This April, spring cleaning meant something different for us at Northwestern: We packed up our basketball offices to make way for a new state-of-the art basketball center, which will be ready for the 2018–19 season.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in my office one last time to go over the moving checklist … and I felt a little flash of déjà vu. I’d seen this before: The office without furniture, the cardboard boxes stacked everywhere, the bare walls. That was what it looked like four years ago when first I arrived at Northwestern.

Back then, though, everything felt very different.

Those first weeks as a new coach here, it was hard to ignore what those bare walls seemed to represent: Northwestern didn’t have much of a basketball identity.

And the identity that it did have was a dubious one: Northwestern men’s basketball was one of the only D-I schools in the country that had never played in the NCAA tournament — 77 seasons without ever once reaching the Big Dance.

When I told other coaches, and even some friends, that I was thinking about coaching at Northwestern, several of them actually discouraged me from taking it. It’s true. They told me — always politely — that it was a graveyard for coaches. That it was where careers goes to die. That I’d never get serious D-I players to come play for me.

But as I learned right away when I started meeting with recruits, finding a good basketball player to come to Northwestern wasn’t the issue.

The challenge was finding a certain kind of basketball player.

Someone who wanted to blaze a new trail. Someone who wanted to fight for everything he earned. Someone who embraced taking a leap of faith.

The kind of player who didn’t just want to be part of a legacy … but to create one.

And that’s the kind of player I got.

Lance King/Getty Images

I grew up in Northwestern’s backyard — just 15 minutes from campus. But I ended up attending Duke, where I played under Coach K and later served on his coaching staff. As Coach K’s player and then apprentice, I saw how Duke’s traditions and values had a way of reinforcing themselves. It’s not only about winning games or even conference titles, for Coach K — but also about creating a culture of winning that endures.

That’s all to say that by the time I came to Northwestern, I felt that I’d been blessed with a first-rate basketball education. And I was ready to bring what I’d learned to a program that had something to prove.

I was in for a wake-up call.

On one of my first days on the job, I was touring the campus with my family and I decided to pop into the university bookstore. We walked down aisles stocked with sweatshirts, key chains, T-shirts, hats, blankets, mugs … I mean, you can find things in there that you don’t even know you need. But something was missing — and it was glaring: There was no men’s basketball gear. Other sports were represented, but basketball? Not even a bumper sticker. At the time, it seemed to sum up what I already knew about the program. It wasn’t on the map.

Student attendance was lackluster, too. My first two years here, we went 14–19 and 15–17 and energy at our games seemed to match our results. And you know what? I didn’t blame them. At a world-class university like this, with a pro sports city next door, Northwestern students have a dozen great options every night to compete for their attention. I knew we needed to put a better product out there.

But I could see how disappointed our players were at the half-empty stands. I knew from Cameron Indoor how critical a home court advantage could be, and how a student section is such a special part of college sports.

One day in the fall of 2013, I decided to do some of my own marketing. I walked over to Frontera Fresco, a Mexican place in the Norris University Center, and I made burritos with the Frontera staff. Every time I would hand a student a meal, I’d flash a smile and say something like, “Enjoy! And … if you have the chance, please come to the men’s basketball game this Friday! It’s free!” (That last bit, I learned, was key for college kids.)

I’d get these looks like, Why won’t this guy just give me my burrito?

I don’t know if anyone knew who I was. But over the years, student attendance improved. It had more to do with us winning more games, but I like to think a little bit was related to my burrito marketing.

Hey, you never know.

The basketball program’s lack of an imprint on campus was one thing. But my first Big Ten game? Now that was a true wake-up call.

It was January 2, 2014, a home game against fourth-ranked Wisconsin — the team with Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson and Frank Kaminsky that went to back-to-back Final Fours. An incredibly talented opponent. But we were on our home court and at that point in the season, we had escaped nonconference play with a 7–6 record. I thought we were ready for a big test.

And then … we went into the locker room at halftime down 40–14.

Now, I’m generally a positive guy and an upbeat coach. Usually I’ll have encouraging things to say to my team at a time like this.

But that day I didn’t have anything. I was suddenly at a loss for words. It had been a long time since I’d seen this particular look from a group of basketball players. It wasn’t the look of defeat, but something harder to figure out. It was a look that said: Here we go again.

Nothing in my coaching career had prepared me for what to say or do next. There were no championship banners to point to, no winning tradition to draw upon, no famous NBA alumni to mention in a rousing speech. We had no identity except for “the team that can’t make the tournament.”

Here we go again.

And that moment … it kind of scared me. Because I didn’t have any easy answers. No trick plays were going to get us out of this one.

David Banks/USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it’s no surprise that we didn’t win the game. And we didn’t come close in Big Ten conference play that year, finishing tied for 10th. But there were signs that this group wasn’t just going to lie down. Midway through the season, we won three straight road games, including a win over No. 14 Wisconsin — the same team that had crushed us at home less than a month earlier.

The following year, my second season, we started conference play 1–10.

Here we go again.

But then we won five of our final seven games and finished the year 6–12 in Big Ten play. The way my guys finished that season told me a lot about their character. Even with no realistic postseason chance, they didn’t quit.

Each year, I would see that sense of fight — even when all the outside pressure on them felt overwhelming. Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned in my four years in Evanston has been to trust my players’ ability to play under that pressure. That’s what prompted me to challenge my team this year to come up with their own goal for the season. Not their coach’s goal, not the alumni’s goal, not the university’s goal, but their own goal — to be arrived upon without input from anyone else.

Before this year began, the players told me that their word for the season was toughness. Before every game, and at the end of every practice and timeout this season, we all put our hands in and shouted: “1, 2, 3 … toughness!”

And yeah, maybe it sounded like nothing special to anyone else who heard it. But if you had followed us these last four years, you would know what it was. It was the sound of this team building its own tradition.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

By now, you know how our season ended up. You know how we celebrated like crazy on Selection Sunday. You know how we beat a good Vanderbilt team in the first round, notching our first-ever tournament win. And you know that we gave a Final Four–bound Gonzaga team a really tough game.

When I close my eyes and think about this magical season, though, those aren’t the things that I think about. I always go back instead to our second to last regular-season game.

Against Michigan. At home.

Northwestern fans know the game I’m talking about.

Some quick context is probably needed: We’d just dropped five of our last seven Big Ten games, after having started conference play 7–2. And right as we were struggling, our leading scorer, Scottie Lindsey, missed four games due to mono (welcome to college). The Wolverines were one of the hottest teams in the country at the time. And everyone was saying we needed to beat them to make the tournament.

The stage was set. I could tell our guys were feeling it. The chatter was louder than ever.

It was that here-we-go-again chatter.

Nam Y. Huh/AP Images

With our tournament chances on the brink, we called a timeout with the ball on our own baseline — 94 feet from the basket.

We’re tied at 65.

1.7 seconds left.

Before going into the huddle, I talked things over with my assistant, Brian James.

Should we just make a safe inbounds pass and send the game to OT?

I looked over at our guys, and I thought about the motto they had come up with when the season started.

They wanted to win this thing right now.

I handed Brian the clipboard and asked him to draw something up. The next few seconds were a blur.

A perfect pass. A perfect catch. A perfect finish.

Suddenly I was in the middle of the court, with students storming down from their seats. I remember looking up into the crowd and seeing the sea of Northwestern fans jumping around like crazy — alumni and students and parents. It’s that moment that sticks with me more than any other lately. This community, all coming together in a beautiful blur of purple.

Christian Peterson/Getty Images

To my players, I really just want to say: Thank you.

Thank you for embracing the expectations and doubts when you arrived here. Thank you for letting me put my trust in you. You showed me what toughness looks like. Thank you for giving me a season I’ll always remember. But most of all, thank you for giving this program — and this university — a gift. It’s a gift that will endure longer than one tournament win.

It’s the gift of next year.

You made every Northwestern basketball fan excited for next year.

Speaking of, I’d better go move the rest of my things into my new office.

These walls — they need some pictures on them.

But after that? It’s back to work.

Chris Collins
HC: Northwestern