Chicago Sun-Times

Inside Northwestern sports

with Neil Hayes

Northwestern assistant basketball coach Tavaras Hardy is leaving the university to join the Georgetown basketball staff, the Hoyas announced on Thursday. Hardy, who played at Northwestern from 1998-2002, was a key component to the Wildcats recruiting efforts.

 


Northwestern football announced Wednesday that its season-opener against California at California Memorial Stadium will begin at 9:30 p.m. central time.

 


As I wrote in the Sun-Times today, AD Jim Phillips was not only trying to find a replacement for Bill Carmody but a basketball version of Pat Fitzgerald, who is revered on campus.

Chris Collins said he can't wait to spend some time with Fitz, who attended Tuesday's presser at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

"I admire the way he has built that program," Collins said of Fitzgerald. "I can't wait to spend time with him and pick his brain about this school and this area and what it takes because he has shown that you can get it done at a high level. I look forward to learning from him and getting to know him and then using that to create my own identity. I just believe that's important, taking the knowledge you get from people who have been your mentors and putting your own spin on it."

Collins said he would build his system around his players once he better understands their strengths and weaknesses. Eventually, however, he wants a team that can score.

"I love being able to put it in the basket," he said. "At the end of the day, you have to be good in all areas but you have to be able to score the ball. Basketball is going to a stage now at all levels where it has become a skill game again. You have to combine that skill with physical and mental toughness and then put guys in position based on your best players to make it work.

"Ideally, I'd like to play a style where we get out and shoot the ball. I don't want guys to be afraid of making mistakes. I want them to play freely on the offensive end and let them show their talents on the court within the framework of the team."

There was some interesting reading between the lines when Collins was asked if he had talked to Phillips or school President Morty Schapiro about adjusting academic standards.

"I always been in situations were academics are important," Collins said. "That's not a drawback. You have to go out and find the guys who appeal to that kind of situation. The one thing I can say is, commitment from President Schapiro and Dr. Phillips to build a top-notch basketball program is there. They have a vision. It's not going to be an overnight fix but I believe those guys are commited to giving me what I need to make this a successful program."

Drew Crawford will graduate with one year of eligibility remaining, which means he can transfer as a postgraduate student without losing a year of eligibility, much like Jared Swopshire did when he went from Louisville to Northwestern last offseason.

Chris Collins made it clear Tuesday that he wants Northwestern's best returning player to remain in Evanston but that the decision is ultimately up to Crawford and his family.

"I'm excited about him being a vital part of what we're doing but I want what's best for him," Collins said. "At the end of the day, I'm hopeful and confident that when he's around me he will feel the vibe and the energy. He has a lot invested at Northwestern. I'd love for him to be my key guy during my first year."

Crawford, son of longtime NBA official Danny Crawford, could take as many as three recruiting trips before deciding where to play next season.

"There's no rush," Collins said. "I want to give Drew and his family the time they need and have a chance to get to know them. We know each other a little bit because our dads are in the NBA game but there's an adjustment period. I want to spend time with him. He wants to spend time with me. At the end of the day, I really want what he feels is best for him, but I feel in my heart it's going to be Northwestern."

Chris Collins worked as a ball boy mopping sweat at Chicago Stadium when his dad was Bulls coach.

Doug Collins was reminiscing after Tuesday's press conference about the crowd cheering when Chris shot 3-pointers before the game, which only made him take a few steps back and shoot another.

That's what helped him become not only a prolific scorer, but a big-time shot maker at Glenbrook North.

Collins said he also learned a lot from Michael Jordan.

"To go to practice every day and see the competitive drive that Michael had, it really made an impression on me at a young age," Collins said. "Everybody saw what he did during the games but they didn't see how [in practice] he won every sprint, he won every drill and he created a culture on those Bulls teams that took them to new heights. That's the kind of culture I want to create. I'm a competitive guy. I'm passionate about what I do and I want to create a culture here of those same qualities."


Here's what Chris Collins had to say about the facilities at Northwestern.

"The last time I was in Welsh-Ryan was 1992. I was a player. I played in the supersectional against Stevenson. The place was packed. You couldn't find a seat in here and it was and unbelievable atmosphere. I know there has been a lot of talk about what we don't have and what we need and all that kind of stuff. My goal for Welsh-Ryan is let's make this a heck of a home court advantage. Let's get these seats packed. I want to get on campus and get the students excited. Let's get people in the building. Let's get everybody wearing purple. Let's see what it's like when we have 8,000 people in here going crazy for Northwestern basketball. To me, it's going to be a homecourt advantage.

"In terms of facilities, I believe in the vision that Dr. Phillips and President Schapiro have. I can already see that the lakefront facility is going to be off the charts. I got a chance to see the site last night. They have the vision to be top notch in athletics and I know it's going to apply to basketball as well. It's my job to find the right guys to come in here and be a part of this and I know as we continue to succeed, we'll continue to make changes and make this the bset place we can make it.

"My goal is to make Welsh-Ryan the best homecourt advantage in the Big Ten. That's not going to be easy. But I come from a place, if you walk into [Duke's] Cameron Indoor Stadium, nobody goes in there and talks about how state of the art it is but you talk about the atmosphere because it's about the people that are in there and their hunger and excitement and that's what we have to build. We've got to get our students, our alumni and our fan base excited about coming in here and supporting us."

Northwestern is considered a challenge for any coach because of stringent academic standards, outdated facilities and a lack of tradition, but none of those factors prevented Chris Collins from considering the job an "ideal fit" for he, his wife Kim and their two young children.

Collins earned a reputation as an elite recruiter while at Duke, and one of his first challenges will be convincing local players to consider Northwestern over out-of-state schools.

"The timing of landing that job is perfect," said Larry Butler, who runs a Chicago-based recruiting service and has known Chris since the early 1990s. "He will he be able to recruit area kids and get them to see the big picture. That was the one area [Bill] Carmody struggled with, getting top elite kids in the area to see that Northwestern can win in the Big Ten, that they can turn the program around."

Butler said the current class of Chicago-area juniors is as deep as any he has seen since 1998. If Collins can land as few as two of them Northwestern could have its best recruiting class in years.

Collins said getting out on the recruiting trail was one of his first priorities.

"People keep making a big thing out of facilities," Butler said. "They may be outdated but it's a high academic school in a great city like Chicago and you've got the Big Ten Conference. That's enough for Chris Collins to sell the program and he's going to do that. He's going to keep guys at home. He has built contacts on the East Coast and in the South. He can get into an elite kid's living room and sell a kid on Northwestern easily."

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was a big supporter of former Northwestern coach Bill Carmody. I asked him how he thought new coach Chris Collins would fit in in the Big Ten.

"It's going to be great," he said. "Chris has gotten tutelage from, arguably, the best.  And when you look at the schools, as far as academically and all that, there are a lot of similarities. And I think Chris is a great fit. It's going to be fun to have him in the Big Ten.

"I loved having Tommy Amaker from Duke in there when he was at Michigan. It all comes down to a couple of things. He's got to get players in there. They've got to make a total commitment to basketball. There are a lot of factors that go into being successful.

"I've been fortunate with what I've had at Michigan State, and I think if you put a good coach in a situation where everybody from the top down is focused in on the same goal, you're going to get it done.

And I think Chris Collins is going to be a good one to get it done. I love Bill Carmody. There are a lot of different reasons.  There are some way better coaches than myself that are being fired. Some of us are being canonized while others are being fired.

I look at some of those guys, they've done a better job than the job I've done. You've got to be lucky in this profession too."

I talked to many players and assistants coaches about Chris Collins during Duke's open locker room session Thursday in Indianapolis. Here are some of the things I learned that did not make it into my 900-word story.

Here's a transcript of my conversation with Duke freshman Alex Murphy:

"He was the assistant here at Duke that recruited me. We have a very close relationship so yesterday was a bittersweet day. Obviously, I'm so happy for him and his family and the opportunity he has but at the same time I'm upset because me and him have a great relationship and it will be tough to see him go."

I asked Alex what made Collins an effective recruiter.

"He played in college. He's always honest. He won't try to get around things. He'll give it to you straight whether it's what you want to hear or not and that's something that's real important in a relationship, especially a relationship with a coach, who is obviously someone you want to be able to trust while you're at a university."

Then I asked what Collins is like during practices and games.

"He's definitely, definitely animated. He's so passionate about what he does that he gets very excited. He'll get on you for sure but he has a unique way of using tough love. He will get on you then minutes later he'll have his arm around you letting you know how great you are and what you've done and what you need to do." 

Quinn Cook said Collins' departure won't impact Duke's preparations for Friday night's game against Michigan State.

"He's still all in with Duke for the season. This is his last run with us. We want him to go to Northwestern with a national championship."

Cook said Collins is ready for a head-coaching job. 

"He has put in the work here. He has put in the time. He deserves a head-coaching job at a big-time school and I'm sure he's ready for it."

I asked Amile Jefferson what makes Collins different. 

"His enthusiasm, the energy he brings every day, his ability to teach us in a unique way. He's showing us where to be. He still plays a lot. It's like having a guy who has been through Coach K's system who is helping mold the younger guys and teach us. He's an amazing coach. I've loved learning from him."

Jefferson is from Philly and was recruited to Duke by Collins. I asked --- again --- what makes him unique as a recruiter.

"Just him becoming personable with you and making you feel comfortable, being really transparent, letting you know the things you need to do to get better, the things you need to work on, when he recruited me I definitely got familiar with him and the program."


Timing is a likely factor in when Northwestern officially announces Chris Collins as the successor to Bill Carmody.

Duke returned back to Durham, N.C., late Sunday night. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski gave Collins permission to interview on Monday in part because Duke players had the day off.

It was back to business Tuesday as the Blue Devils prepared for the regional semifinal game against Michigan State in Indianapolis on Friday night.

Duke is scheduled to travel to Indianapolis on Thursday and practice late Thursday afternoon, which might provide a window for Collins to appear at a press conference in Evanston early Thursday before hustling back to Indy to contribute to Dukes preparations.

If not, and if the Blue Devils continue to advance, the presser might not come until Monday.

Either way, barring an unforeseen setback, it's a matter of "when" and not "if."

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