Northwestern’s Chris Collins Forging His Own Legacy

    Northwestern's Chris Collins grew up with a coach, played for one of the best teachers at Duke in Mike Krzyzewski and learned under him as an assistant. Now, he's just trying to leave his own mark.

    February 8, 2017

    Northwestern’s Chris Collins grew up with a coach, played at Duke and learned under Mike Krzyzewski as an assistant. Now, he’s working to leave his own mark on college basketball.


    Chris Collins grew up in suburban Chicago with a last name tied to the Bulls and a young Michael Jordan. His father, Doug, coached Jordan from 1986-89 and helped a once-dormant franchise through a revival before it reached its full potential under Phil Jackson.

    Doug Collins coached in the NBA for three other teams and was a television analyst as well. All that after being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 NBA Draft out of Illinois State and making three All-Star teams as a player.

    That was quite a legacy for Chris to follow, but he never let the pressure get to him. He started at Glenbrook North High School, won Illinois’ Mr. Basketball Award and was a McDonald’s All-American before heading to Duke to play for Mike Krzyzewski, himself a Chicago native.

    Now Collins is in his fourth season coaching Chicago’s Big Ten Team. He is slowly moving out from the shadows cast by his famous father, and even more recognized mentor, in his first opportunity to guide his own program. Such is the result of Collins’ success, as Northwestern pushes toward its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.

    The Wildcats’ enfeebled history initially weighed on Collins, and leaving Duke, where he served for 13 years as an assistant under Krzyzewski, for Evanston provided an extreme culture shock despite him returning to a familiar place.

    Northwestern head coach Chris Collins. Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    “Well, it was a little bit scary, there’s no question. You look at a situation that hasn’t had success in a long time and you wonder if it’s possible,” Collins told Campus Insiders. “For me, though, growing up in this area, knowing what this school is about, seeing the positives of being in the Big Ten, being in Chicago, and the ability to do something that hasn’t been done, was also incredible exciting.”

    The Bulls were coming off a 30-52 season when his father took the job, and he had them in the Eastern Conference Finals by his third and final year in Chicago. Krzyzewski missed the NCAA Tournament in his first three seasons at Duke and has become arguably college basketball’s greatest coach while winning five national championships.

    Granted, Northwestern’s history is much more bleak and has presented deeper challenges than Doug Collins or Coach K ever faced. But their lessons of overcoming adversity helped Chris Collins fight through a pair of losing seasons before guiding the Wildcats to 20 victories in his third season.

    The upward trajectory has continued this year with an influx of talent rarely – if ever – seen in Evanston. Thanks to Collins, his staff, and their recruiting efforts, Northwestern no longer is a Big Ten doormat.

    “(My father) had an opportunity at four different franchises in the NBA, and every situation he took over was a situation that was struggling, that needed a new culture, that needed a new mindset,” Collins said. “More so than specific to Xs and Os, he’s been a great resource in that regard. How do you build that belief? How do gain that excitement and create a culture of work and success? And, for that, he’s been an outstanding resource for me throughout these four years.”

    It was natural coming from such a long line of coaching for Collins to emulate the successful traits he learned when he arrived at Northwestern. Duke won two national championships and went to the Final Four three times during his tenure as an assistant. He also played in a national title game when he wore the uniform.

    Krzyzewski presided over all of it while passing some of that wisdom to Collins. But taking over a Northwestern program long-accustomed to losing provided a different set of circumstances, and it was up to Collins to instill his own ideals. And while Krzyzewski has undoubtedly been an influence, Collins has developed into a quality coach on his own.

    “The best advice he (Krzyzewski) gave me before I came here was, ‘You know what? Don’t try to be me. You’re ready for this, you’ve learned from me, you’ve been around your dad, you’ve been around a lot of great coaches, go be you. Put your own imprint on that program, follow your own heart, follow your own instincts.’ And that’s what I’ve really tried to do.”

    Success will ultimately define Collins’ tenure at Northwestern because – let’s be clear – he was brought in to win games and turn the program around. He’s certainly on the right track, and the Wildcats’ first NCAA Tournament berth would provide a huge boost moving forward.

    And for someone so accustomed to winning, Collins won’t settle there. That’s not how he was taught.

    “The end game is much bigger than that, but you have to go through certain steps along the way. The first step is to be invited to that party.”

    MORE: Livin’ B1G – What’s Happ-ening?

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