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Chris Collins a strong choice as NU’s coach, but challenges remain

Mike Krzyzewski Chris Collins

Mike Krzyzewski, Chris Collins

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Let’s give Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips credit. Chris Collins is an interesting hire from several standpoints. He’s a good face for the Wildcats’ program, and he has paid his dues.

Chicago roots. Duke pedigree. If the acorn hasn’t fallen far from the Doug Collins tree, this might be just what NU needs.

This is a young man who should be able to recruit nearby turf, particularly the Chicago suburbs. He also will know how to find players, wherever they are, after being a part of Duke’s broad-reach approach. Having learned from Mike Krzyzewski, he’ll know all the facets and details of major-college coaching.

And simply by taking the job, Collins has signaled that he’s ambitious and a risk-taker. Those are both good things that will be needed — big time.

Coaching NU basketball is a job that tries men’s souls. After all, the Wildcats don’t merely have a Cubs-like monkey on their back. While the Cubs haven’t been to a World Series since 1945, NU never has been to an NCAA tournament.

With the Cubs, you shake your head and wonder why. With the Wildcats, you tick off the myriad reasons why the drought is understandable: the least attractive arena in the Big Ten, bottom-feeder practice facilities, tough academic admissions standards, no tradition to sell. For starters.

Can you name the last NU basketball coach who got the job done? There might not be one since the game stopped having a center jump after made baskets.

Bill Carmody gave it a good go. His clever Princeton offense made players who would have had a hard time getting off the bench at any other Big Ten school competitive.

A mind-boggling series of injuries kept Carmody from making a serious stab at the NCAA tournament. As good a coach as he was, as good a person as he was, it’s understandable the Wildcats wanted to make a change. NU needs to get people excited about hoops again, and that wasn’t going to happen on Carmody’s watch.

But after the initial excitement fades, Collins will be in the same boat. It will be about winning, which is a tall order in the Big Ten these days. Every school has a really top-notch coach who’s right for his program. At most, only two or three others don’t have a big facilities advantage over the Wildcats.

When Carmody and Tubby Smith, two accomplished veterans who know their stuff, get cashiered, you know the Big Ten is a supreme test these days.

If I were Phillips, I would have gone for someone who already had been successful as a head coach because turning around NU is such a stern test. On the other hand, that kind of coach wouldn’t be easy to lure to Evanston. And Collins is a really strong choice. It’s surprising he didn’t prefer other choices.

This is a risk for Collins, too. If he struggles in Evanston, his career options will be limited.

On the other hand, coaches never think that way. And if he turns around the Wildcats, he really will have accomplished something.

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