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TELANDER: At Northwestern, Collins can create a throne all his own

Chris Collins gives radio interview bench after being named new men's basketball head coach Northwestern University after news conference Tuesday

Chris Collins gives a radio interview on the bench after being named the new men's basketball head coach at Northwestern University after a news conference Tuesday, April 2, 2013 in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Updated: April 2, 2013 11:46PM



‘I’m a basketball junkie,’’ Chris Collins said Tuesday, his first official day as Northwestern’s basketball coach.

I can vouch for that junkie-dom.

I remember when little Chris was running around at the Multiplex gym in Deerfield, where his dad coached the Bulls, playing against mean old lunch-timers like me and my pals Ed Murphy, Mark Chrislip and Dave Mills, and periodically little Chris would get his little lunch handed to him on a tray.

But the kid always came back against the big, hairy gang, and he always was cocky-confident. He developed a three-pointer and a handle, and he started to grow. And before we all knew it, he was a McDonald’s All-American and a star at Duke. But his gym-rat bona fides are legit. Trust me.

And that will serve him well at Northwestern, where he takes over a program that is so unfulfilled that it makes the Cubs’ World Series yearning seem mundane. The Cubs have won the crown, remember, even if it was 104-plus years ago.

But NU never even has been invited to the NCAA Big Dance. Never put on the bowtie and cummerbund. Not in 74 years.

That, my friends, is pitiful. And very hard to do.

So Collins, 38, comes off the assistant coaching bench at Duke and has been granted his first head coaching job at a university thirsty for success. The job is a dandy. And I mean that. It is a dream job for so many reasons.

Listen up.

Would you want to, for instance, follow Mike Krzyzewski at ever-so-successful Duke? Would you want to be Luke the Evangelist following Jesus? Don’t think so. Not if your own legacy is important to you.

As Collins properly said at the news conference at old McGaw Hall, ‘‘I always wanted to go somewhere where I could build my own program, blaze my own trail.’’

Amen to that. And what a trail he can blaze with the Wildcats!

I mean, how hard is it to follow Bill Carmody? Who followed Kevin O’Neill, who followed Ricky Byrdsong, who followed Bill Foster, who followed Rich Falk, who followed Casper the Friendly Ghost. (Joke there.)

None of those men, nobody until you get all the way back to Arthur Lonborg (1927-50), even had a .500 record. And nobody going back to Tom Robinson (who?), 1918-19, had a .500 record in the Big Ten. NU’s conference record, lifetime, is 469-1,004. Win one, lose two. It’s called the Wildcat Shuffle.

So young Collins shouldn’t screw this up. The Big Ten is an eggbeater, but simply finishing sixth or seventh — sometimes even eighth — will get you into the tournament.

He already has sat at the right hand of Coach K, and Duke probably is the school closest to NU in its totality, along with Stanford, Vanderbilt and perhaps Rice. You can’t be a total dummy and play at any of those schools. They are all small, private, expensive, with high academic standards.

Years ago, Coach K called me and wondered if I could help get his disciple Tommy Amaker the head job at NU. I told him I had as much power there as a lagoon carp, and why in the hell would a first-time rising-star coach such as Amaker want the hideous job, anyway?

‘‘It’s the only one he wants,’’ Saint K said.

You see, Amaker grasped the nation-building possibilities at NU. Of course, he didn’t get the job. Athletic director Rick Taylor wanted none of that. He preferred foul-mouthed, 9-39-in-the-Big Ten, vagabond coach O’Neill.

Fine. But here’s the deal, and I think young Collins gets it: NU is a gem waiting to be polished.

All those negatives about the school — the little gym, the tough classes, the lack of an inspiring history, the retro facilities, the high cost, the nearness to huge Chicago — every one of those is a positive if you stand it on its head.

My God, if, in this tough job world, a four-year scholarship worth a quarter-million dollars doesn’t resonate brightly in your little high school brain, then you are a fool. If you don’t want to learn something in life, shame on you. If you don’t think NU’s lakeshore campus is beautiful, wake up. If you don’t think it’s cooler to be in Evanston than, say, West Lafayette or State College, what’s your problem? If you don’t like the small, old gym, remember you only need one court to play on.

And make that court your home, your snake pit. Call it the ‘‘Cat House’’ and eat other teams like mice. Ray Meyer once told me he believed DePaul’s tiny Alumni Hall was worth seven points a game for his team. What a gift.

Wake up, NU! Wake up, local star hoopsters! You’d better start considering Northwestern.

And junkie Chris, it’s time to show them why.

Get it on, young man.



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