One on one with Chris Collins

We continue our Duke Alumni Series with a sit-down interview with former player and associate head coach, Chris Collins. Collins left Duke in March of 2013 to take the head coaching job at Northwestern and has posted a 29-36 overall record in two seasons. We sat down with Collins this summer to discuss his time at Duke, the blueprint for the Wildcat program, and much more.

Let’s start with your current team, what’s the transition to Northwestern been like?

Chris Collins:  It’s been a great experience. It’s like anything when you play or when you are an assistant coach and now you are a head coach, you can’t really fully know what to expect until you are thrown into that fire and are faced with making the decisions and running a program and all those things. I feel like I’ve learned a lot in these two years of running the program, I’m excited about the trajectory of where our program is at, we feel we’ve improved in every year with the way we do things and our talent. We’re excited for the future and it’s been a great place for me, I loved Duke so much and I loved everything that Duke represented, I always wanted that if I had an opportunity to go somewhere else and be a head coach to go somewhere that I felt I could have those feelings about that I did Duke. I feel like Northwestern carries that same standard of excellence that Duke does in all areas and with the same type of kids, so it’s been fun to kinda have an extended part of what I had at Duke for so long. 

When thinking of the actual transition, what was it like coming from Duke for so long to a new challenge?

I think the thing that right away was knowing that I had been blessed for so long being at Duke. Even when I came in as a player at Duke, I came into a team that had won back-to-back National Championships, so the culture there was such a winning environment with everything that was done there. It was such a winning culture and I think the thing that I don’t think you take it for granted, but I think when you get outside of that and you go somewhere else and you kinda have to start over, you really realize how good you had it with everything. Not that I didn’t realize that, but until you are in it and you realize how much work needs to be done to get to that level, I think that was the biggest adjustment and also understanding it’s not a quick fix, things take time to build and develop and in a lot of regards, when you lay a foundation towards building a program, the last thing that comes about are the wins and losses. A lot of times during these first two years I look back and I remember that Coach K had his difficulties those first few years but he was building it the right way and bringing in the right guys, but it took three years to really turn the corner in terms of wins and losses. I know we are on the right track, I feel great about where everything is headed and hopefully that will manifest itself in the win column as we go forward here. 

Let’s look at the short term vision from these past two years for you versus the long-term vision for the program.  How do those compare and contrast?

Well, for me I pride myself on being a very competitive person. So even though our roster was a little bit depleted in terms of numbers with the amount of guys we had starting out, I always come in whether when I played or coached, I always feel like that I can be successful with no matter what I have. So that’s just been my attitude and I think it’s helped me be successful in different areas. I didn’t come into this situation saying we’re going to lose for three years or lose for a year.  No, you come in expecting to win and hopefully bringing that belief to the guys you are coaching. I wanted to win in the short term but I also didn’t want to sacrifice any of the long-term success for the short term if that makes sense. I knew it wasn’t a quick fix, I knew we were the type of program that we were going to have to get a number of young players in here and develop them. I looked at programs like with what Tony Bennett has done at Virginia and what Mike Brey has done at Notre Dame with two really good schools in tough academic leagues. If you look at those teams, they took their lumps early, but they got some young guys in early and when those guys become older guys, they were ready to win and then once that first wave of guys started winning. I’ve kinda used that as a sort of blueprint with some of those things that those guys have done along with some others. To me, we have great potential as a basketball program, and I don’t think there’s any reason why we can’t compete at the highest level and be a program that is postseason caliber each and every year. Certainly we’re not there yet and we have a lot of work to do to get to that point. 

Was there a big difference for you in terms of recruiting to your current conference versus how you recruited to the ACC?

I think the difference at Duke, certainly when I was coaching at Duke the numbers of guys we recruited, we really tried to identify the guys whose talent and who they were fit us. That included character wise we were looking for guys that fit what we were trying to do.  Maybe we didn’t recruit as many guys every year but the intensity we recruit is the same, it’s still relationship building but I think the situation I was in here, we had to recruit more and widen our net a little bit and try to really dig down and see what guys could really help us build our program.  What I’ve tried to do is build from out of closeness and then try to stretch our range outward as we’ve improved. 

We’re fortunate to be in a state and a city that produces a lot of good players and a lot of good kids. We’ve been able now that for a few years almost half of our roster is from the state of Illinois by next year. It’s been important to me to build this thing with local talent and also I feel that the Midwest has a number of good players and I feel like a lot of the Midwest players grow up wanting to be in the Big 10 because that’s the league they grew up watching. So I think we have a unique niche to us, a lot of the Big 10 schools are these huge mammoth programs that have 30, 40, and 50 thousand students.  For us, we’re a small private school in Chicago and I think we’re a different sell, a different niche from a lot of programs in our league. We can use that to our advantage.

So when you are on the road recruiting now and meeting with kids and their families, how much are you talking with them about Northwestern and what you are trying to build there versus the experiences you gained while coaching at Duke? 

I think it’s a combination of both. For me coming in here, we don’t have a ton of tradition to draw on. There’s been some good teams and some good players, but overall initially when I got here, I had to sell myself a lot and where I’ve come from, what I’ve done, what I’ve been a part of.  Hopefully as we continue to build I can get away from that more and focus more on what we’ve done here. We’re still early in those stages, there’s no question that I’ve had to kinda be at the forefront of selling the things I’ve been able to with fortunately being able to be around Coach K and my dad, Duke and USA Basketball and all of those things have helped us open the door a little bit in recruiting. 

Hopefully the guys that we are looking at want to be a part of the build and be wired a certain wire like I was wired a certain way which is why I took this challenge on. I want to try and build something great here and I’m passionate about it, but I can’t do it alone. I have to have a group of players that have those same goals and who have that same passion that I do to build this. That’s certainly something I talk a lot about with these guys as well and being a part of something that’s never been done. You look at all the great programs out there, the Duke’s, the North Carolina’s, all of those programs at some point had to have someone be first and the guys that are a part of that first are always going to be revered and admired because they were ones that believed and made it happen when people maybe didn’t necessarily think it could be done. 

Let’s talk this year’s team, who do you see being your go-to guys?

Well fortunately for us we return all five starters and seven of our top eight scorers. So that’s a lot of continuity returning and we have two rising seniors that were both honorable mention all Big 10 last year. Then we have our 7-foot center Alex Olah who has developed into one of the top centers in our conference. So as a senior with his experience, we’re hoping he can be that again this year as our anchor in the middle. We also have a really good scoring guard in Tre Demps whose father Dell Demps is the General Manager of the New Orleans Pelicans. He was our leading scorer last year and he’s going to be a senior as well. He was our go-to guy, he won a number of games for us last year with last minute shots down the stretch. He’s been a real clutch guy for us and I think he’s poised to have a great year as well. Then we have a rising sophomore point guard named Bryant McIntosh who last year was an all-Big 10 freshman selection and one of the top five freshman in our conference. He was a starter for us from Day 1 at the point guard position and we expect great things from a potential all-League player down the road with him. I think those 3 are kinda the core that we have coming back and we have a number of young players that had the opportunity to play a lot of minutes who hopefully make big jumps from the experience they got last year. 

Do you have a specific development regiment for your guys on and off the court? 

For sure, that’s where it starts. In order to eventually be a program that’s at the highest levels, you don’t just win by accident, you win by preparation and by day to day belief in a culture of winning. So it starts with how you practice, how you lift weights, do guys do extra things on their own? Are they coming in at night and shooting, or running extra?  How important is it to these guys to be really good?  We ask that of each player. We tell them that doing the bare minimum isn’t enough and fortunately we’ve got a group of guys who have really grown these past couple of years. They are improving the intensity and the way that we approach practices and workouts and the time we spend. We’re on the right track with all of that stuff and hopefully it’s time for us in year three, we gotta carry that into year four and be tough enough to win when it matters. 

Last year we had a ten game losing streak at the beginning of our conference slate and five or six of those games were literally last second losses against high level competition like at Michigan State, at Michigan, home against Ohio State and Illinois, at Maryland where we’re winning by 11 points with 3 minutes to go and we lose at the buzzer. So to me that’s a bridge that we have to cross and learn how to win tough games and learn how to come together as a group and figure out the way to win when it matters the most. I’m really excited about the trajectory that we’re on as a program. 

Being around Coach K for so long, what were some of the major experiences or lessons you learned from him?

Well I think it’s a great question. More than anything, the first thing is just being myself. I’ve been really fortunate throughout all my life to be around great coaches and have had a lot of great mentors. I started my coaching career under Tommy Amaker, I grew up around my dad who is as bright a mind as they come in coaching and teaching. My first coaching job was with Tommy Amaker who was a great mentor of mine, somebody that I’ve admired and learned a lot from. Then to be with Coach K for 13 years, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t find myself thinking of things that I’ve learned from him that I try to bring to my team. The thing that Coach K always told me was when you go and you have your own team you have to be true to yourself. You have to bring what you bring, you have to put your own personality on things, you have to have your own philosophies and you have to put your own spin on it. That’s something I’ve really taken to heart and it’s really helped me. 

The other thing that I learned from Coach K more than anything was the ability to be flexible. I think a lot of times coaches, you get so stubborn with this is the type of team that we have to have, these are the types of things we have to do and sometimes that’s not what’s best for the team you have. There’s so many examples from the time that I was at Duke where we kinda reinvented ourselves year to year or even within a year because that was what was best for that particular team. That’s something I’ve learned from him is always being open minded to change and to being flexible with the things that you might need to do to get the most out of your team. 

We spoke with Coach Amaker for this series a little while ago and I’ll ask you something I asked him about being an assistant coach and being ready to take on a head coaching role. When do you think that desire began to resonate with you?

I think I was in such a great position because a lot of times when you an assistant coach, you are so antsy because you think you are ready, you are so antsy to get that opportunity. For me, the thing that I was so blessed about and so fortunate with was with Wojo and I and Johnny (Dawkins), Coach gave us so many head coaching responsibilities while we were coaching there, we had such a big voice into everything that was done with game preparation, practices, he wanted us to speak to the team before games and during team meetings. I never felt like I was being held back from coaching and having a voice and obviously, he had a lot of things with media and whatnot to help train us.  Just like he was developing players, he was developing us as coaches. I felt so fortunate and happy and lucky to be in a job that I felt I could do everything in. Even though I wanted to be a head coach and I felt I was ready, I never…I was really just happy where I was and with what I was doing. 

As we got into having the opportunity when I was able to be with Coach K with the Olympic stuff and USA Basketball, he entrusted Wojo and I with some responsibilities with the very best of the best. The way those guys embraced me when I was coaching them out there on the floor, they were listening, they were giving me respect and I think it just kinda showed me right there that maybe inherently I was ready for this. A big part of my growth as a coach was not only being at Duke, but also the things that I was able to do for eight years with USA Basketball.  

Did the USA Basketball opportunities come about for you because Coach K asked you to be a part of that, or was it more something you asked him if you could be a part of ?

I remember, the time that I was the most nervous. One of the first practices that we ever had with USA Basketball, this had to be around 2007, we had a big mini-camp out in Vegas and Wojo and I were kinda the guys out there doing the drills because we were younger and could move around and we were the guys that could get into the defensive drills and those types of things.  On one of those first days, Coach K in front of all the NBA GM’s that are there,  and all the coaches, I remember him saying to me in planning practice and calling out that for 40 straight minutes, that I was going to be in charge on one end of the floor with all the perimeter players.  So that sounded great when he said it, but when we got to the gym and he called out, he started calling out the names that were going to be on my end and I think I kinda knew, but when I heard all the names being called out in succession, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Jason Kidd, he starts rattling off all those names and he sends them down to my end and basically said “You have them for the next 40 minutes”….well, you found out a lot about yourself.  Like how confident are you, are you ready to coach the very, very best and command their respect and to be confident in what you are teaching and what you are doing. To me that was a big breakthrough for me as a coach because to be able to do that and take that on, I told myself that if I could take that on, I could do anything.

Aside from that experience—are there any memorable experiences or memories you still remember from being a part of USA Basketball?

Yeah for sure. For us it’s great, we’ve had Coach K, but there are different ways to skin a cat with coaching basketball. There’s different philosophies, different approaches to teaching and I would just pinch myself all the time. Almost every day it would be like a coaching clinic for me. Every day Wojo and I would have a pad of paper and we’d be sitting there with Jerry Colangelo who was sitting there saying things as one of the godfathers of NBA basketball, then you’ve got Jim Boeheim who is in the Hall of Fame. Then we’d have Mike D’Antoni and Nate McMillan and Tom Thibodeau and Monty Williams and all these guys and Coach K and you are sitting there and the very best of the best are talking about their philosophies with the way they teach offense and defense. I just had notes and notes and I found myself just learning so many different things about the game. I think that’s something I always learned from Coach K because he’s the greatest coach of all time and he sits in those meetings and he takes notes. I’m saying to myself, “OK, you’ve got the guy who is the best who has ever done it and he feels like he still has a lot to learn and I’m an idiot if I think I have all the answers”. It was just an amazing opportunity for me for the 8 years to learn about the game from so many great coaches.

Let me follow up on that, how much change have you seen either from that or other experiences in how you approach the day to day aspects of coaching and running a program?

I think inherently a lot of things I do I got from Coach because it was a great formula and it was very successful. Again there’s been many things that I’ve taken from him in running the program but there’s other things that I’ve put my own spin on how I do things. The one thing Coach was so big on was he always so flexible, so he might come into a meeting and he’d have a plan and then we’d talk about it and he may scrap it or change it. That’s something I’ve tried to take with me and utilize the talents and abilities of my staff around me who have ideas and then talking them out and figuring out what’s going to be the best option. There’s no question that there’s not a day that goes by with a situation that I go through on or off the floor that I don’t think back to something I learned in my around almost 20 years at Duke as a player and a coach. I find myself asking what would Coach do in this situation and if I’m unsure, I just call him. That’s another great thing, even though I’ve been gone for a little while, he’s still there for me and I can go to him with different situations and seek his advice and thoughts. 

How much feedback did Coach K give you during your process of interviewing and ultimately being hired as the Northwestern head coach?

He thought from day one that it was the perfect fit for me. Knowing my personality and knowing what Northwestern was and it’s potential as a program with what it could be, he’s from Chicago too so he knows a little bit more about this school since he’s from this area. So he was one of the ones who was really behind me going after this and he thought it’d be a perfect place for me to come and build a program and settle down and raise my family. He was great through that whole process and the moment this job opened up he was all about it for me. 

What’s it like for you seeing former teammates and others have their opportunities to run their own programs now?

It’s awesome, and I’m so happy for Steve. Most importantly I’ll tell you, Steve and I were like brothers. We worked together for 13 years there at Duke and so much with him coming in the year before me at Duke but we were together, but for 13 years we were together coaching there and it almost felt like, Chris and Wojo, we were the two-headed monster under Coach and we took a lot on. We really complemented each other with our strengths and weaknesses and we were a great team and he was someone who was very close to me. I knew he would do great and when he got the job at Marquette, it’s been awesome to see him build the Marquette program in his way and the best thing about it was when we lived in Durham, we lived four houses apart and our wives are best friends. So the fact that Milwaukee is only about an hour drive from here has made our wives happy because they can still see each other.

With so many former Blue Devils coaching, is there a lot of communication between everyone?

Oh yeah, sure. We’re one of the few programs that makes it so special with that. There’s such a big generation of players that are bonded together by Coach K.  There’s 40 years of guys who are all bonded by having played for the same coach, so even if we’re closer with some guys more than others, we carry that Duke bond because we all carry so much pride in not only the Duke bond.  Then there’s the Coach K bond. We lean on each other a lot. I’m very close with Johnny (Dawkins) of course and Tommy Amaker. Coach Brey was a coach of mine at Duke and he’s a close friend and obviously Wojo. The guys who are at Duke now are all guys that I either worked with or coached. Jeff and I were backcourt mates and we’re still friends and Jon Scheyer, we are brothers since we went to the same high school and I’ve known him since he was like five years old, so he’s like a part of the family. Nate I coached and coached with so the Duke bond is special, there’s a pride we all have and feel and we look out for each other. That’s something I’m happy about. 

You and Wojo were responsible for helping to recruit a ton of talented guys to Duke in your times as coaches.  Were there any recruiting wins that you kind of hang your hat on?

Well, there’s certain guys.  I don’t know who the biggest one was, but we were certainly appreciative of the opportunity to recruit so many great players to Duke.  The one thing that was so good and I realized it was great but maybe not fully until I left was the dynamic that Wojo and I had together with that. It was always a team effort with us, so even on a specific kid if I was doing more of the work with him or vice versa with him, we always, it was never this is your guy or this is my guy, it was always about making Duke better and it was about us getting the guy.  We had such a great dynamic and certainly during my time there to be able to coach the level of guys was great. 

I look back through the evolution of a guy like JJ Redick that I recruited when I got the Duke job. To see what he has become is great for me to watch. The dynamic for me with Jon Scheyer is special as well with him and I going to the same high school and kinda mirroring each other’s careers.  And with him breaking a lot of my records was great. He’s been like a little brother to me and for me to be a part of his journey and for us to win a National Championship together in being from the same place, that’s actually a picture I have up on my wall that I look at every day is me and him hugging after winning the National Title. That was something that was very special to me. 

Then obviously Kyrie Irving…the talent that he was, to be able to even coach him for just a few games—to be able to have him be a part of our program was great. Then another special guy I had the privilege to get to know was Luol Deng and his background and what he went through as a political asylum person and going to Egypt and London and knowing his family, to see him become the pro that he’s been able to become and to be able to make it the way that he did, those are just a few of the examples of guys that have meant a lot to me to be a part of my life and theirs. 

You got your coaching start at Duke the year that they won a National Championship—what was that transition like for you with being new to the staff and being on the bench for a National Championship?

It was amazing for me. We had such a great team, I walked into one of the best teams of all time at Duke with Shane Battier, Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer, Nate James,  and Chris Duhon.  That was as good a team as has ever played at Duke.  For me coming in as a young assistant coach and getting to coach those guys at that level, and to win that ring….man, I still have that heartbreak from not winning that ring in 94 against Arkansas.  They won on that rainbow three by Scotty Thurman, so you never lose that pain of not getting one as a player.  So to come back and be a part of a team that won one my first year as a coach on the Duke staff and doing it with those guys was just so special.

Speaking of your playing career, you came in right behind guys like Grant Hill and Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley but your teams dealt with some adversity.  How did you handle that?

Really it was, even though it was a low point and probably one of the toughest things I ever he went through, it was also the best thing I ever went through and the way I came out of it was helpful. Things had always gone well for me up until that point.  I was an accomplish high school player and never really hit any road bumps. I came to Duke on the heels of back-to-back National Championships and I played on great teams my first two years.  My sophomore year we went to a National Championship game and everything was going great, I was a starter and a double digit scorer. 

Then going into my junior year, everything kinda came to a halt. 

The very first day of practice I broke my foot. Then I come back and Coach K gets sick and has to step down and then our season just unraveled. I was never really fully healthy.  And with Coach being gone, it was just a really trying year. It was the worst year I played as a player.  You make excuses, and you blame others, but you learn a lot about yourself and how you persevere through those things.  One of things I’m most proud of is how we bounced back from all of that and during my senior year with a team that with Duke standards.  Coach K laughs about it, but he’ll say that was the least talented team he ever coached in 96 and for me as a senior to come back and to be able to lead that team back to the NCAA Tournament with everything we went through my junior year, that’s one of the most proudest moments of my life. Even though we didn’t go to a Final 4 that year, for that team to go to the Tournament, that was a huge win for us and it got Duke back on track to being the Duke that we all knew and loved. So to be a part of that and to kinda be a leader on that team was something I take a lot of pride in and it’s a year I learned a lot from and it did a lot for me being the man that I’m today was going through those hard times and through those struggles. 

The year Coach K was out, how did the team adjust?

It was tough because really and our assistants were great with Coach Brey and Coach Amaker and Coach Gaudet. They were great, we respected those guys and we were trying, but to us, Coach K, he was the guy that gave us our strength. If you ever were in a tough spot, you could always look to him on the sideline and he’d give you that look and you’d feel better because you knew he was on your side. If you look back on that year, even though our record was terrible, almost every game we played went down to the last four minutes. We just couldn’t win and I felt like that the Coach K factor.  When it came time to be tough and to make winning plays, we just couldn’t do it and then we started pointing fingers, I mean all of us. I’ll be the first one to admit, I didn’t handle that well.  None of us did.  We got rattled and it was tough. We all had to look inside ourselves and figure it out and we wanted to move forward, which is why I was so proud of the following year because we got better from it and it turned out that we were all together and we got it back to where it was supposed to be.

In closing, you’ve been a part of Coach K’s legacy with over a 1000 wins, what does it mean to you to be part of that?

Well, and you see it more and more, but we’re not going to fully appreciate it which is sad.  We’re not going to fully appreciate it until it’s all over.  We’re going to look back and we’re going to say “Wow, look at what we were a part of, and look at what Coach K did”. That’s something that’s never going to be done again, not only with what he did, but how he did it. For me to have him, the way he’s impacted my life not just as a coach, but also as a friend and a mentor, there’s so many times he’s been there for me beyond basketball with my family, things with my kids. I know it goes far beyond me playing for him, or me working for him and our relationship is at a level that goes way beyond that. For me to have been a part of his journey for the 17 years that I was as a player and an assistant coach, to help any way I could, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t pinch myself for knowing how lucky I was to be a part of his legacy and for all the things he taught me through the years. He’s the best and I know that there’s never going to be another Coach K, so the fact that I got a chance to be a part of his greatness is really a blessing.

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