The message was clear: basketball can serve as a unifying force. You can forget the difficulty of situations, if only for a brief moment. With the entire staff there for support, that day was moving. And so was Tuesday morning in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Sure, there were some interesting questions posed in the approximately half-hour long press conference. Collins addressed his general and fairly on-point pitch to prospective recruits. The former Duke associate head coach spoke of this being the perfect "fit" and opportunity. And he insisted that this process means more than one tournament appearance. To him, it's about building a nationally respected program in the long run.
Yet I kept looking to the audience, and to those outside of the midcourt media gathering. In the Welsh-Ryan seats left vacant by the middle of the season, more than 100 people close to the program sat in support of their new head coach. Most of the football staff – including Pat Fitzgerald and Adam Cushing – was in attendance. NU softball coach Kate Drohan soaked it in.
Chris Collins triggered an outpouring of support from the NU fan base, which grew disillusioned after so many season that came up just short. You often wondered whether the "fan base" really existed here. Tens and not hundreds of students attended the midseason win against then-No. 12 Minnesota. There was some undefined need for "change," which must have partially driven Phillips to make the switch despite the shocking number of injuries this year's team suffered.
Objectively speaking, this change revitalized fans. They came into view. They blew up social media with the somehow successful "B1GCATS" hashtag and voiced immediate support. Even those in dissent and those who supported Bill Carmody could understand the purpose of this coaching search. The unspoken – or vaguely defined – rule was to build support in Evanston. The media observed this, of course. Collins news topped the Chicago Tribune home page on Tuesday. The Daily Northwestern captured the overwhelming feeling on campus: Collins can make basketball exciting again.
We don't know whether Chris Collins will succeed in Evanston. His profile fits the ideal candidate as outlined by Phillips in his emotional press conference following the Carmody dismissal. But this job, as someone articulately pointed out to me, can "eat you alive." Collins has never witnessed such strict academic limitations to recruiting. He'll roll into the 2014 conference schedule with perhaps the least talented roster. This celebratory introduction is, really, the easiest part.
Phillips and Collins met at Parker Executive Search in Atlanta last Monday. They reached some tentative agreement later that evening. And despite its complete lack of drama, the search generated extreme amounts of hype in these parts. It was an inverse reaction. Would the community have reacted similarly to Dave Paulsen or John Giannini? No. Fact. The high-profile assistant and local boy returned home and it all made sense.
Collins encountered open arms in Atlanta and in Evanston. He arrives to face the re-energized community, one that will – at first – slide into the seats for some sport other than football. We, at some point, will shut up about the facilities and watch basketball. Collins thinks he can win here, regardless of the limitations. And it seems like we believe him.
We can rave about Phillips, the unquestioned "man" of this search. But the community defines its overall response. NU fans united behind the first-time head coach on Tuesday. They spent 30 fairly dull minutes (most press conferences are) demonstrating their support. So many others jumped on Twitter and message boards to do the same. It formed this cathartic reaction, as the Chris Collins era began in emotional fashion.
The Northwestern community has rallied behind Chris Collins. The new era dawned on Tuesday, and there was already a lot to cheer for.