Northwestern’s Chris Collins on last season — was he really in danger? — and the future

“There’s still a lot of things out there that we can shoot for,” Collins said, “that we can work toward.”

SHARE Northwestern’s Chris Collins on last season — was he really in danger? — and the future
Northwestern’s Chris Collins celebrates after a 64-62 win against Indiana at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Northwestern’s Chris Collins celebrates after a 64-62 win against Indiana at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There’s unplugging from basketball, then there’s missing the Final Four. The latter was a bridge too far for Northwestern coach Chris Collins.

‘‘No way I missed that,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m too much of a junkie.’’

But Collins wasn’t rubbing elbows with colleagues when UConn cut down the nets early last month in Houston. Instead, he watched from a sweet little spot in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, while vacationing with his wife and teenage daughter and still decompressing after the best — and most pressure-filled — season of his career.

‘‘I turned everything off the best that I could,’’ he said.

He already had received every assurance that Northwestern wanted him back, not that there had been much — or any — doubt left about that after the Wildcats went 23-12, tied for second place in the Big Ten and went to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history, with Collins in the running for national coach of the year. A three-year contract extension that will keep Collins in purple through the 2027-28 season — his 15th in Evanston — became official Tuesday.

In the early weeks of last season, though, Collins was under the gun like he hadn’t been before. Five consecutive Wildcats teams had finished with losing records since the NCAA Tournament breakthrough of 2017, and — though most outside predictions were for that streak to continue — Collins knew he had to deliver. But would a winning record suffice? Or was it Big Dance or bust? That, he didn’t know.

‘‘But I had thoughts that this could be the last year,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s no question about that.’’

A statement put out by athletic director Derrick Gragg after the 2021-22 season expressed ‘‘disappointment’’ in the program but was not specific about the implications beyond tasking Collins with ‘‘making necessary changes to build toward success’’ in 2022-23. The media narrative throughout last season nevertheless was that Collins was coaching for his job, but Collins maintains he never was given a mandate by Gragg or the administration.

‘‘I think because of that statement, [there] became the perception that it was, like, a win-or-else type of deal, but that was never told to me directly,’’ Collins said. ‘‘I think, inherently, I knew we needed to show progress, but what that meant — the tournament? — I can’t answer that question. But I do know that it was a big year for us as a staff and as a program.’’

The overall performance from Collins, his staff and his team more than delivered as the Wildcats — without two key former starters, Pete Nance and Ryan Young, who had transferred to North Carolina and Duke, respectively — coalesced and kept getting stronger. Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Rutgers lost to the Wildcats on their home floors. No. 1 Purdue fell at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Super Bowl Sunday. The Wildcats were so effective defensively that top scorers Boo Buie and Chase Audige didn’t have to go off at the offensive end to keep the team in games. It was a recipe for more success than any of them had imagined.

But what now? Is another drop-off coming? Might it be, to some degree, inevitable at a place such as Northwestern, where ‘‘underdog’’ is the default setting? It happened even after the 2017 team returned four of five starters. It has happened — really good one year, really bad the next — a few times in coach Pat Fitzgerald’s football program.

Much of it seemingly is tied to guards Buie and Audige, each of whom has declared for the NBA Draft while maintaining his college eligibility. With them back in the fold, expectations would run high. With only one of them, less so. With neither — whoa — it might be rough.

‘‘I think everyone knows a place like Northwestern is a tough job, and it’s one I’ve embraced,’’ Collins said. ‘‘But you’ve seen through history — and it’s not like there haven’t been really good coaches here over the last 70 years — we’ve gone to the tournament twice in our program’s history. . . .

‘‘I just want to have a program where we feel like, year in and year out, we can compete to have a chance to be in the postseason, in March Madness. And I think what you’re seeing now is such parity that, if you get invited to the tournament, almost everybody has a chance now. But you’ve got to get there, and it’s really hard.’’

At least Collins, whose next birthday will be his 50th, gets to take some more cracks at it.

‘‘There’s still a lot of things out there that haven’t happened,’’ he said. ‘‘We haven’t won a Big Ten [regular-season title]. We haven’t won a Big Ten tournament. We haven’t been to the second weekend in the NCAA, been a Sweet 16, Elite Eight type of program. So, to me, there’s still a lot of things out there that we can shoot for, that we can work toward.’’

It beats the heck out of the alternative.

The Latest
The neighborhoods are Austin, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and Little Village. About one of five shootings citywide occur in one of those neighborhoods, according to city crime statistics.
The inspector general’s office urged Johnson to create a task force aimed at “preventing, identifying, and eliminating extremist and anti-government activities and associations within CPD.”
Cordale Nichols, 37, was arrested shortly after he allegedly threw an incendiary device through the window of an apartment early Saturday in the 3100 block of South Green Street, Chicago police said.
Sometimes people don’t bother to call 911 after hearing shots. ShotSpotter can lead cops and paramedics directly to victims.
Chicago hasn’t had a chief equity officer since Candace Moore left in December. Her successor, Carla Kupe, could play a fundamental role in determining what reparations look like in Chicago. The mayor had set aside money for a reparations task force in his 2024 budget, approved last year.