Collins can benefit from Fitzgerald's experience

NU basketball coach assuming reins with same level of head coaching insight as football counterpart did — none

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Chris Collins and Pat Fitzgerald both grew up as sports stars in suburban Chicago.

Both Collins and Fitzgerald are 38 and born in 1974 — Collins eight months earlier in April. Both enthusiastically view each day as an opportunity to improve and every conversation a chance to connect. Both seem like clean-desk guys who attack life 24/7 with an abundance of energy, sincerity and, just guessing here, caffeine.

But of all the traits the man Northwestern hired Wednesday to be Basketball Fitz shares in common with the real thing, the most significant likeness relates to head coaching experience.

Like Fitzgerald before he was elevated after Randy Walker's death in June 2006, Collins has none. The next time Collins fills out a lineup as head coach will be the first after 13 years as a Duke assistant. Mike Krzyzewski won't be one seat away for comfort and Collins will have to make decisions, not suggestions. Coach K won't carry the loudest voice when determining how to structure game plans or what recruits to chase.

Forgive me for thinking that important detail has been overlooked in the rush to agree how perfectly Collins fits on the Evanston campus. Sure he does. Pedigree and passion make Collins as ideal as he is popular. But whenever Northwestern formally introduces Collins, we could learn that his favorite color was purple and it won't reveal how he will fare in the Big Ten against coaching icons such as Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan. How will the increased responsibility and stress affect Collins, whose combustible father turned 38 just after his final season as Bulls coach in 1988-89?

"As an assistant coach you have all the answers because that's your job to present different sides of every case, and the head coach has to make the call and present the solution and action plan,'' Fitzgerald said. "My first couple of years I wasn't very good at it — and some would argue I'm still not. It's almost like your first year on scholarship. I was just excited to have the opportunity. I came up 365 days later and said, 'OK, where are we going here?' ''

It's OK still to have questions even if a local consensus considers Collins the answer to all that ails Northwestern basketball. You can predict Collins will make history within five years by leading Northwestern into the NCAA tournament and still expect him to make mistakes along the way.

I think Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips made the right hire. I know Phillips made a risky one.

History shows Big Ten athletic directors rarely go outside their men's basketball programs to hire replacements with no previous college head coaching experience. According to Big Ten Network research, the last time it happened was 1992 when Wisconsin hired Stu Jackson, a former Knicks head coach. Positive examples such as Izzo or Randy Ayers at Ohio State represent cases of assistants being promoted to lead programs they knew well.

Northwestern likely knows more about Collins than he knows about the university and its nuances. The learning curve for both sides will be steep.

"Lack of experience is a fair thing to bring up because it's obvious,'' Fitzgerald acknowledged. "But everybody has to start somewhere.''

Fitzgerald considers Bill Carmody a friend but, citing "a new day,'' heartily endorsed Collins, whom he hasn't met. With pride, Fitzgerald pointed out that he and women's lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller were two of nine successful Wildcats head coaches to whom Northwestern gave their first breaks.

The chance to coach against giants in the profession, as Collins will do next year, invigorated Fitzgerald more than it intimidated him.

"You dream of those types of opportunities. I was fired up,'' Fitzgerald said. "For Chris, as a perspective I had, he would beat them on the court one-on-one or at H-O-R-S-E. But that's not what it's about. It's about getting your young men to believe in themselves and each other and the program.''

As Collins establishes his program, Fitzgerald understands it will occupy every waking moment. But he advised Collins to reduce the waking moments so the rest of the day makes sense.

"Get some sleep,'' Fitzgerald offered. "I didn't do a very good job of taking care of my personal health that first year. I was sleeping very little and worrying about a lot of things that in the grand scheme of things didn't matter. He has a lot of things to get settled quickly, but ... (it) will be critically important for him to get stabilized so he can have fun and enjoy the ride.''

Like Fitzgerald and other first-timers, Collins will need time to get used to steering.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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