Chris Collins came to Northwestern to build a winning program.
Mission accomplished, coach.
Evanston was ebullient Sunday as the Wildcats were announced as members of the NCAA tournament field for the first time in program history.
All along, Collins has been asked about the tournament, and he's often batted those questions away, saying his goal wasn't specifically to reach this moment to build something that would last.
What is very apparent after the day finally came for the Cats was just that: This is now a winning program, one that's arrived on the Big Ten and national stages. Northwestern is now officially part of the club, and it's thanks to Collins.
"I came here to create a program, to build a program that was going to be competitive at this level and be relevant on Selection Sunday," Collins said. "And I hope this is just the start of something that we can do over the long haul."
The first Selection Sunday to include Northwestern — and the incredible reaction from Collins, his players and the fans in the stands at Welsh-Ryan Arena — was an epic culmination of what started four years ago, when Collins had nothing to sell recruits in terms of program history, nothing to offer but a vision for the future.
The longtime Duke assistant recruited the highest-rated players in Northwestern history. Bryant McIntosh and Vic Law were better than any prospects to ever put on a purple jersey. Three years after their Northwestern journeys started, they've seen Collins' vision become reality.
"I really wanted these group of guys to do it because I remember sitting in all their living rooms and just asking them to believe," Collins said. "I said, 'Look, I have nothing tangible. I can't show you any banners. I can't show any pros that I've coaches as a head coach or championships or all those things. I've never coached a game, never called a timeout. I just want you to believe in this. Take a chance on this. We can do it. Let's get a group of guys that'll work hard and try to do something like this.' And I tried to tell them when these things happen how big this would be.
"And so to see all of this, it gets you emotional because these are the things we all dreamed of. And to see the guys very emotional before we came out — this has meant a lot to them, and it's something we put a lot into. Just a really special day. You don't get many chances in life in anything to be a part of something historic, things that have never, ever been done. So to be a part of this is something that they can never take away from us."
Collins & Co. have earned this tournament berth, and those who have watched this program evolve know exactly the kind of positive steps the Cats have taken along the way. There were big wins early, like the ones at Wisconsin and at Indiana in Year 1. There were also the road blocks, long conference losing streaks in each of those first two seasons. But you could see this day coming.
This season seemed promising from the start given Law's return from an injury that forced him to miss the entire 2015-16 campaign and the experience on the roster. McIntosh has been one of the best point guards in the Big Ten for a few years now, and Scottie Lindsey's emergence as a terrific scorer has given the Cats offensive threats they hadn't had in seasons past. Collins' recruits were growing up, and it set up a campaign that has already featured a program-record number of wins and the team's first-ever trip to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
"We deserve this, what we got today," Collins said. "And I told them all year long, 'You get what you deserve.' That's what's cool about playing. At the end of the day you get what you deserve at the end of the year when your whole resume's on the table, and I thought we got exactly what we deserved. And now it's exciting to play when it really matters for the first time in all these guys' careers. It's going to be really fun to go into that tournament and see what we can do."
Law has said all season long how the players set a goal to be different from all the Northwestern teams that have come before. And while winning and continuing to progress as a program could have met that challenge, there was one big thing that needed to be accomplished to make the 2016-17 squad stand out in the record books.
Collins and the players didn't want to talk about the tournament much of the season, but once the Cats lost for the fifth time in seven games at Indiana, Collins threw the pressure on his team, telling it if it truly wanted to do what had never been done before, it needed to win. Northwestern responded with that incredible win over Michigan on the court-length pass from Nathan Taphorn to Dererk Pardon to beat the buzzer.
And now the Cats are doing just what they set out to do at the start of the season, doing just what Collins set out to do four years ago. This Northwestern team is different. And since Collins took over, so too is this program.
"I dreamed of this day when I took this job. This was one of the big steps," Collins said. "This is why you come to a place like Northwestern, to do this and to be different and to do something that's never been done. To see all those fans in there, had my family there and all those players and to look those guys in the eyes and see all those smiles and all that joy, you can't top that. There's nothing like what we saw today."