It was a day of welcoming and praising, as it should be, for the new head women’s basketball coach at North Dakota State. Jory Collins stepped to the podium Tuesday afternoon at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex and knocked question after question out of the park.
It’s called winning the press conference and the former Kansas assistant easily went 1-0. He said the right things, from paying homage to the Bison greatness of the 1990s to addressing the current players and telling them he couldn’t wait to get into the gym and start working. He didn't make any ridiculous promises.
He said a turnaround starts with attention to fundamentals and assured the fan base that his team will put effort on the front burner.
All that said, Collins woke up Wednesday morning with the following reality: He’s not the head coach at South Dakota State or the University of South Dakota, the two Summit League teams that reached the NCAA tournament this year.
He’s taking over a program that is like that bike that’s been in the shed for several years. It needs several new parts to get moving again.
There is also this reality: It’s doable, and we don’t have to go far to cite a couple of examples. In 2012-13, JD Gravina took over a Western Illinois program that hadn’t had a winning season in six years and had teams that barely reached double digits in victories. Four years later, the Leathernecks went to the Women’s N.I.T. and the following season went 26-7 and won a Summit League tournament title and advanced to the NCAA tournament.
He did that in Macomb, Ill., with facilities that are not much better than a high school.
In 2010-11, Austin Parkinson took over an Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis program that was dreadful, at best. The Jaguars went 3-26 the previous year and the head coach was fired amid accusations of NCAA violations and starting player quitting the team because of “mental anguish” by the staff.
Three years later, Parkinson led a team to the beginning of consistent 20-win seasons. The Jaguars lost in the Summit title game in 2017 before the school departed to the Horizon League.
They did that despite facilities that were on par for mediocrity with WIU.
“I think sometimes you can get caught up early in your tenure worrying about wins and losses,” Parkinson said this week. “That first year, maybe your max is eight wins, do you do gimmicky stuff and try 50 different things? What we did is coach with a long-term vision. We didn’t get consumed for a few extra wins. We got our culture and habits in place.”
In NDSU’s case, Collins on more than one occasion stressed the habits toughness and work ethic.
“When you change a culture, you need people to change the way they think,” he said. “Sometimes that takes time.”
It takes recruiting, also.
“Playing time will probably be available,” Parkinson said. “And the other part, what do you look for? You see programs all the time where a coach comes in and they think they have a long-term vision, so they flip the entire roster. It sounds good in a presser but the reality is in three, four years you’re right back to where you started. You can’t come in and panic.”
Parkinson also said he looked at the Summit’s top teams in South Dakota State and South Dakota and tried to figure a way to recruit a style would cause them the most problems. The answer was fast and athletic players.
“The other part is you look for kids who are hungry to be successful,” Parkinson said. “In the Summit, to win a championship, you’re probably playing in front of 6,000 people in Sioux Falls. We talked about getting kids who in that atmosphere enjoyed being booed by the other team and that didn’t scare them.”
He got the kids who weren’t scared of a high school gym at IUPUI. Gravina got kids who weren’t scared of small-town Macomb and a program that hadn’t won in several years.
Collins has significantly better facilities and resources in Fargo. He's got a new arena, he has cost of attendance, he has a vibrant city, he has a healthy budget and he has a full athletic and academic support staff. It's pretty much everything Western Illinois does not have.
Nobody expects a turnaround in the near future. But at some point, you would think it would happen. It did at IUPUI and WIU.