ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Tom Izzo vividly recalls taking the reins of Michigan State’s storied basketball program. He was barely 40 years old and had quite the challenge ahead of him.
“When I took over here, it was Bob Knight, Gene Keady, Lute Olson, Tom Davis, Clem Haskins,” said Izzo with a laugh, speaking at Big Ten Media Day on Thursday.
18 years later and Izzo has a national title, six Final Four appearances, seven Big Ten titles under his belt. He went from admiring the success of his coaching peers the glowing example of sustained winning in the conference.
Enter Chris Collins, Northwestern’s new head coach. He’s looking to form his own legacy. A decorated Duke player, the son of NBA great head coach Doug Collins, and longtime right-hand man of Mike Krzyzewski, stepping out of the shadows is something new.
Add in the fact that Collins is taking over a Northwestern program that has never reached the NCAA Tournament, has limited resources and aging facilities He has quite the task ahead.
“It’s tough as a new coach, because so many of these programs are well established,” Collins admitted. “You’ve got coaches down the line that have done it at this level for so long, and are so good. It’s part of the challenge.”
For the power programs, the juggernauts, a ticket to the big dance comes with the name. Building a Final Four program is the greatest challenge.
But it’s a different story for the Northwesterns and Nebraskas, looking to sustain a winner under new coaches. In the black and blue Big Ten, finding—more importantly, keeping—success is a grueling trial.
Nebraska’s Tim Miles has embraced the task of building up his program. Different from Collins and Northwestern, he has the facilities (a state-of-the-art practice facility and new downtown arena). Still, Miles must bring a football school to embrace basketball. Even harder, he has to build a winner in the loaded Big Ten.
Miles has handled the daunting task with charisma and courage, even repeatedly joking how his team is predicted to be 12th out of 12 in the rankings. He knew well what he was getting into with the Big Ten conference.
“Its institutions are awesome academic institutions,” Miles said. “We’ve got hallmark basketball programs, hall of fame basketball coaches. There’s just so much that the Big Ten brings to the table.”
The identity of the Big Ten has remained intact for decades. The style of play is punishing and physical. Only the stronger, most disciplined teams work their way to the top.
Even as the tectonic plates of college athletics shift—mostly with an emphasis of building for football, the greater cash cow—the Big Ten has held its form. Meanwhile, the old Big East became the American Athletic Conference, there’s now an entirely new Big East, and the ACC has absorbed some new programs.
“The Big Ten is a pillar in college athletics,” said Ohio State head coach Thad Matta. “You’ve got tradition, you’ve got proximity. That’s the beauty of what we have here.
“If you say name the teams in the Big East now, I don’t know if I could. I’m not sure if I could get the ACC exactly right. That’s where Jim Delany has done a tremendous job, of not only keeping what we have intact, but also strengthening it. Hats off to him for what we’ve done.”
It should be another strong year for the Big Ten. There are four teams (Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin) ranked in the preseason Top 25, and several others just on the outside. Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Purdue could be tournament teams this season. The additions of Maryland and Rutgers next year could boost the conference’s prestige even higher.
“The Big Ten from top to bottom is filled with really solid, great programs,” Miles said. “When you look at things, I think it’s important to realize that the Big Ten isn’t going anywhere. It’s going to get stronger and stronger.”
To become a champion like a Tom Izzo is one great challenge. To sustain it over a decade is even more difficult. It’s a formidable task like this which draws the brightest basketball junkies to the Big Ten.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of success with Coach K, the Olympics,” said Collins. “But I’m humbled to come into the room and you look around and see these other guys.”