In the most recent installment in his coaches interview series, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Jimmy Collins, who recently retired after fourteen seasons in charge at Illinois-Chicago. Coach Collins led the Flames to three NCAA Tournament appearances during his time in the Windy City.
Jon Teitel: As a guard at New Mexico State you averaged 20.1 ppg for your career and set a school record for points in a game with 42. What made you such a great scorer, and was the record-setting game it just one of those scenarios where every shot you put up seemed to go in because you were "in the zone"?
Jimmy Collins: The only way you could get three points back then was the old-fashioned way, as the three-point line did not exist yet. All players who have career nights know when they are hot; the basket seems to swell up. My teammates knew to feed me that night, and I had no problem shooting it.
JT: As a senior you were named an All-American. What did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor, and did you feel like you were one of the best players in the country?
JC: Not initially. I am from Syracuse, and played a lot of summer games against the great Dave Bing. I had an awkward shot, as it would come off high above my head. By my senior year I felt that nobody could guard me, although there were a lot of other great players around the country (Pete Maravich, Rick Mount, etc.).
1970 NCAA Tournament
JT: Your team scored a tourney-school record 101 points in a win over Rice. Was that the best offensive performance you have ever been a part of, and did you feel it gave you the momentum to make a deep tourney run?
JC: Rice had two guards who were rated very high, and when we picked up the newspaper they were only talking about those two guys; that fired up our entire team. We tried to run the whole game, which was successful because Rice was a half-court team.
JT: You had a nine-point win over Drake. What was the mood of the team like heading into the game against UCLA?
JC: I remember that we were down in that game, and our coach started isolating me after I made a couple of shots, which was not our original game plan. It was raining really hard after that game, but my teammates and I were just excited that we were moving on to the semis.
JT: You scored a tourney-school record 28 points in a loss to eventual national champion UCLA (whose starting five combined to score 91 of their 93 PTS) and were named to the All-Tournament team. How good was UCLA, and how were you able to play your best against the best?
JC: We really thought we could beat UCLA. We stayed up all night talking about it, but a few plays into the game our big guy Sam Lacey sprained his ankle. UCLA had a bunch of great big men (Steve Patterson/Curtis Rowe/Sidney Wicks), which took away a lot of our momentum. I got on a hot streak again, and once they doubled me we started getting the ball to Charlie Criss, who got on a hot streak of his own. Patterson scored a lot of points, and he could also rebound very well.
JT: You had a six-point win over St. Bonaventure in the consolation game after Bob Lanier had gotten injured earlier in the tourney. Do you think you still would have won if Lanier was healthy?
JC: We wanted to play everyone at full-strength, as we thought we were the best team in the country that year. I think that we could have won even if they had Lanier.
JT: In the summer of 1970 you were drafted 11th overall by Chicago (7 spots ahead of Calvin Murphy), and later played for the ABA's Carolina Cougars. Did you see that as a validation of your college career, or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA?
JC: A little of both, but not "lifelong", as my original dream was just to go to college and graduate. I had agents start to call me before my senior year, which is when I 1st realized that I might be able to play in the pros. I knew I was a great college scorer, but my main focus was to win ball games so that we would go as far as we possibly could. At that time I thought that a guard of my size did not have a chance, as guys like Jerry West/Oscar Robertson were 6'3"/6'4" and very strong/fast.
JT: After retiring from pro basketball you took several years off to start a trucking business and become a probation officer. Why did you leave basketball, and which job did you like more?
JC: I started having knee injuries, and back then they cut into you instead of just scoping it! I had a friend approach me about going into the trucking business as owners/operators, and we had the money, so we gave it a shot. I had even less time to spend with my family after starting the business, which was tough. I had a politically-connected friend who got me into the probation department, which was a challenging job. It became a bit negative to see young people going into and out of jail all the time.
JT: You were an assistant under legendary head coach Lou Henson at Illinois. What made him such a great coach, and what was the most important thing you learned from him?
JC: He taught me about dedication and discipline, as he was a stickler for those two things. He prepared a team better than anyone I know, so teams could never throw something at us that we were not ready for. He was a great gentleman, and I have yet to ever hear him curse. He would always tell you when you were contributing to helping the team win, but also tell you when you were totally off-base.
JT: In 1988 Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl accused you of bribing top high school basketball prospect Deon Thomas to come to Illinois, but the NCAA found both you and Thomas innocent. How did it feel to be accused, and how did it feel to be vindicated?
JC: It felt great to be vindicated. When I first heard the accusation I thought the truth would come out very quickly, but it took almost 2 years to complete the investigation. It was one of the worst points of my life; it is easy to get in trouble, but very hard to get out of it. There were a lot of lies that were told. Current SEC commissioner Mike Slive was hired as an independent investigator, and there were former FBI people asking a lot of questions. At the end of the investigation they announced that they could not find any evidence of wrongdoing, but also said that it did not mean it did not happen.
1989 NCAA Tournament
JT: You got a six-points win over #16-seed McNeese State. How close did you come to becoming the first #1-seed to ever lose in the first round, and how were you able to hang on for the win?
JC: Every team in the tourney thinks they are the best, so they will not give you anything. Lou did a great job of preparing us for each game.
JT: Sean Higgins got a rebound and made the put-back with two seconds left to clinch a two-point win by eventual national champion Michigan. How devastating was Higgins' shot, and what was the reaction like in your locker room afterwards?
JC: We had beaten Michigan by twenty points in Ann Arbor the last time we played them. I still think they should have called a foul on Higgins for pushing Nick Anderson in order to get the rebound, but stuff happens.
JT: In 1997 in your very first first year at UIC your team started 1-8, then turned it around and made it to the MCC tourney title game before a one-point loss to Butler. Gow were you able to turn it around, and how close did you come to winning the title?
JC: When my staff and I came in, we brought in about five players and had to get them playing together with the guys who were already there. Fortunately, we had a young man named Bryant Lowe, who was one of the toughest players I ever coached. Bryant stood up at a meeting and challenged everyone to play together, and if not, he was going to settle it with fisticuffs! We finally were able to pull out a close game after the 1-8 start, and then we started to become a team. We spent a lot of time off the court together, just bonding through activities like bowling. We had an opportunity to beat Butler, but our final shot hung on the rim forever before falling off. However, that game gave us momentum going into the next year. I told the players to take a few weeks off to concentrate on their studies, but after a few days they got back in the weight room and on the practice court.
JT: What are your memories of the 1998 NCAA tourney, the first tourney game in school history (DeMarco Johnson had 30 points and 15 rebounds in a Charlotte victory)?
JC: I remember Johnson hurting us, but they had a guard named Diego Guevara who could shoot the lights out. Every time that Guevara made a shot, he would blow a kiss to his girlfriend; if one of my guys had done that sort of showboating, I would have sat them right down. I talked to Coach Melvin Watkins after the game, and he said he was impressed by our team. We thought we could beat Charlotte, but they had a big crowd of supporters even though the game took place in Hartford. Ed Hightower was one of the refs, and I felt that we did not get the benefit of some calls because of all the Charlotte supporters.
JT: In 1999 Curtis Granderson enrolled at UIC as a freshman. How close did he come to playing basketball for you, and how good do you think he would have been?
JC: I made overtures to Curtis, and also talked to his baseball coach. Curtis' dad said that he would succeed in whatever he put his mind to, and he was very athletic; he could just walk up to the rim and dunk a basketball. As luck would have it, the baseball team started practice before we did, so he got a baseball scholarship and the rest is history.
JT: What are your memories of the 2002 NCAA tourney (Aaron McGhee had 26 points and 12 rebounds in an 8-PT Oklahoma win)?
JC: McGhee is from Chicago, and that might have been his best game all year. That is another game that if the ball had bounced our way a few more times, I think we could have won it. Their bench and size just overwhelmed us, but we played hard and played together. We played them in Dallas, and they had 15,000 fans there, but unless the fans come out on the court and start making baskets, then you cannot worry about them.
JT: What are your memories of the 2004 NCAA tourney (Wayne Simien had 13 points and nine rebounds in a Kansas victory)?
JC: We played them in Kansas City, so they had a nice crowd on hand. Bill Self talked about how our Chicago kids were going to play very physical, despite that fact that my PF was only 6'4"! The thing I remember the most is that I wore a pair of burgundy shoes, and when I asked the ref about a call, he asked me where I bought my shoes! That always stuck with me, as I thought it was very unprofessional.
JT: You missed the final 19 games of the 2007 season due to an abdominal aortic aneurysm, and your team finished under .500 for the first time since 2001. Do you think that your team lost its focus after you went out, and how were you able to come back healthy the following year?
JC: Players get accustomed to doing certain things a certain way, so it certainly hurt when I had to miss half the season. We had a split team with guys who preached things that I did not want preached. I just wanted guys who played together and stuck together, but they were not doing that even before my injury.
JT: You are co-chairman of the Chicago Special Olympics. Why did you decide to get involved with the Special Olympics, and what have you gotten out of it?
JC: Those kids come out and give it their all, which gives me a great understanding of the word "competition". The agony of defeat affects people the same way regardless of whether they have a disability. I got into it because I am partial to people who have struggled, as I have struggled myself. I went into Soldier Field one day to watch the kids compete, and the love I felt caused me to ask someone how I could get involved. It is very rewarding because they love what they are doing and never quit or back down.
Collins is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Horizon League history
Butler: Tony Hinkle (1926-1970) 558-394, one NCAA Tournament appearance, three conference titles
Cleveland State: Kevin Mackey (1983-1990) 142-69, one NCAA Tournament appearance, two conference titles, two-time conference Coach of the Year
Detroit: Bob Calihan (1948-1969) 306-237, one NCAA Tournament appearance
Green Bay: Dick Bennett (1985-1995) 187-109, three NCAA Tournament appearances, two conference titles, two-time conference Coach of the Year
Illinois-Chicago: Jimmy Collins (1996-2010) 218-208, three NCAA Tournament appearances, one conference title, one-time conference Coach of the Year
Loyola-Chicago: George Ireland (1951-1975) 318-255, four NCAA Tournament appearances, two conference titles, one NCAA title
Milwaukee: Rob Jeter (2005-present) 82-75, one NCAA Tournament appearance, one conference title
Valparaiso: Homer Drew (1988-2002, 2003-present) 333-276, seven NCAA Tournament appearances, eight conference titles, four-time conference Coach of the Year
Wright State: Ralph Underhill (1978-1996) 356-162, one NCAA Tournament appearance, one conference title, one Division II national title, one-time national Coach of the Year
Youngstown State: Mike Rice, Sr. (1982-1987) 75-67