The phone rang, Dave Kreps was on the other end, calling to advise that long-time Illinois assistant coach and UIC head coach, Jimmy Collins, passed away early today (Sunday morning, Dec. 13).
The Krepses and Collins were close as Dave served as one of Henson’s graduate assistants when Collins and Dick Nagy were assistnts there and Dave’s son, Robo, played for Collins at UIC. The bond they shared was remarkable.
Collins was 74.
The late Lou Henson hired Collins as one of his first assistants when he landed the Illinois position he accepted after considerable success at New Mexico State where Collins played for him.
Illinois’ success landing top prospect after top prospect from the Chicago area in the middle of the Lou Henson era was driven almost entirely by Jimmy Collins.
The Syracuse, N.Y., native went to a Final Four playing for Henson at New Mexico State. He reached another as an assistant at Illinois, recruiting the bulk of the Flyin’ Illini that came up just short of their ultimate goal in the 1988-89 seasons.
Collins died early this morning, according to an Instagram post from former Illinois student manager turned Chicago broadcaster Ryan Baker, just weeks after his 74th birthday on Nov. 24. Collins’ death adds to a somber year for Illinois basketball after Henson’s death in July.
“We’ve lost a father figure and favorite uncle,” Baker wrote on social media. “The Illini, UIC & New Mexico St. basketball families are hurting … we are crushed. First Coach Henson and now Coach Collins in 2020. And Robert Archibald. This is too much. Coach C recruited some of the best players to ever wear the Orange & Blue. I never played for Coach C. I was just a little old manager. But he always made me feel like I was one of his guys … his sons.”
Collins played for Henson at New Mexico State from 1967-70 and was a captain of the 1970 Final Four team. The Aggies lost to UCLA in the national semifinals before topping St. Bonaventure in the third-place game to wrap a 27-3 season.
He averaged 24.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists as a senior at New Mexico State and was a consensus Second Team All-American. He was selected by the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the 1970 NBA draft and played two years in the NBA and part of one season with the Carolina Cougars in the ABA.
Collins returned to Las Cruces, N.M., as a graduate assistant for Henson in 1973, but returned to Chicago and was a probation officer in Cook County from 1977-83. That’s when Henson tapped him again as an assistant coach at Illinois.
Collins spent 13 seasons in Champaign from 1983-96 and was readily seen as Henson’s top recruiter.
One of his top recruits was former Flyin’ Illini standout Kendall Gill. The 1990 NBA first-round draft pick weighed in on Collins’ passing on Sunday morning.
“The Flying Illini & The Illini family are devastated this morning,” Gill wrote on Twitter. “The architect of our team has passed. You will be more than missed Jimmy Collins (Coach C)! Never thought we would lose (you) and Coach Henson in a matter of months. The end of 2020 can’t come soon enough.”
Another player he recruited to Champaign, Deon Thomas, became the school’s all-time leading scorer and still is with 2,129 points.
Here’s what the former Chicago Simeon product, who now helps Brian Barnhart on Illini basketball radio broadcasts as an analyst, had to say about Collins:
“There are no words that could come close to how heavy my heart is at this moment,” Thomas wrote on Twitter Sunday morning. “I truly loved this man. He was so much more than a coach to me. Please pray for his family and his players. He will live forever in us. Rest now pops.”
Collins did not receive a formal interview for the Illinois job after Henson’s retirement and took the head coaching job at UIC instead.
Collins coached at UIC for 14 seasons until his retirement in 2010. The Flames went 218-208 in his time as coach and reached the NCAA tournament three times in 1998, 2002 and 2004. They haven’t been back since.
He stayed in Chicago following his 2010 retirement but remained active in the community in a mentorship role for youth in the Chicagoland area.
I will have more on Collins’ passing in a future print edition of the Decatur Tribune. I knew Jimmy well from the years he assisted Henson at Illinois and often came to Decatur to visit Miles Schnaer when he owned Miles Chevrolet. Schnaer’s relationship with Henson and his staff, including Collins and Nagy, was truly special. They truly had a special bond.
Rest in Peace, Jimmy, you can now watch Lou draw up plays on whatever he has to write on there as he was known for sharing his offensive ideas with anyone he was with at lunch, dinners, or wherever.
Illinois lost another of its basketball icons.