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On the court, Collins could catch anything, but when he ran he may as well have had a piano tied to his waist. He was too short to play down low and too slow to patrol the perimeter, so he concentrated on all the little things that required more grit and determination than skill. "He was a player who got the most out of his abilities," recalled Dave Girsch, Collins' high school basketball coach. "He was always the guy who was on the floor fighting for loose balls, rebounding, doing all the dirty work inside that no one else wanted to do."
Collins' love for the game infected his teammates. Girsch said it was like having a coach on the floor: "He played hard and expected everyone around him to play hard. Most of the success we had was because of Rob."
But at times, the fire inside Collins burned too hot. In four years as a high school athlete, he was ejected from one football game, one baseball game, and four basketball games.
Collins now says that he was born to coach, but he wouldn't have figured it out if it wasn't for a stroke of luck. In 1985, he was unemployed after flunking out of Cal State-Hayward and failing to hold down jobs as a fishmonger, a wine salesman, a carpenter, and a garbage man. He even tried to run his own animal excrement cleaning business, Poop `N Scoop (the phone number was 935-POOP), but that venture got flushed down the toilet, too. Then one day he learned that his old freshman basketball team at Las Lomas needed a coach. He called the school from a pay phone and was hired on the spot.
Two years later, Collins jumped over to Acalanes High School in Lafayette to reunite with Girsch, who was running the Dons' basketball program. As an assistant, it was Collins' job to fire up the locker room before games. "Lord knows what he said in there, but when they came out they were ready to play," Girsch remembered. "He was very, very good at motivating kids to go out there and do their best."
Collins replaced Girsch as coach of the varsity team three years later and the Dons immediately started winning. "Can't keep a girl, can't hold a job, can't write a check without bouncing it, but I can coach basketball," Collins said.
As the wins mounted, word spread through the high school basketball community that the sideline show at Acalanes was one of the best tickets in the East Bay. Mark DeLuca, head coach at De Anza High School in Richmond, finally went to a game after friends badgered him for weeks: "They were like, 'This guy's crazy. It's worth it.' So I went and he was totally nuts."
Collins looked like a 325-pound wind-up toy, buzzing up and down the sideline throughout the game. He was red-faced and intense, screaming so loud that his vocal chords sounded like they were shredding. His team fed off of his energy. "I could tell right away that he was really tight with his players," DeLuca recalled. "If a team loves their coach, they'll play really hard for him."
That summer, DeLuca invited the Acalanes team to play in his Pinole Valley tournament just so he could watch "that crazy guy." After the tournament, Collins' check bounced, but DeLuca didn't think much of it until his doorbell rang a few months later: "This weirdo's at my front door, and he's like, 'Hey man, here's the money I owe you.' From that moment on we've been best friends."
Collins' coaching style was a natural extension of the passion he showed as a high school athlete; he demanded his team's best effort every night. Practices were, in his words, "mild torture": two straight hours of running, defensive shuffles with bricks, plus a bevy of mind games designed to break even the toughest kid's will. Every drill was a competition with winners and losers — losers ran. "There were no excuses that were any good, man. I was in your face and if you didn't do it right, you were running, and if you ran and threw up, then you cleaned it up," Collins said.
Still, he was a guy's guy and a player's coach, who had a natural genius for knowing what strings to pull with each player. "He definitely knew how to get the best out of us," remembered Chris Gilbert, who went on to play hoops at UC Santa Cruz after graduating in 2001. "For me personally, I liked that he got in my face and challenged me. I liked to prove him wrong."
On Collins' teams, no one was a star and everyone had a role: rebound, take charges, set picks. "Even our bench players prided themselves on being bench players — they called themselves the 'roughriders,'" said Justin Smith, the Dons' point guard in the late Nineties. "They knew what they were supposed to do and were happy doing it."
Smith said the team bought into Collins' excruciating program because he cared about the players off the court. When they had problems, he listened without judgment. He offered advice but didn't preach. "I remember he helped me out a lot when my parents were going through a divorce," Smith said. "I think he got all of his players to really give their hearts because he gave you his."