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The team won 73 percent of its games between 1996 and 2002, and the same year that Coach Carter was grabbing national headlines in Richmond, Coach Collins was named Coach of the Year by the Contra Costa Times for leading the Acalanes Dons to their first state tournament in the team's history.
Yet parents complained about Collins every year. "Rob's style of coaching probably wasn't the best fit for Acalanes," Girsch said. Things really heated up after several kids were caught throwing furniture into a hotel pool on a road trip to Crescent City in 2002. According to Collins, parents said the incident proved that he was no longer a suitable role model for teenagers. Dan Bledsoe, the school's athletic director at the time, declined to comment, saying: "I always thought that Rob was really good with his players." Eventually, Collins resigned, saying he was finished with high school sports.
As the 2002-03 season loomed, the Richmond Oilers still hadn't replaced Coach Carter. Principal Haidee Foust was scrambling, so she reached out to Mark DeLuca, formerly a PE teacher at Richmond High. He responded: "Talk to the guy who replaced me."
So Foust approached Collins. "She goes, 'So hey, Collins, I hear you're a basketball coach.' And I said: 'No, no, that ain't me,'" Collins recalled. "Then, she said: 'Nah, nah, somebody told me that you were Coach of the Year. Will you think of taking over here at Richmond?'"
Collins quickly learned that Richmond basketball was vastly different from what he was used to in the suburbs. Most of the Richmond players were traumatized from losing friends and family to gun violence, a majority of the kids didn't have relationships with their fathers, and many went through the school day without eating. They were uninspired, disruptive, and often tardy. "I remember the first meeting: The kids were looking at me like, 'Who is this big fat guy, this white dude?'" Collins said. "They weren't buying into me at all. I could see that in their eyes."
But the team bonded over the summer, traveling all over the Bay Area to compete in tournaments against some of the region's best teams. Collins would buy the kids barbecued ribs for lunch and take them out for pizza after the games. It was a nonstop party and the team became a family. When classes started in the fall, Collins gave players a ride to pre-class practices, piling them into his truck before sunrise. He paid for gym bags, sweat pants, and basketballs out of his own pocket. He also cleared out a storage room next to his office, turning it into a team room stocked with Gatorade, Top Ramen noodles, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. His point guard slept on Collins' couch for three months after the boy was kicked out of his mother's house. "He took care of us like we were his own, like we were his kids," said Rick Coleman, the team's three-point specialist.
The same brash and abrasive coaching style that offended parents at Acalanes endeared Collins to his players in Richmond. "People were saying, 'Five black guys aren't going to listen to a white guy,'" said Eli Holman, who's now playing college basketball at the University of Detroit, Mercy. "But it's not about race, it's about respect."
It was also about humor. Everyone laughed the day Collins danced around the locker room like Chris Farley, singing along with the music that was pounding from the gym's PA system during halftime: Don't you wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Don't you wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?
Collins continued to forge deep, intimate bonds with his players, just as he had in Lafayette. But the relationships took a more urgent tone in Richmond. "He took me in as a son," said Holman, who was temporarily sidelined during his senior after being shot in the right shoulder. "He said, 'You don't have to resort to violence, come to me instead.' You'd be surprised how many times I went to Coach Collins."
The chemistry was visible on the court, too. The Contra Costa Times described the scene after the eleventh win of Collins' second season with the Oilers: "Witness Collins' connection with the kids, which on Tuesday was manifested in Collins performing a full-on victory dance as his teammates surrounded him. Once in the locker room, Collins made it a point to go to every player and congratulate him with a hand shake or a bear hug."
In his fourth year, Collins took the Oilers to the state tournament — the first in the team's history. They were eliminated in the first round, but with most of the starters returning for the 2006-07 season, the town was buzzing with talk of a state title. But the hope was punctured a few weeks later when news broke that Collins was skipping town to coach the Amador Valley Commodores in Pleasanton. "I left them," Collins said. "I turned on them all because I wanted to make more money, thinking that was going to make me happy."