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Collins' phone started ringing almost immediately after the final whistle of the 2005-06 season. Don Underwood was retiring after 25 seasons at Amador Valley and athletic director Lou Cesario thought Collins could fill his shoes. At first, Collins brushed the suggestion aside — why leave Richmond when the team was so close to winning a state title?
But as Amador Valley pressed its case, Collins wavered. At Richmond, he scrambled to find the bare necessities, like ice and tape, while the basketball team at Amador Valley had its own luxury bus, team shoes, and a budget of about $30,000 a year. The fans in Pleasanton followed high school sports with Midwestern zeal; the city even has a cafe that serves meals named after every coach in town (Coach Collins' dish was bacon and eggs). "I finally asked myself, how can I turn this shit down?" Collins said. "I'd have to be crazy to say no to an extra $35,000" in salary.
But Collins fell apart. He may have looked rather GQ prancing down the sideline in $500 suits, but his weight was creeping close to 400 pounds and he was taking eleven ibuprofens a day to soothe the pain brought on by heel spurs that he said felt like razorblades slicing through his Achilles.
His physical deterioration was accompanied by a decline in mental health. After losses, he'd often stay up all night smoking cigars in his backyard, brooding over broken plays and missed opportunities. He resented the daily emails from parents bemoaning decisions he made about playing time. He became abrasive. At the first parent meeting of the 2007-08 season, he said: "We're talking about playing time today, and that's it for the rest of the season. You want playing time? You get playing time in practice."
Eventually, a parent complained to the school district, and even though Collins was exonerated, it reminded him of getting run out of Acalanes. As time passed, he wallowed in regret. "In Richmond, he felt responsible for making sure the kids made it to school, had dinner — they were his family," said Cesario, the school's athletic director. "In Pleasanton, the kids have moms and dads, they don't need a family." After two years, Collins resigned, saying he needed to quit this time to "save his life."
As Collins unraveled in Pleasanton, the Richmond High Oilers won the team's first NCS championship, earning another trip to the state tournament. Collins watched from the bleachers as his kids brought home the NCS title — a prize that has eluded him in more than 25 years of coaching. "Some of us were in tears when we looked up into the stands and saw Collins," Holman recalled. "We won that championship for him."
After most of the Collins-era players graduated in 2007, Oilers basketball relapsed to its pre-Carter state of hopelessness. In two seasons under Coach Donnye Ross, the team compiled a 4-45 record, losing games by lopsided scores of 97-26, 109-30, and 109-42.
Basketball aside, Ross also was managing the personal traumas of his players: Three kids' fathers had been murdered and another had witnessed his brother's murder — he was shot multiple times in the back of the head at a bowling alley (his step-brother had also been murdered a few years earlier). And then, midway through his second season, one of Ross' own players was murdered. The victim's brother was also a member of the team. "It was very, very difficult," Ross said. "When you look at the dynamics of coaching in an environment like that, it makes you really evaluate where you want to be."
By the last game of Ross' tenure, the Oilers had only eight players left in the program.
Collins, meanwhile, had been rehired as a physical education instructor at Richmond High in June 2008, but he kept his distance from the basketball team; he needed to get healthy. "My doctor told me everything that was wrong with me: heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity — and that I wasn't going to be around very long" without some significant lifestyle changes.
That year, Collins hit the gym before sunrise every morning, riding the bike for a half-hour, running sprints another half-hour, then lifting weights for a couple more hours later in the day. As the year progressed, a bunch of students started dropping in to pump iron with him. "It was probably one of the coolest times in my life because he was there to talk to me and help me stay positive when my life was getting really negative," said Kalani Mouton, who'd lived in six different homes that year. By the end of the school year Collins had dropped more than one hundred pounds.
But tragedy struck over the summer when Collins' mother suffered a heart attack and died. "She was my support," Collins said. "I could do no wrong in her eyes, she always had my back." In the fall, Mouton and couple other kids from basketball team pressured the principal into rehiring Collins. "They kept saying, 'You gotta hire Collins, you gotta hire Collins," said Principal Julio Franco. Collins was reluctant at first, but he eventually agreed. "I needed something to do because the only thing that was in my mind was the pain I was going through," Collins said.
In a matter of weeks, he was picking up the pieces of the program he had abandoned a few years earlier. He committed himself to a new philosophy: teacher first, coach second. "Let's face it: Last time, when I was driving those guys all over the place, I knew they were damn good players," Collins said. "If you're truly a teacher, it's about the development of a young person, watching them become a more complete person."