By Trey Williams
Ryan Collins might’ve failed miserably trying to emulate Michael Jordan as a child in his driveway, but he’s doing a pretty good impression of Dean Smith and Phil Jackson these days.
Collins, who played for University High (Class of 2005) and was an assistant at Science Hill (2009-14), led Alcoa to a Class AA state championship on Saturday.
The title run required a steady hand on the wheel. The Tornadoes, which won their final 12 games of the season after starting 18-8, defeated Frederick Douglas 59-58 in the championship after beating Pearl Cohn 65-62 to in the quarterfinals and outlasting Brainerd, 71-68, in the semifinals.
State tournament Most Valuable Player Jahvin Carter capped the nail-biting run with a difficult, driving left-handed basket with four seconds remaining in the championship game. Douglas missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw with 12 seconds remaining after Collins had taken a timeout in hopes of “icing” the free throw shooter.
“Eli Owens was fortunate enough to get the rebound and then everybody knew the ball was going to Jahvin,” Collins said. “And he ends up making a heck of a left-handed layup.”
Collins didn’t exactly run around like Jim Valvano.
“I was excited,” said Collins, who entered the postgame handshake relatively calmly. “But it almost felt like a loss because there wasn’t another game to prepare for.”
Ryan’s father Larry was out of the country, but his mother (Christine) and brothers (Sean, Evan and Alden) were in attendance.
“That was an incredible experience to be able to share, you know, those moments with them,” Collins said. “Ultimately, I think anytime it comes to big moments in your life, you want to share ‘em with the ones you love the most.”
Alden is the coach at Morristown East. Evan owns a technology business in Johnson City and Sean works for Habitat for Humanity and lives in Nashville.
“Sean and Evan were freshmen when I was a senior,” Collins said. “I coached Shawn and Evan. Their senior year was when we went to the Final Four at University High. I also helped out with Alden’s eighth-grade team when I was in college.”
Collins played for Tony Gordon at University High.
“Everything I know kind of basketball wise, it goes back to Tony Gordon,” Collins said. “He’s a heck of a coach. I think he really understands the game in terms of X’s and O’s. I wouldn’t say I was very good as a player, but I was pretty heady in a system I think to an extent. I understood it. And that was that was due to him. And I was very fortunate to play under somebody that I think like really knew the game of basketball. …
“When I was in college, Tony called me and asked me to coach with him. And you know, him putting his faith in me at such an early age, I mean, I’m literally in college, was everything.”
Collins was a savvy, tough-minded floor general. But two of his most vivid memories were moments of growth. One was a season-ending loss to Unaka in the region semifinals at Hancock County when he was a junior. The other was the final game of his high school career, a sectional loss at CAK.
The loss to Unaka came on a Rangers buzzer-beater. It prevented a second OT.
“We’ve got Unaka beat,” Collins said. “We had a backdoor lined up and I overthrew it out of bounds. Somehow, basically, that turnover led to a sequence where they answered and either overcame or pushed it to overtime. And then they literally went on to win the state championship that year.
“They had Rusty Chambers, and Tyler McCann was state MVP. I felt like I gave away the game. And Unaka went on and won the state.”
Collins concluded his playing career with a technical foul, which was his fifth foul. He thought he’d drawn a charge and slapped the floor with both hands after being knocked down and whistled for a blocking foul.
“I’d never gotten a technical in my career,” he said. “It fouled me out. So I didn’t even get to finish the game on the floor. And I just remember sitting over there in tears.
“But it was kind of like if you ask me for one moment where it’s like, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ – it was kind of that minute sitting on that bench. It was like, ‘I don’t want to be away from this. I need I need this in my life. I want my life to kind of be about this.’ There’s just a certain feel to being a part of something bigger than yourself and being a part of a team and chasing something.”
Gordon seemed to invariably note Collins’ contributions in postgame interviews.
“There is no more deserving coach to achieve a state championship than Ryan Collins,” Gordon said. “His drive to succeed is only surpassed by the deep love he has for basketball and his players. I am so fortunate to have coached Ryan and coached with him. He is the definition of class and I am extremely proud of him.
“Just don’t ask about his last play at UH. … That was the only tech he even came close to getting as a player.”
Former Collins teammate Aaron Woodacre, the 2007 Northeast Tennessee player of the year, said Collins was a coach on the court during their playing days.
“I’m extremely proud of Coach Collins for winning state,” Woodacre said. “As a player, Ryan was a relentless competitor and leader on the court. There’s no doubt in my mind he has brought that same mentality into coaching and in his program. Though this may be Ryan’s first state title, I’d bet it won’t be his last.”
Collins said former East Tennessee State player Rodney English taught and coached at University High when he was in middle school.
“I always remember Rodney as someone who believed in me personally,” Collins said. “You grow up and you kind of idolize him and all those ETSU Bucs. And then for him to become a mentor and somebody who really, you know, was invested in me and believed in me was huge.”
Collins also coached under Gordon’s successor, Justin Penley, at University High. They advanced to the state semifinals with Josh Padgett leading the way.
“He gave me a lot of responsibility and kind of had a lot of faith and trust,” Collins said. “I’m still in college and he’s trusting me with a lot of stuff, whether it was practice segments or complete schemes.”
Collins wasn’t your average college student. Prior to helping Gordon, he was a manager for Karen Kemp’s ETSU women’s team during his freshman year. Along with frequently traveling with the team, he got to play on the scout team against players such as B.J. Banjo, Brooke Wilhoit and Michele DeVault.
“All three of them kicked my tail every day,” Collins said. “Playing on the scout team, you’re running different actions, sets and schemes every practice. Karen Kemp was truly a class act.”
Working at Science Hill for Ken Cutlip when John Good was his assistant was invaluable as well.
“I think where Cutlip helped me most is that he knows how to run a program from top to bottom,” Collins said. “And I think he understands how to win at the highest levels. I think he does a very good job on holding kids accountable, whether you’re talking about in the classroom or on the court. I think he’s very consistent in his approach. …
“And then one that goes unnoticed during that time I’m working at Science Hill was John. Yes, he was an assistant, but that man was a head coach. I learned how to serve kids from John, I think. And just to see how hard that man worked every single day, and it was about serving kids first.”
Collins almost certainly could’ve succeeded Cutlip last summer. Trouble was, he didn’t apply. Alcoa is on a year-round schedule, and Collins had already begun teaching. Plus, he was happy and had a heck of a team returning.
“When that job came open, the timing just was not right at all – on a lot of different levels,” Collins said. “I’m in a really good spot here. I’m extremely blessed. To me it was like God was closing that door with the timing That’s how I felt about it.”
Certainly, the basketball gods rewarded him for his decision.