Finding His Niche



May 26, 2010

He was sitting on the curb, along with his brother and their friends, anxiously awaiting the return of his father, who was bringing a special guest home for dinner. As his dad’s car became visible around the corner, his excitement grew. He and his friends started running with the car, escorting it into the driveway. Their guest was an old Army buddy of his father’s and a major league baseball player who was in Chicago at the time for a series.

He got out of the car and was wearing a suit and tie as he always did when he came to the house for dinner. Before supper, he would take off his coat, roll up his sleeves and play catch with the young boy and his friends. However, for Robert Collins, who is retiring from NIU this summer after 21 years at the school, playing catch with Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, it was more than just playing catch. It was a glimpse into his future.

The Brooklyn Dodger star became the model to Collins would follow as he worked his way up from a high school basketball coach in the Chicago Public League, to an assistant coach at the college level and ultimately to deputy director of athletics at Northern Illinois University.

A young Robert Collins (right) eats dinner with a family friend and
old Army buddy of his father, Charles (left), Jackie Robinson (center).

After working for his father, Charles, in the family’s funeral home during the summers, Collins could have easily followed his father, mother, DeLois, and brother, Charles II, into the funeral business.

“My father, never once, encouraged or discouraged me to get into the funeral business,” Collins said. “He ended up doing something he didn’t plan on doing, so he never forced me to do anything I didn’t want to do. He always felt let life take you wherever you are going to go. Now I can look back on that and appreciate that.”

So, upon graduating from Chicago’s Hirsch High School, Collins headed to Tennessee State on a baseball scholarship. After earning his bachelors degree in 1971, he returned to Chicago to begin a 15-year career as a teacher and basketball coach in the Chicago public school system. The experience and success he gained as a head coach at Calumet (1977-79) and Robeson (1980-86), along with the contacts he made in the city of Chicago, made him a hot commodity to local college coaches.

In 1986, Jim Rosborough, NIU’s head men’s basketball coach, offered Collins a position on his staff. When Rosborough was dismissed after three seasons, Collins was left looking for another job. He was named the interim head coach, and there was a rumor he would be retained by the Huskies’ new head coach, Jim Molinari. As it turned out, Molinari did have a job offer for Collins, but it wasn’t with NIU.

“I waited all day long and finally he [Jim Molinari] walks in and says, ‘Joey Meyer wants you to give him a call.’ I said ‘okay’ and I called Joey,” said Collins. “[Meyer] asked if I could come down [to DePaul] in the morning. I went down the next morning and he hired me on the spot.”

Collins began a successful three-year career at DePaul, where he was instrumental in recruiting the No. 5 and No. 12 recruiting classes in the country, signing Illinois’ Mr. Basketball, Howard Nathan, and the runner-up, Tommy Kleinschmidt, in the same season. During his tenure with DePaul, the Blue Demons won 60 games and went to the NIT once and the NCAA Tournament twice. As a result, Collins’ name came up in connection with various head coaching vacancies. However, he was unable to get his opportunity.

“As I look back, I was probably a little before my time,” he said. “Colleges and universities were not hiring a lot of minority coaches at that time. I was the second choice for about four jobs. Because of the inability to get that head coaching job, I got a little frustrated. It just didn’t seem like it would crack.”

One day, Collins received a call from Northern Illinois athletic director Gerald O’Dell about an opportunity to return to DeKalb, not as a head coach, but as an administrator. Collins declined, but that didn’t deter O’Dell. He placed a second call to the young DePaul assistant a few days later and persuaded Collins to meet with him. The two met in Aurora to talk about an associate athletics director position, but Collins still wasn’t interested. O’Dell wasn’t interested in hearing no and called Collins back a week later.

Collins turned to his mentor, Dr. Jacqueline Simmons, the principal at Robeson High School, who had hired Collins as head coach in 1980. She asked him what he saw as his future.

“I said I’d like to get a head coaching job, win the national championship and probably go on to administration,” Collins said. “She said, ‘suppose the coaching and championship gets bypassed? Your foot’s already in the door.’

“You always want to be wanted. It appeared they wanted me. I just bit on it. It was like anything else I’ve ever done. I made the best of it, looked to be the best I could be, find my niche, find out where I could make the biggest impact to help people and go after it.”

Collins returned to DeKalb in 1992 and began to define the newly-created position. One of two administrators with sport responsibilities, Collins worked with nine different sports.

One of the first roles Collins saw for himself was to become the liaison between coaches and members of the athletic department support staff. Some relationships with coaches and support staff were strained because their timing when approaching coaches with administrative details was not always the best. Having been a coach, Collins knew talking to a coach the day before a big game wasn’t always the best way to get the desired results.

“I know when to and I know how to,” Collins said about approaching coaches. “I was there to make it easier for coaches. Helping, mentoring, working with students, working with assistant and head coaches, I just felt natural. Not everyone can do that.”

Collins presents former Huskie head man Joe Novak (left) with
a photo of NIU's game at Soldier Field at Novak's retirement celebration.

While many people work their way up through the system in order to attain a high position in administration, Collins’ path was less conventional. He was named an associate athletic director with no administrative experience and six years as an assistant coach at the collegiate level. As a result, many doubted not only his qualifications, but his abilities. That’s when the example set by Robinson proved to be invaluable to Collins.

“People thought I got the job because of affirmative action,” he said. “I looked at that adversity I faced like Jackie did. If I’m one of the first few black administrators to get this shot, I can’t mess it up.

“That was why his model meant so much to me. He was under extreme scrutiny and wasn’t even a favorite on his own team. All I could do was what he did, show what you’re worth.”

Robinson wasn’t the only African-American male to influence Collins’ life. Heavyweight champion Joe Louis, and singers Cab Calloway and Billy Eckstine were also in Mr. Collins’ Army unit. Every time any of those men were on the television, it was must see TV in the Collins household. Even at a young age, he understood the impact those men were making on not only the African-American community, but the country.

“Whenever they were on T.V., we were watching,” he said. “We were into that. When my father said, Jackie is coming over, it was just amazing to me. Knowing what he was going through, because my folks would talk openly about it, how could I not be entrenched in that?

“My father always wanted me to look up to people. He wanted me to appreciate others.”

Collins began to evolve as the position evolved. In addition to working with coaches and administrators, he also maintained a close relationship with the student-athletes. His job description expanded even further in 2005 when Jim Phillips took over as NIU’s director of athletics.

“When Jim Phillips came, that’s when we really got into student-athlete welfare,” he said. “He really liked my vision and what I saw. He said, ‘Robert take a week, re-invent yourself and tell me what you want to do and how you would best help us.’ I laid out this program of student-athlete well-being to include strength & conditioning, athletic training and equipment. When I brought it back to him he said, ‘I’m convinced. This is what we need to do.’”

Through initiatives like the annual Student-Athlete Convention, Collins spoke to student-athletes about taking advantage of the opportunities given to them, seizing the moment and taking charge of their lives. He also warned of the pitfalls that can derail them from achieving success by relaying real-life stories of student-athletes who lost it all by making one mistake.

“I’ve been over to the courthouse to get kids out of jail,” he said. “I’ve talked to kids between the bars. They have to understand what they have right now. If they don’t, here are some things that can slip in on you. That’s been one of my biggest deals.

“I try to make them understand they’re in a great situation with a great opportunity, then put the programs together to support them and get them through it.”

The support Collins provided to student-athletes, male and female, black and white, cannot be overstated. Many kids that come to NIU are leaving home for the first time. Some, like Patrick Stephen, came not just to a new city, but a new country.

(L-R) Stephen, Garett Sutherland, Collins, Donnavan Carter, and Orlando Bowen met up at the
Rogers Centre during NIU's trip to Toronto, Canada for the 2010 International Bowl.

Stephen, a native Canadian, played football for the Huskies from 1995-98. He remembers the impact Collins had on him.

“He was always a guy that you knew you could go to if you needed advice,” Stephen said. “Especially for me, being from another country, a lot of times you want someone you could talk to. He was always that guy that we could go to. Beyond football, he cared about you. That’s something that was always clear.”

Collins is most proud of the relationships he built with student-athletes over the years. When many come back to campus for visits, his office is one of their first stops. One of those former students is NIU’s all-time leading rusher, Garrett Wolfe.

“Every time I come back to campus I had to see Robert Collins. He always took good care of me as a student-athlete,” Wolfe said. “When my family was down, he treated my family as if it was his family. You could ask my mother and father. They hold him in high regard, not only because of the way he treated my family and I, but that he treated all student-athletes in a very respectful and kind way. The relationship he had with the student-athletes was a very positive one to say the least.”

Wolfe recalled an incident early in his career when Collins was there for him. During his redshirt sophomore year, Wolfe was out with some of his teammates on a Saturday night. A fight broke out and he took a sucker punch to the eye. An investigation ensued and many jumped to the conclusion Wolfe was doing something he shouldn’t have been. Through it all, Collins was standing by Wolfe’s side.

“The whole time, Mr. Collins was in my corner just reassuring me things are going to be all right,” Wolfe said. “He was making sure that I didn’t get down on myself because I felt like I let my teammates down by not being able to play in that Toledo game.”

The next week, when Wolfe broke the school’s single-game rushing record against Eastern Michigan, Collins was there again.

“I remember him grabbing me as we were walking off the field and him telling me how proud he was of not only my performance and of us winning the game, but bouncing back from the incident that occurred the week before,” Wolfe said.

Collins had a powerful impact on many Northern Illinois student-athletes including NIU's
all-time leading rusher, Garrett Wolfe (right), and former wide receiver Jarret Carter (left).

As Collins grew into and became comfortable as a member of the administrative teams for Northern Illinois athletic directors, Collins had many opportunities to lead his own athletic department at other schools across the country. It was his relationships with Huskie student-athletes that kept him at NIU.

“At the time I began to look at being an AD, the trend was to hire external people and those that can raise money,” Collins said. “I felt like [student-athlete well-being] became my niche. I didn’t want to go to another level. I didn’t want to lose the pulse of the student. I felt I was making an impact in what I was doing. That’s probably what kept me here and why I stayed.”

Like his childhood idol, Collins was a trailblazer. He was one of the few African-American collegiate administrators when he accepted the position 18 years ago. Like Robinson, Collins felt a responsibility to do the best he can for those that would follow him. During his tenure in DeKalb, he defined a position that had no real definition. As he leaves the university, Collins is defined by the impact he had on thousands of student-athletes.

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