Odysseus, the central character in Homer’s eighth-century classic the “Odyssey,” survived 10 years of arduous travel to reach his destination. The circuitous journey of football coach Geoff Collins ’94 has been less dangerous but more than twice as long, with 11 stops between Cullowhee and his current home in Philadelphia.
Collins, a starting linebacker for Western Carolina University (1991-92) and the Catamounts’ defensive coordinator for four seasons (2002-05), was introduced as the head football coach at Temple University this past December. Ironically, he replaced Matt Ruhle, who now directs Baylor University’s football program and served under Collins at WCU as a defensive assistant coach. Temple is coming off a landmark 10-4 season in which the Owls won the American Athletic Conference championship, was ranked 23rd nationally and played in a bowl game.
Collins was a member of WCU legend Bob Waters’ last recruiting class in 1989 out of Rockdale County High in Conyers, Georgia. A walk-on, he was awarded a scholarship after his freshman season. He recorded 191 tackles in his last three seasons as a Catamount and was a key defensive player on the 1992 team that was five points short of going undefeated in the Southern Conference, was nationally ranked the last three weeks of the season and defeated Marshall, the NCAA I-AA national champion.
According to his teammates, coaches and those he worked with in his chosen profession, the coaching trait was detected early in Collins’ DNA. Steve Hodgin MAEd ’83, WCU’s head coach during Collins’ final three seasons, said “…he was like a coach on the field, always prepared as he constantly watched film, had a high football IQ, made adjustments on the fly and helped his teammates do the same.”
Tom Bodine ’95, a WCU Athletics Hall of Fame inductee and the Catamounts’ all-time leading tackler, and Collins were teammates for two seasons. “The younger players would follow his work ethic, and we learned a lot about how to play the game,” Bodine said. “As a graduate assistant coach, Geoff had a unique talent for understanding what the opposing offense was doing. We knew he would be a great coach.”
Mark Speir MAEd ’95, WCU’s current head football coach, was a young assistant coach during Collins’ junior and senior seasons, and coached with him in the 1993 and 1994 seasons. “Geoff was a very focused, intelligent player who played hard and physical and was a leader on and off the field,” Speir said. “There are natural football players and there are those like Geoff, who loved the game and worked hard to be great. That’s why he is where he is today.”
Hodgin launched Collins’ career in 1993 by awarding him a postgraduate scholarship to serve as an assistant on WCU’s defensive staff. Collins’ first full-time position was at Fordham in 1996. That was followed by stints at Albright (Pennsylvania) and Georgia Tech (1999-2001) before he returned to Cullowhee as defensive coordinator for four seasons alongside then-head coach Kent Briggs ’79 MAEd ’81. Collins made a second stop at Georgia Tech in 2006, followed by positions at Alabama (2007), Central Florida (2008-09) and Florida International (2010) before becoming defensive coordinator at Mississippi State for three seasons, where his 2014 unit was the nation’s best “red-zone” defense.
Collins spent the past two seasons at Florida as defensive coordinator, and last year’s squad was ranked in the nation’s top 10 in total defense and scoring defense. He became known as the “Minister of Mayhem” around the Southeastern Conference for his aggressive defenses. Sixteen Collins-coached players have been drafted by NFL teams.
Jim McElwain, his boss at Florida, said Collins is “a relentless recruiter that can motivate players and understands the game on both sides of the ball.” Nick Saban, Alabama’s legendary head coach, calls Collins “a very intelligent football coach who brings an extraordinary amount of positive energy and enthusiasm to his job.”
Collins credits his time at WCU for preparing him for his coaching career. “I knew in high school I wanted to be a college football coach, and Western Carolina put me on that path,” he said. “WCU will always be special to me and my family, as that is where I was given my first opportunity to go after my dream and is where I met my wife.” Collins and his wife, the former Jennifer Haynes ’96, are the parents of an infant daughter, Astrid.
When asked if Philadelphia might be the final stop on his odyssey, Collins laughed and said, “I’m having a blast being a head coach with all that comes with it – recruiting, developing a game plan for winning games and championships, and graduating young men.”
Who knows the answer to that question, but keep in mind that Odysseus was thought to have made a stop in the ancient Turkish city of Philadelphia on his way home.