Phil Collins’ college basketball career at West Virginia University almost ended before it ever got started. Collins, now living and working just outside of Cleveland in Concord, Ohio, explains.
“I was having dinner down at Maxwell’s with Dana Perno on my recruiting visit and I saw a couple of guys at the next table steal a guy’s watch,” said Collins in his still-thick Chicago accent. “He left his keys and watch on the table and went up to get his order at the counter and the guy just took his watch and put it in his pocket.
“So we just ended up going at it.”
When the dust settled, Perno had a lot of explaining to do … first to the Mountaineer coaches, and then, yes, to a couple of city police officers afterward. Filing a police report is never a good way to go about recruiting.
“He was scared to death,” laughed Collins. “He thought he had blown the recruiting trip. He didn’t want to make the phone call.”
Eventually everything was resolved and Collins became West Virginia’s No. 1 enforcer on some really good Mountaineer basketball teams in the early 1980s, including WVU’s 1982 squad that won a nation’s-best 23 games in a row, made a brief appearance in the top 10 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was the school’s first NCAA trip in 15 years.
As a prep player, Collins was named player of the year at Chicago’s Southwest Suburban High in 1978 and the Palos Heights, Ill., native committed to play for Marquette before poor grades derailed those plans.
“My grades were not very good,” Collins admitted. “I didn’t pay attention in high school and my grades did not project so I went to Dodge City, Kansas. I wanted to go to a program that was competitive nationally in the junior college ranks, and we ended up being No. 2 or No. 3 in the country that one year.”
West Virginia coach Gale Catlett found out about Collins through his junior college coach Duncan Reid, who worked with Catlett at Kansas on Ted Owens’ staff. Meanwhile, at the same time the Mountaineer basketball coaches were pursuing Collins, unbeknownst to them, women’s track coach Linda King was also recruiting Collins’ girlfriend Debbie Sabotka, who was also at Dodge City.
“While I was in junior college, my girlfriend and I got a lot more serious and they had a pretty good track program at West Virginia. (Assistant coach) Bobby Joe Smith helped show me all about West Virginia, what was there, and what it could offer,” Collins recalled.
The two ended up coming to WVU as a package deal.
Collins was always his team’s top scorer, averaging nearly 20 points per game in junior college, but he realized immediately that his role was going to be much different when he got to West Virginia.
“You’ve got athletes like Greg Jones, Russel Todd, Lester Rowe … I mean those were athletes that you kind of just fit by being a different type of role player,” Collins explained. “I was actually a scorer in high school and junior college.”
It’s not that Collins couldn’t score, the center averaging more than seven points per game and producing 27 double-digit scoring performances for his career, but it was his blue collar, rough-and-tumble playing style that really fit well with the team and endeared him to West Virginia basketball fans - despite gravity always seeming to have its arms wrapped tightly around his waist.
Almost every time the ball was in Phil’s hands near the basket, he would go through a series of pump fakes, gyrations and other maneuvers until he felt the moment was right to take his shot. And when he finally did set sail toward the rim he didn’t exactly soar – it was more like a flailing duck full of buckshot making a last attempt at liftoff before crashing to the ground.
As he let go of the basketball, both arms would fly out, usually catching an unsuspecting defender on the jaw on the way up, but more often than not the ball would somehow find its way through the cylinder. Collins said his contortionist act around the basket was an absolute necessity; otherwise, he would have had the word “Spalding” permanently engraved on his forehead.
“If I hit somebody once or twice they wouldn’t go after it anymore,” he reasoned. “It was pure survival.”
Collins was the one who usually got tangled up with guys like Pitt’s Sam Clancy, Duquesne’s Bruce Atkins or St. Bonaventure’s Eric Stover. Whenever Collins and one of those guys hit the floor it was like putting two small dogs in a small room together – you knew something was going to happen.
Collins fouled out of 23 games, including 19 times during his first two seasons with the Mountaineers. Then he began shaving his head as a senior, which made him look even more sinister - like a 6-foot-9-inch Manson Family member – and the refs for some reason quit fouling him out. He was only disqualified four times during his senior season in 1982.
“(Shaving his head) came about because I had lost a bet to a friend of mine, and I don’t even remember what the bet was about,” Collins said. “It was just a fun thing and I ended up liking it. I saw some of the guys at our basketball reunion recently and I told Mike King and Quentin Freeman, who have their heads shaved now, that I started the whole trend – I was doing it before anybody was.”
Collins said he looked forward to his battles with Duquesne, Rutgers, Penn State and St. Bonaventure, but the game that really got him excited was Pitt. A quick check of his career stat line shows that Collins usually played well against the Panthers. The one Backyard Brawl he particularly enjoyed was the 1982 victory up in Pittsburgh when a late lane violation call helped the Mountaineers escape with a 48-45 victory. Classy Pitt fans rained the court with paper cups, small change and garbage as the Mountaineer players ran to the safety of their locker room.
“It was just pure bedlam at the end,” said Collins. “The place erupted so it was just, ‘Get the hell out of here!’ I remember the call in the lane, but I don’t remember much after that. The fun part was reading the Pittsburgh papers the next couple of days – they were just livid.”
Catlett, too, poured gasoline on an open flame by calling the Panther program “mediocre” later that season. That remark sent Panther rooters convulsing.
“He liked to turn the knife a little bit,” Collins laughed. “He’d get on that podium and he’d say things that just drove those people crazy. You just never knew what was going to come out of his mouth.”
Or what he was going to come up with during games. Catlett was a terrific tactical coach who could make adjustments on the fly as well as anyone in the business.
“Once tipoff hit, Coach was able to see what was going on out there and make adjustments,” said Collins. “During that (23-game winning) streak, we won a lot of games based on what he saw out there.”
Sometimes, Catlett’s players weren’t always certain what he was drawing up on the board during timeouts. To them, what he was scribbling below looked more like the instructions for the A-bomb rather than the diagram for a winning basketball play. Collins remembers that happening to him a few times.
“On one of the highlight reels there is a scene of him in the huddle with all of the guys and you hear this voice of a guy asking this asinine question and that was me,” laughed Collins. “Thank god I wasn’t on camera, but it was my voice asking the question and Coach goes, ‘What the hell?’
“I’ve got plausible deniability with that one!”
Today, Collins is the area commercial sales manager for an electrical and lighting distributor in northeast Ohio. He is remarried and has two daughters with his first wife – Kelsey and Katie – and two step-daughters, Allyson and Kristen, with his current wife.
“There are no more fights for the bathroom,” he laughed. “I was lucky, the kids all got along – they were so close in age, but it was just a zoo around here for a lot of years before they grew up.”
Collins said he has been to a handful of Mountaineer basketball games through the years and only recently reconnected with the University. He came back for the WVU Varsity Club’s men’s basketball team reunion last month.
“I don’t know how they found me?” he said. “Nobody knew where I was. I had been in touch with Coach (Gary McPherson) because I went up to the team hotel when West Virginia played in Cleveland for the NCAA tournament a few years back and Coach Mac got me some tickets to the game.
“I’ve been to probably six or seven games, which isn’t a lot over 25 years, but I do follow them on TV when I can,” Collins said. “I didn’t follow (John) Beilein much, but I was real excited when Huggs got the job and my interest picked up at that point.”
As for his three seasons playing at WVU, when the school reestablished itself as a force to be reckoned with in college basketball, Collins said it was a great time to be a Mountaineer student and an athlete back then living in Morgantown.
“I don’t think I could have picked a better school for myself,” he said. “I was on the same page with Coach Catlett, and as a tactician he was without peer. His motivation was fantastic. You didn’t want to cross him, but at the same time, he was a guy that you definitely wanted to have your back.”
For those of you wondering, Collins’ 23 disqualifications are just one behind Tom Lowry for the school record, so I suppose it’s only fitting that he would also be doing a little high school refereeing in his spare time.
Who better to know what a foul is than Phil Collins?