Bobby Collins, backed by several of his former players, was honored for his accomplishments at Southern Miss in 2018. (Photo courtesy Southern Miss sports information)

Laurel native Bobby Collins became head football coach at Southern Miss the same year I was promoted to sports editor of the Hattiesburg American. We were rookies together. That was 1975, seemingly a lifetime ago.

Rick Cleveland

Collins, who died at the age of 88 Monday in Hattiesburg, remains, to this day, the best football coach I ever covered on a day-to-day basis. He could, in the words of Florida A&M coach and football philosopher Jake Gaither, “take his’n and beat your’n or take your’n and beat his’n.”

And yet Collins is best remembered nationally for being the head coach at then-powerhouse SMU when the Mustangs received the NCAA death penalty because of a pay-for-play scheme that preceded Collins’ arrival. That is a shame, and we will get to that.

At Southern Miss, his teams beat his alma mater, Mississippi State, five of seven. He beat Ole Miss three of the last four times he faced the Rebels (he was 3-3 against the Rebs overall). He tied the legendary Bear Bryant at Alabama. He annihilated Bobby Bowden at Florida State. He played nearly all those games on the road. 

In fact in 1975, Southern Miss played all its games on the road because its home stadium was being doubled in size. Collins’ Golden Eagles finished 7-4, trouncing No. 20 BYU in the last game of the season at Jackson.

Remember that splendid 1980 Mississippi State team, loaded with future NFL stars, that stunned Bryant and No. 1 Alabama 6-3? Southern Miss beat those same Bulldogs 42-7 on State’s homecoming. There was at least one happy State alum there that day: Collins, a former State quarterback, punter and assistant coach.

“We had a bunch of no-names, but Coach Collins made us feel like we were as good as anybody who ever stepped on the field,” said Sammy Winder, a walk-on running back who went on to start in three Super Bowls. “We didn’t have any brand-name guys, but we bought into what he was saying and what he was teaching and we won a bunch of games against brand name teams.”

Collins’ Southern Miss teams were not fancy. They ran the ball more than they threw it. They played ferocious defense. They were efficient. They blocked, they tackled. They hit hard. Really hard. They were fundamentally as sound as any teams you will ever see.

They had talent; they just found it where the powerhouse teams weren’t looking. While State and Ole Miss (and Alabama and Notre Dame and everybody else) were recruiting a high school All American quarterback named Eddie Hornback out of Ocean Springs, Southern Miss spent all its time just down the road recruiting a tall, skinny kid in D’Iberville named Reggie Collier, who had played only one full season of high school football.

Notre Dame got Hornback. Southern Miss beat Tulane for Collier, who was Lamar Jackson before Lamar Jackson, one of the most breath-taking talents in Mississippi football history. Collins and his staff beat Nicholls State on wide receiver Louis Lipps of Reserve, La., who would become the AFC Rookie of the Year for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Southern Miss found cornerback Hanford Dixon in Theodore, Ala., tight end Marvin Harvey in Marianna, Fla., and linebacker Cliff Lewis in Brewton, Ala. All were lightly recruited. All became pros, Dixon a three-time Pro Bowler.

Bobby Collins’ specialty was projecting unknown talent and then motivating it. (Photo courtesy Southern Miss sports information)

“Bobby Collins understood people,” Reggie Collier said. “Some coaches have one style of coaching and they expect everybody to fall in line with that. Coach knew how to adjust to different people. He knew how to motivate, how to lift you up when you were down, how to make you feel better about yourself.

“I was an introvert coming in to Southern from a small school,” Collier continued. “I was shy, unsure of myself. Being an African American, playing the position I was playing, I needed somebody who understood where I was and what I was facing. Coach knew what to say and when to say it. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He took Southern Miss to another level and I am still proud to have been a part of that.”

Collins had been a career assistant before Roland Dale hired him at Southern Miss. He had worked on both sides of the football — offense and defense — at Mississippi State, at Colorado State, and at George Washington. He had been the offensive coordinator at Virginia Tech and the defensive coordinator at North Carolina. He was ready.

Jeff Bower, another Hall of Fame football coach, was the quarterback on Collins’ first Southern Miss team, the one that didn’t play a true home game. “Bobby changed the culture at Southern Miss,” Bower said. ”He did what nobody thought was possible. He did it by out-working everybody and getting his guys to out-work everybody. He made us believe in ourselves. He hired good people and let them coach. He was demanding but he made you want to work.”

Bower gets steamed — and then some — when someone suggests that Collins won football games by buying players. Southern Miss went on probation after Collins left for SMU, but as we have previously discussed, he didn’t have to cheat to get his best talent in Hattiesburg. At SMU, he inherited a football program where the play-for-play system reached all the way to the Texas governor’s office. It’s true. You can look it up.

Said Bower, “Anybody who believes Bobby Collins won because of cheating doesn’t understand the culture in college football back then. Bobby won because he and his staff out-worked and out-coached people.”

You should also know Collins always handled himself as a gentleman in every dealing I ever had with him — and there were some tough times in a 2-9 season of 1976. That USM team lost its first nine games, kept playing hard, kept believing, and finally won its last two. The next year, Southern Miss beat Ole Miss, State and Auburn. And they only got better thereafter. That’s the way I’ll remember Bobby Collins.

Visitation for Thurman L. (Bobby) Collins will be Wednesday at 9 a.m., and funeral services will be at 11 a.m. at Hulett-Winstead Funeral Home in Hattiesburg. Interment will be at 1 p.m. at Hickory Grove Cemetery, Laurel.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.