Some pretty important people have dropped by campus through the years.
Elvis. The Clintons. Dicky V.
But the special guest late, great Illini assistant Jimmy Collins remembers most didn’t get a hero’s welcome at Willard or a standing O at the building formerly known as the Assembly Hall.
He showed up for a weekend recruiting visit in the fall of 1998, as the Flyin’ Illini were getting ready for their Final Four season.
He was 17 years old and close to 7 feet tall, with arms that looked like they should be fed three times a day and a clock hanging from a chain around his neck.
“I can remember walking around with him for just about a day before my curiosity finally killed me,” Collins said. “I said, 'Let me ask you a question.’ And he said, 'Yeah?’ And I said, 'Why you got that big, ol’ clock on your chest?’
“And he looked at me in the strangest way and said, 'So I can tell time.'"
Oh, that silly Shaq.
As you probably know, Shaquille O’Neal didn’t sign with Illinois that fall. But Collins came close. The only other school that got the big guy to visit — LSU — is where the San Antonio slammer wound up.
“I felt really good about Shaquille,” Collins said. “I thought, in fact, he would sign with us.”
Had he visited in July instead of November, he might have.
“The first day, the weather was nice. The second day, the weather was nice. He was having a great time,” Collins said. “On the third day, I drove him back to O’Hare and the weather turned cold on us. It started to snow. It turned really, really miserable, and he just had a little light coat on.
“When we were coming into Chicago, I looked over at him and he was kind of shaking. I said, 'Uh-oh.'"
Collins didn’t miss much back in those days.
“I’d like to think that anybody at that particular time that I was going after, we would have gotten,” he said.
The former Chicago probation officer was especially hard to beat in his old stomping grounds, where he was Ditka-popular.
“Illinois was Chicago’s team,” said Simeon coach Bob Hambric, who entrusted Collins with Nick Anderson and Ervin Small and Deon Thomas and Bryant Notree and Kevin Turner. “And that was mainly because of Jimmy Collins’ influence with the Chicago Public League Association.”
Collins is the one who landed Anderson, a McDonald’s All-American, from Simeon. And Lowell Hamilton, Street & Smith’s No. 1 player in the nation, from Providence-St. Mel. And Marcus Liberty, USA Today’s High School Player of the Year, from Chicago King. And Kendall Gill, a News-Gazette All-Stater, from Rich Central.
And his influence extended beyond the Windy City limits. He helped Alton’s Larry Smith make up his mind, even though he wasn’t the UI assistant responsible for recruiting him.
“Coach (Dick) Nagy, white guy, came down here and was trying to sell it,” Smith said. “Then one time, he brings Coach Collins, and Coach Collins is like, ‘Man, you coming or what? Quit playing.’
“I’m like, 'I’m coming, man.'"
He had a way with words and kids. He was as much a counselor as a coach, more buddy than bossy.
“My father, my brother, my friend,” Hamilton said.
“He was the backbone, he was the foundation, he was the concrete,” Small said.
He was the coach Liberty and Small leaned on when they were trying to get through rough first seasons as Proposition 48 casualties.
He was the coach Anderson turned to when he was trying to decide whether he should go pro early.
He was the coach who’d stop by players’ apartments at 10 o’clock at night.
Just to hang out.
“You hear a knock on your door, and you think it’s some girl,” Smith said. “No, it’s Coach Collins. 'What y’all doing? Scoot over. Let me sit down.’ He was like that.”
So you can imagine how many of Illnois’ all-time greats felt in the spring of 1996, when Lou Henson stepped down and Collins wasn’t selected to succeed him.
After delivering oodles of all- staters in 13 years of service, they figured Illinois owed the guy.
“They just didn’t show any loyalty,” Hamilton said. “Even if they had seriously considered him ... I don’t even think he got that. They didn’t show class. They didn’t show University of Illinois class.”
In the end, things worked out just fine for Collins, who died Sunday, just weeks after celebrating his 74th birthday.
The same offseason that Illinois hired Lon Kruger away from Florida — he stayed four seasons before moving on to the Atlanta Hawks — UIC gave Collins his head coaching break. He stayed 14 years, retiring as the winningest coach in school history (218-208 record) and leading the Flames to their first, second, third and fourth postseason berths (three NCAAs, one NIT).