The retirement of educator-coach Pat Collins, who understands the true value of high school sports, is a big loss for the area sports community

Coaches like Pat Collins only come around so often, and their full value can never be measured in wins and losses.

That’s why the Muskegon area sports community took a really big hit on Friday when Collins, only 46, announced that he was stepping aside as the head football coach at Montague High School, just weeks after winning his third state championship.

Of course, when fans think about Collins, his amazing win-loss record and long list of championships are the first things that come to mind.

As a high school quarterback at Montague, he helped turn around a losing program and led the Wildcats to their first state finals appearance in 1993.

He became the head coach in 2004, taking over for his old coach and mentor, Ken Diamond, and only had one losing season in 17 years on the job.

His all-time record is 159-43. His teams have won three state championships, 12 district titles, eight regional championships, and captured or shared six West Michigan Conference titles.

His crowning achievement turned out to be Montague’s 2020 season, which bled into 2021 due to constant interruptions in the schedule caused by the pandemic. The Wildcats posted a perfect 12-0 record in the very odd season, and outscored opponents by a 574-114 margin.

His final great moment as Montague head coach was hoisting the Division 6 state championship trophy at Ford Field in January, following a 40-14 victory over Clinton in the title game.

At a postgame press conference, I asked his son, star senior quarterback Drew Collins, how it felt to do something his dad had never quite accomplished – winning a state title as a player.

Montague Coach Pat Collins. Photo/Tim Reilly

Drew was quick to point out that his father is still way ahead of him when it comes to winning the big ones.

“I’m at one and he’s at three,” the younger Collins said. Good point, Drew. Your dad has always been a big winner in high school football. The numbers speak for themselves.

But to talk to Collins, even just once, you quickly get the sense that he is far more than just a great football coach. He is an educator in every sense of the word, and clearly understands the real value of athletics for impressionable teens.

He believes in setting high standards for all students, because kids tend to respond and achieve when they are expected to respond and achieve.

“It can be hard sometimes, because things can get intense,” Coach Collins told LSJ last fall, when discussing the unusually high standards at his school. “We are very serious here about everything – athletics, academics, the band program, everything. I love it. I want everybody to be successful. For our kids to experience that type of culture is great for them, before they move on in life.”

Collins understands that strong life lessons, and crucial lifelong habits, are forged by the hard work and discipline required of high school athletes. And he understands that those lessons and habits are more important than any win or loss could ever be.

One lesson he modeled for his players was how to be graceful in defeat, even if you think the outcome was unjust.

A great example came in the 2019 state semifinals against Maple City Glen Lake. First the Wildcats squandered a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, and allowed Glen Lake to score on the final play of regulation and send the game to overtime.

In OT, Montague was one play from winning. All the Wildcats had to do was stop Glen Lake on fourth down from the Montague 5-yard line, and it appeared that they did that.

The Glen Lake QB completed a pass into the corner of the end zone, but the receiver appeared to be clearly out of bounds. But after a long consultation, the referees called it a TD, and the extra point ended Montague’s season.

Coach Pat Collins at the 2018 state finals at Ford Field. Photo/Tim Reilly

It was an incredibly frustrating game for the Wildcats, and ended on a maddening decision. Lots of fans were angry and agitated about the call, and many players and assistant coaches probably were, as well.

Here’s what Coach Collins said right after the game, when asked about the controversial call:

“The officials are like us, amateurs. So I’m not going to take anything away from the officials. It’s just hard for them to see sometimes. It was a busy game, with a lot of emotion. Our guys make mistakes, coaches make mistakes and officials make mistakes. They don’t have replay to help them out, so it’s not their fault. It’s just how it goes.”

By saying that, Collins reminded his players that unjust things sometimes happen. You can work extremely hard to achieve something, do all the right things, and sometimes life can rise up and block you from reaching your goal.

You have two choices – whine and spend the rest of your life talking about the unfairness of it all, or go back to work, push even harder, and give it another shot. You might make it, you might not, but either way, the effort will leave you in a better place than you were before.

That was the crucial life lesson of Montague’s 2020-21 season. The state championship trophy provided evidence that it works, and sometimes can take you to the highest peak.

“Win or lose, we’re proud that we set a goal, attacked it and worked hard for it,” Collins said in an interview with LSJ last fall. “Whether you win it all or not, you want the kids to understand that this is what it takes to be successful in life. You work your butt off.”

This photo, from 2019, was shot during Montague’s fifth straight win over archrival Whitehall. Photo/Leo Valdez

This season’s Montague football players went out as champions, because Collins coached them to be champions. And chances are good that they will win in a lot of different ways in their adult lives, because they now understand what it takes.

That’s also true for the hundreds of Montague players who came before them and played for Coach Collins.

Collins is reportedly leaving his most high-profile job because he cares a lot about his other role at the school – director of student services. He also wants to spend more time with his family, and watch his daughters play sports as they come up through the Montague program.

Collins reportedly said that he might coach football somewhere again, in the right circumstance. It would be very odd to see him coaching at another school, because the love affair between the Collins family and Montague goes back a long time.

But wherever this man ends up working in the long run, and whatever he chooses to do, one thing is certain – if there are young people involved, they will benefit immensely.

Coach Collins has been a huge credit to the Montague school district, and the Muskegon community at large. We at LSJ will miss him a lot.

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