BY JEFF FALK
Jimmy Collins is not responsible for the Northern Lebanon wrestling team’s success, his coaching hasn’t caused it. But on a team and in a program where everyone is integral and everyone has a role to play, Collins has certainly played his to the hilt.
Perhaps sometimes, cause and effect are best disregarded. Maybe it’s just enough to know that fate has brought Lebanon County’s greatest wrestler and Lebanon County’s greatest wrestling team together.
Collins is Northern Lebanon’s newest wrestling coach. And he’s boarded a Viking ship at a time when NL is enjoying more success than any other program in the history of local wrestling.
Collins is the only wrestler in Lebanon County history to ever win an individual state championship. On Tuesday night, the Vikings became the first local squad to win a dual meet in the PIAA team tournament, after becoming the first local team to qualify for the state postseason and after becoming the first local squad to reach the final of a District Three tournament.
“I think they know that I won,” said Collins of his pupils and proteges. “I don’t know if they know I’m the only state champ from our school or from the county. To be honest, I don’t think I get any more respect than any other member of the coaching staff. But from the other side of things, I’d rather have them buy into things because of my coaching than my accomplishments as an athlete.
“Things are going well,” continued Collins. “I think the guys have been very receptive of me, the parents have been very receptive and the coaches have been very receptive. Success-wise, I think we’re getting better. This year we’ve been able to do some things that other Lebanon County schools haven’t been able to do in the past.”
Collins coaches like he used to wrestle – meticulously, with attention to detail and with focus. If any of his work ethic gets passed on to his competitors, they will certainly become better wrestlers because of it.
“The key to it is being consistent,” said Collins. “Just getting kids to buy into that every practice is the same. One thing I’ve been preaching is: ‘business as usual’. It’s just getting kids to buy into that approach.
“When I’m there, my role is to teach technique,” added Collins. “A lot of days, I run practice from start to finish. I train guys, when to train hard, when to back off. My role is the day-to-day stuff. During dual meets, my job is getting kids through matches, match management during bouts.”
“I don’t think there’s any more respect for Jim,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Rusty Wallace, Collins’ cousin. “They (his wrestlers) respect him they way they’re supposed to, because he’s a coach. They respect him as much as every coach. Every person on my staff, when they speak, they (his wrestlers) absorb it and they use it. I can never say enough about my staff. I’m very, very blessed to have the staff I do. They make my job easier.
“I think they (his wrestlers) know about his accomplishments as a wrestler,” Wallace added. “They know Jim through me. I’ve had him at school before. They’ve always know him. They’re aware of who he is.”
Maybe the reason Collins became a part of the Vikings’ current success was that he was available, and that Wallace wanted to build the Northern Lebanon program into the best it can be. Wallace understands that to do that, a program needs good coaches, better people and that those individuals need to be afforded the freedom to deploy their skills.
Collins hadn’t coached in two years, after spending six seasons as an assistant on highly competitive Central Dauphin’s staff.
“Rusty reached out to me this fall,” said Collins. “He’s my cousin and he knew I was out of the sport for a time. He just asked me if I wanted to get back into it. I was hesitant at first. When he texted me, I was a couple of weeks out from my wedding. But my fiance and I talked about it and she was very encouraging.
“I’ve been part of a lot of different coaching staffs,” Collins added. “I do have a good feel for coaching. I think Rusty was looking at what I can bring to the program, the technique and structuring practices. I think he was looking for someone else who can handle the day-to-day operation.”
“We’re cousins. We spent 20 years being neighbors,” said Wallace. “We’ve always been really close. I’m one of those the-more-the-merrier guys. The more good coaches we can have in the room, the better. To add to the staff, I thought he’d be a really good fit.
“We all have different roles on different days,” continued Wallace. “There’s days he (Collins) works on just technique. He’ll roll with the guys. Some days he’ll run practice from start to finish. His role this year has been working with individuals or small-group motivation.”
The stars and planets aligned, and everything came together for Collins during the winter of his 2001 senior season as a Viking. Collins captured the state weight-class championship at 112 pounds, at Hersheypark Arena.
After qualifying for states as a freshman and finishing as a runner-up at the PIAA tournament as a sophomore, Collins was upset in the first round of districts his junior year and missed out on states. It was a past which seemed to motivate him during his special run.
“It feels like it was so long ago,” said Collins, now in his early 30s. “I remember the last weekend at Hershey and how big a relief it was. It was a journey we all took together. It was definitely one of the positives in my experience with the sport.
“It’s so cliche, but it’s true: I just took it one match at a time,” continued Collins. “I just remember being so focused. I don’t remember much else. I didn’t go and watch other matches. I tried to focus on what I was doing.”
“I remember everything about it,” said Wallace, himself a former Viking wrestler. “I was just getting out of college and I was coaching at another school. Being a close family, even as a kid, he was constantly in our wrestling room. And I was close to him during his run. I was lucky enough to be there and watch everything.
“He was always a pretty accomplished wrestler,” Wallace added. “He was always one of the best. You expected him to win, because he out worked everyone. He knew then. He was very self-motivated. He pushed himself.”
Though some have fallen since, Collins still holds many of the important Lebanon County wrestling records.
“I don’t really think about it,” said Collins. “I know that at the time it (being Lebanon County’s only state wrestling champion) was the case. Right now, if you look at the County, I would hope that individually and team-wise that we can continue to trend upwardly.”
“I think it’s a double-edged sword,” said Wallace. “On one hand, it’s quite an accomplishment. On the other hand, it shows how much harder our county has to work. I think we’re raising the bar in Lebanon County. I think we’re making strides. I love the fact that he’s from Northern Lebanon and that he’s the only state champ from Lebanon County. We obviously want more kids competing at that level.”
While Collins wouldn’t commit to staying on as a Viking assistant for the long haul, he didn’t dismiss the idea either. It would seem that he could stay on as long as he chose to.
“I haven’t really thought about my long-term future in the sport,” said Collins. “I was given an opportunity to coach. I’m excited about what we’ve been able to accomplish. It’s a great sport. It’s been a blessing in my life. I’m appreciative of Coach Wallace and the opportunity I’ve been given. It’s something I didn’t expect.”
“We’re excited about what we’ve got going,” said Wallace. “We just want to keep it going. We just want to keep making history.”