There are a lot of great stories in sports. There are not many as special and perfect as the Pat Collins story at Montague.
Collins grew up in Montague, played for the Wildcat football program throughout his young life, graduated from high school there, returned to coach, and left his legacy among the greatest in Muskegon-area history.
The story of Collins’s coaching career can really be split into two, Unfinished Business and Raising a State Champion. Let us dive into both.
Toward the end of November in 1992, freezing temperatures surrounded the state of Michigan, but Pat Collins and the Montague Wildcats wouldn’t have to worry much about that. He was getting ready to play in the biggest game of his life, that he had set his sights for from the beginning of his high school career, the Class CC State Championship game inside the warm and electric Pontiac Silverdome against Detroit DePorres. Hoping to bring a state title back to Montague, Collins and the Wildcats scrapped and battled all game, but came up just short, losing by a score of 7-12.
Collins likely thought at the time that he missed his last chance to deliver for his hometown.
Fast forward only 12 years to 2004, at the age of 29, Collins found himself applying to succeed his former coach and one of his greatest mentors Ken Diamond to become head coach of his alma mater Montague. Collins said it was a tough decision to apply, but knew that he had a goal from back in high school left unfinished.
“There were some other jobs open around the area and we were trying to contemplate whether you go back to your hometown or not. I was pretty emphatic that I wanted to finish unfinished business and go back and coach for my alma mater,” said Collins.
During the job interview, Collins got caught on a question that he wasn’t necessarily prepared for and he became nervous about his chances of getting the job, but he ended up doing better than he thought and was hired.
“I remember a question they asked about teaching the basic fundamentals of offensive line stance and starts, and I had to get up in the room and show them that. I hadn’t spent a lot of time with an offensive lineman really never in my career at that point…it was hard, but they said I did fine, so I ended up getting that job and the rest was history.”
Collins knew from day one that he needed to do as a coach that as a player he was unable to do, bring a state championship to Montague.
“I wanted to finish it for all of my buddies and all of the guys that worked hard to get there and we came up a little short, I was trying to finish the unfinished business that we were five points away from back in high school and really for all of the community, they were all proud of Montague when we made it that year and the whole town left for that game. Win or lose, they didn’t care but deep down it mattered to me, it mattered a lot to me. I didn’t want to just go there and lose, so we were on a mission,” Collins recalled.
Part of the mission that Collins and the Wildcats set out on involved making tough choices to be state-finals caliber year after year.
“In the meetings, I’d ask a question and everything would revolve around the state championship. I’d say ‘You think he can be in the state finals and be in that position and help us win the state finals?’ and they’re like ‘well I don’t know if he’s a state finals caliber guy,’ well then he’s not playing. It’s got to be that guy in that game getting it done, if you can’t vision that happening then we need to move him to a different spot.”
What would be considered success for most programs happened right away. In 2004, Collins first season, the Wildcats lost in the regional finals. In the next three seasons (’05, ’06, and ’07), Montague knocked on the door, but lost in the state semi-finals each time. Despite the success, Collins was not satisfied.
“We had lost to some private schools and I guess some people felt like ‘ok we keep running into a private school,’ we went back to the meeting, we’re sitting in the room there in ’07 and no one was really leaving we were just hashing things out and I just said to the coaches ‘I don’t care who we play, we can’t make excuses about losing this game, we just can’t…so this next offseason we’re going to prepare to beat them.'”
In 2008, Montague got the monkey off of their backs in the semifinals by beating Saginaw Nouvel Catholic 35-34 in overtime after a defensive stop on a two-point conversion attempt. That meant for the second time in school history, Montague was heading to the state finals.
“The crowd stormed the field…I remember the Nouvel coach at the time Mike Boyd walked up to me, shook my hand, and said ‘congratulations, you’re going to be state champions,'” said Collins. “I was so hyper-focused on each week and he was a little more broad in his understanding because they had so much more success than us and he already knew who that other team was and he knew that we were going to beat them easy. I had no idea, I was so focused on just getting past the semi and I didn’t even know who it was, I didn’t even look on the other side I was just one week at a time.”
Collins had taken Montague back to the state finals for the first time since he led them there as a player just 16 years prior. This time though, it would be at Ford Field in downtown Detroit instead of the Pontiac Silverdome, which has since been abandoned. The Wildcats would win the state championship game against Leslie 41-20 to finally break through and win it all. Coach Collins had just finished the unfinished business he had spoken of when he took the job and would get to come home as a state champion. The Wildcats would just keep on rolling the next year, finishing undefeated and winning a second consecutive state title.
That could’ve ended the story right there. But in every good story, there’s adversity that the main character has to overcome.
Raising a State Champion
After the state titles, it would seem like the Wildcats’ best years were behind them. In 2010 and ’11, Montague had their worst seasons since Collins first year back in ’04, losing in the regional finals both times. In 2012 and ’13, they lost in the first round of the playoffs. Then in 2014, Montague hit rock bottom. The Wildcats missed the playoffs and finished 2-7, their worst record since 1999. A lot of coaches would have resigned at that point. However, Collins said after some players asked to meet with him and laid their vision going forward, he knew he was staying put.
Collins recalled that meeting that helped rejuvenate the program, “I had Jacob Buchberger, Joe Marsh, Cameron Braiman, the 3 captain junior guys going to be seniors, they came to my office and talk about kids inspiring you and I’m kind of shaking my head saying ‘What do I do?’ I’m thinking ‘I’m not doing a good job.’ They had it already laid out, the kids did it. They came in and they said ‘Coach, this is our new theme.’ It kind of rejuvenated me and I was like lets do this.”
Montague would bounce back from there as they have not missed the playoffs since. Still, the question remained. When will Montague win another state championship?
The answer turned out to be someone from Collins’s own nest. His son, Drew Collins.
In 2008 and ’09, Drew was on the Wildcats’ sideline as a ball boy. He got to hang around all of the players, watch his dad win back-to-back state titles, and set a goal for himself to win one with his dad when his time came.
Drew worked hard for years to make sure he was ready when his time came with that goal in mind.
“I didn’t try to motivate him intentionally,” Collins said, “He just kind of was motivated because he was a part of that program and it was special to see just the work ethic and leadership was second to none and I didn’t have to prompt anything, he just did it.”
In 2018, Drew was finally ready to take on the challenge. He was pulled up to the varsity as a sophomore and led Montague to the state finals that year, but the Wildcats fell to very talented Jackson Lumen Christi. In 2019, Drew’s junior year, Montague was upset by Maple City Glen Lake in the state semi-finals where they led most of the game, but lost on a 4th-down touchdown pass in overtime. It was the definition of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Glen Lake rushed the field in celebration, while Montague sat on the field in complete shock.
Then came 2020, Drew’s senior year. It was all or nothing now. Pat Collins said that this year’s team was almost completely player-led.
“Honestly, him (Drew) and his buddies were pretty much running the team, we just had to coach,” Collins said. Those guys did a lot of what typical programs coaches would do with motivation, communication, expectation, I didn’t do any of that, they were just driving the ship.”
While Montague was working toward their destination, another roadblock was thrown in their and the rest of the world’s way, the COVID-19 Pandemic. On March 13, 2020, all sports and schools were shut down to try and stop the spread of the virus. This was originally planned to be a few weeks pause at most, but people realized quickly that the situation was out of control. Doubts started to surface as to whether a football season could be played safely.
In August, the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), announced that the fall football season had been moved to the spring. That might sound like a reason to have some optimism, but most people figured that news spelled the end of the season. After weeks of protest by high school players, coaches, parents, and fans, the MHSAA reinstated the fall football season with a shortened six-game regular season schedule and a six-game playoff.
Montague would blow past everyone, sitting 9-0 with a district championship trophy recently added to their hardware collection. The Wildcats and the rest of the state’s teams then got some devastating news. On November 15, with only three games left to play, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) announced that contact sports would be suspended due to rising COVID-19 cases in the state. Once again, this seemed to be a blow to Montague’s state championship aspirations, as most people thought the season would be over.
Once again, luck was on the Wildcats’ side, as the MDHHS announced a lift on the ban in late December. That meant that Montague would have a chance at their dream.
Sure enough, Montague did it. They won their last three games, all in blowout fashion, and Drew got to end his Montague career with the trophy he’d been working for most of his life, a state championship trophy. The focus was around Drew at the time, but little did anyone know, that would be Pat’s final game with Montague as well.
“Storybook man, I just can’t believe how it worked out, Collins said. “It went by so fast, but I can’t think of a better way it could’ve gone.”
It was impossible to get a better final chapter than that for Pat. 12-0 and getting to win a state championship with your son truly is cause to ride off into the sunset.
“I don’t know how it can be better than that, that’s the best finish I could ever imagine, we’re so lucky and grateful that it finished that way. I know when I walked off with him (Drew) the first time (in ’09), he was already bleeding blue, he was just hyper-focused on the program and wanting to do this exact thing someday, when he walked out the tunnel the first time at that young age, he already knew what he wanted to go do. He’s very focused and very driven, and he literally just worked for that moment to happen again on his own, without any other push, he just did it, and eleven years later, that’s exactly what he did, he worked for eleven years from that moment on to do that.”
Conclusion: Collins will go down as one of the area’s best
At only age 46, Collins decided to step away from coaching on February 19.
If you don’t like listening to stories, here some numbers that prove he was one of the best in the Muskegon-area ever. Collins coached at Montague for a total of 17 seasons and compiled a 159-45 record. Also, he led the Wildcats to 12 district championships, 8 regional championships, 4 state finals appearances, and 3 state championships. Before resigning, Collins was also the longest-tenured football coach in the area.
Even after the perfect ending, Collins still struggled with stepping away from his alma mater.
“I really struggled drawing the line, I coach for the kids and when you draw a line in your career, there’s a set of kids that you had the opportunity to coach and had the opportunity to play for me and then there’s a set of kids that are not going to get any more of that. There’s a lot of people in the community saying ‘I can’t wait, my kids coming,’ so I wanted to keep it open.”
Collins told his players in a team meeting on Friday that he described was very emotional.
“Very, very emotional, I thought I’d be ok but it was not, a lot of tears, the kids were in shock. At the moment it can be hard and obviously I was emotional, there was a lot of tears, we hugged. They inspired me and that played a role in the decision, we talked about how they’re going to be ok, because of them. The program’s run by the kids, and when the kids decide to run the program, that’s when we succeed. I have no doubt they have the recipe and know exactly how to continue to roll. It won’t matter who’s hired, they know what to do.”
Despite being done at Montague, Collins says his coaching career is far from over.
“I love coaching, I’ve talked to other coaches that resigned this year and I remember a couple of guys I had talked to saying ‘I’m really going to just lay low, I’m really looking forward to some off time.’ I don’t feel that way, so I guess for me it’s more about coaching my son in youth football would be awesome because I want to coach, I love coaching kids. I could coach there, if some really good situation comes along I could go for that and keep coaching, I could assist a program, I could coach youth basketball, youth football. I’m not riding off into the sunset saying ‘ok, that was my coaching career, what a great finish and I’m done now,’ no, I’m not done, I’m only 46 and I just anticipate coaching forever unless I get sick of it. I could see myself coaching with Drew someday because I know he wants to coach, that’s 10 years down the road maybe, but I’m not done, I’m just looking to see what’s next to impact kids.”
When asked how he felt he left his legacy at Montague, Collins said “I feel every box has been checked, I wanted to check more boxes with them, and that was the hardest thing about talking with them, but it was just time to go I told them and I really wanted to leave the program in a great position, I wanted to leave it at the top, I wanted to walk away knowing that we accomplished a lot, but I left it in really good hands.”
There should be no doubt in anyone’s minds that Pat Collins is a hall of fame coach and changed many lives in his community for the better. As a coach, leader, mentor, and friend to many, there was really no better ending to his Montague career than this one.