NORMAL — Brian “Penny” Collins first met Dan Muller on a basketball court. As a high school standout in Nashville, Tenn., Collins began to take part in pickup games at Vanderbilt, where Muller was an assistant coach.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Collins said Monday. “He was this 6-7 blond-haired guy who did not miss. I thought it was like Larry Bird out there. I can tell you, he was on the winning side more than I was in those games.”
Now, they are on the same side. Muller announced Monday he has hired Collins as an assistant coach to fill one of the two openings on his Illinois State staff. The Redbirds lost associate head coach Luke Yaklich and assistant coach DeAndre Haynes last week when both were hired as assistants at Michigan.
Collins was an assistant at East Tennessee State last season. The Bucs went 27-8 and won the Southern Conference Tournament to earn an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. Collins also starred at Belmont University in Nashville, leading the Bruins to their first NCAA berth as a senior in 2006.
“I have known Penny since he was in high school and have watched him grow in the business,” Muller said. “Penny has won everywhere he has been and will bring that winning attitude along with a ton of energy to our program.”
Collins, 33, said he has followed Muller’s career and the two have seen each other occasionally on the road.
“We would always talk,” Collins said. “He’s had a few openings on his staff (in the past) and it just turned out now was the time to do it. I’ve always looked at the program and always wanted to work for him. When the opportunity came up, the timing was right for it and we worked it out.”
Collins was head coach at Columbia State for three seasons (2012-15) before joining East Tennessee State. Collins led Columbia State to the Tennessee Community College Athletic Association regional title in 2015. His final two teams there went 54-11 and made the National Junior College Tournament.
Prior to that, Collins was an assistant at Cumberland University for three seasons after two years as a graduate assistant and director of basketball operations at Tennessee State. He played professionally in Finland and in the NBA Developmental League.
Collins came to Normal to interview late last week and was on hand when the returning Redbirds were awarded their Missouri Valley Conference championship rings for sharing last year’s regular-season title with Wichita State. ISU set school records for total wins (28) and conference victories (17).
“What they did last year was special,” Collins said. “We had a really good year at East Tennessee State as well, so I’m used to being around guys with high expectations to win.
“As I get to know these guys it will come down to earning their trust. Once they know I care about them and love them, I’ll be able to bring the best out of them.”
Collins was a four-year starter at point guard and two-year captain at Belmont. The Bruins won 72 games in his time there. Collins scored more than 1,000 points and left Belmont as the career leader in assists and steals during the Division I era.
He received the nickname “Penny” long before playing at Belmont. When his family moved from Memphis to Nashville, there were two Brians in his neighborhood.
About 12 years old at the time, Collins provided an easy way to differentiate the two.
“I had a Penny Hardaway jersey on so they started calling me Penny,” he said. “Now here we have Brian Reese on the (ISU) staff. There are two Brians, so I’ll be Penny.”
Collins received a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Belmont in 2006 and a master’s in sports administration from Tennessee State in 2009. He and his wife, Lakeya, have a son named History.