GMercyU's Collins Is Learning And Teaching
As a long-time head coach at the DIII level, John Baron is accustomed to dealing with players whose life commitments outside of basketball sometimes create scheduling obstacles on the court. Such is the case for just about any coach, especially those at this level who are working with students who don’t receive scholarship money and in many cases are constantly working to meet financial obligations.
That’s why Gwynedd Mercy University’s Baron wasn’t overly surprised when he got a call earlier this summer from one of his players, Justin Collins, whose new schedule would prevent him from attending a midweek workout session.
Dealing with this type of conflict wasn’t out of the ordinary, it was the reason behind it that made Baron take notice.
“He calls me and says ‘Coach I know we have preseason workouts on Wednesday but would it be alright if I miss that day so I can coach freshman soccer?’” Baron relays. “I then said to him, ‘soccer? What do you know about coaching soccer?’”
Collins replied, “Not much but I am willing to learn.”
The excuse might be a new one for Baron but the reason behind it is what brings a smile to his face when talking about Collins, a graduate student who used his extra year of COVID-19 eligibility awarded to players to return to the Philadelphia-area school for a fifth year.
That part of Collins’s story isn’t atypical. There are many student-athletes doing likewise. It’s what Collins does before he makes it to the court and after he leaves that stands uniquely.
Besides being a part-time starter and key role player for the Griffins, he is also studying for a graduate degree in Educational Administration. On top of that, he is working a full-time job as a 9th grade history teacher at Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice. It’s working at this public school near the college campus that gave him the opportunity to moonlight as a soccer coach.
“A lot of what I have been doing has been a transition, but coaching soccer, that was crazy,” says the 6-7 Collins. “I’m learning more about the game. It was the first year for the program. I had to do all the scheduling and had to deal with cancellations because of COVID. And, we only had 14 players.”
Learning under fire is something that Collins not only sought out when he decided to play one more year of basketball, it is the type of environment he feels most comfortable in.
“I knew working, school and basketball would be a challenge and it has been so far,” Collins admits. “All my co-workers tell me that the hardest part of teaching is that first year and they are right.”
No doubt those co-workers had their own life issues to handle while teaching year one, but none of them also did it while working on a master’s degree and playing collegiate basketball. He credits the Parkway administrators and fellow teachers with helping him to balance all his work requirements. While those people know about Collins’s near around the clock work, his students for the most part are unaware.
“Very few students know about my school work and basketball, and that is the way I want it,” Collins declares. “I’m committed to them as students and I never want to make it about me.”
Collins’s other cohorts, the Gwynedd Mercy players and coaches, are the reason he decided to keep on playing basketball despite acquiring the coveted full time job out of college.
“We really are a family and because we only played two games last year, and even that was a stretch to do that, I felt slighted,” says Collins, who attended nearby Springfield High School. “I wanted to come back and keep playing with them.”
Baron was able to schedule two games last season in an effort to create a senior night for his players with the hopes of reciprocating the favor for another school. The Griffins won both against Cabrini College and Immaculata University.
So far this season, Gwynedd Mercy is off to a good start opening 8-2. The school hosts the Atlantic East Conference Tournament in late February.
In his 20 years leading the program, Baron has six conference championships.
Even though their focus is on this season, the presence of COVID still lingers in the minds of Baron and Collins. The impact of the past two seasons is certainly a topic so many other coaches and players could relate to.
As for the coach, he had to find ways to keep his players active when the games shut down. He needed to connect with his players to offer guidance for basketball and life related topics from a distance via Zoom. He also had to continue the recruiting process for high school players who often had a limited amount of games as well.
As for the player, Collins spent an inordinate amount of time away from his fellow players. He had to find new ways to stay active and keep playing basketball when many courts were off limits. And when he could take the court, he had to wear a mask.
When Collins was student teaching at this time last year, COVID impacted him there as well. While teaching 8th grade social studies at E.T. Richardson Middle School in Springfield, PA, he was in the less-than-desirable position of working with his class remotely and then partially in-person when students came back to campus in a hybrid mode.
Now, as a full-time professional who is also working for a graduate degree and playing college basketball, Collins has the schedule you would expect.
His average day begins with a wakeup call sometime around 5:00 AM. Then he is out of the house by 6:30 for an arrival time at work at 7:15. His teaching day goes from 7:36 to 2:34 PM. Then a short drive to campus for a 3:15 practice that lasts about two hours and followed by a brief video session afterwards. After that comes classes and doing his course work.
“It took a while to get used to doing the day like this but I know I made the right decision to do it this way,” Collins says.
During those precious few hours when Collins does have free time, he often devotes that to the game as well—coaching youth teams, watching friends play at other local colleges or scouting high school teams.
“Other than that, I try to just get as much rest as I can,” Collins says.
After a recent night game kept his players on campus until around midnight, Baron asked Collins as he was finally departing how he would be able to do the next day’s work on such a short turnaround. The player gave the coach his traditional positive approach and said he would pull it off.
“The next day I see him and say how do you feel?” says Baron.
“I feel like crap,” Collins replied.
According to Baron, that late night still didn’t impact Collins’s normal high-energy performance at the next day’s practice.
“I always say there are two kinds of players,” begins Baron. “Those who do what they can and those who do what it takes. Justin does what it takes on and off the court. Making it happen and finding a way to do so is the DIII work ethic.” It is something he believes most college basketball fans are aware of.
“I don’t think the average fan really understands the difference between DI and DIII,” declares Baron. “The budgets are different. What the players have to do to be student athletes is a lot different than it is for a player at a school like Duke. Our players want to win just as much as those players at Duke, they just go about it in different ways.”
As head coach, Baron is the only full-time school employee on the basketball staff as his assistant coaches work in a part-time capacity. Besides running the program, he is in charge of fundraising, primarily to help all his players get meals on the road. He is also the one scheduling travel and outsourcing strength coaches to work with the players.
If he were at Duke, Baron would have a director of basketball operations and graduate assistants. If Collins were a Blue Devil, his job might just be playing college basketball. Like a number of players at the DIII level, another job is required just to make ends meet.
Collins isn’t the only Griffin putting in hours off the court. 6-5 grad student Donaven Spencer totals around 35 hours per week working for FedEx and Wawa, a popular Philadelphia-based gas and convenience store franchise. Spencer aims to make his schedule pay off in the near future.
“I’m working to put myself in the position to be as successful as possible while staying humble,” says the forward from Sicklerville, NJ. “And I’m thankful to have a chance to go to school because COVID showed me to not take anything for granted. My love of basketball gives me an inner peace which is why I try to make the most out of it.”
Spencer, averaging over 10 points per game this season, is working towards his MBA at Gwynedd Mercy with the goal of using it and his sports management degree to ultimately stay in the game working for the NBA.
Baron describes other unique player profiles at the DIII level that fans are never exposed to when they just watch nationally televised power conference games on CBS or ESPN.
“You often see a kid who is about 26 or 27 years old who was in the military, finished his service and goes back to school,” Baron describes. “You see a troubled kid who first went to community college, then left to get a job and realized he needed to come back to school to get a degree. He is usually about 25 or 26. Or you see a really great player probably on his second or third stop after first going D1.”
It is no coincidence that Baron has over 340 wins and a winning percentage that places him in the top half of all DIII coaches. He looks for players like Collins and Spencer who can not only provide talent, but work ethic and experience.
Whenever the Griffins season ends, Collins’s schedule and lifestyle will change again. What that might be is still to be determined. Besides starting an impressive teaching career right out of his undergraduate days, it is possible coaching may also be in the future. Besides his foray into soccer, Collins coaches AAU and travel basketball teams, and interned for the Hoop Group in Neptune, NJ this past summer.
“I can see that kid being the type of coach that moves quickly up the ranks,” says Baron.
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