Temple head coach Geoff Collins' marathon ends — again — in South Bend

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

The marathon was the beginning of another marathon.

Back in 2003, when Geoff Collins was a 32-year-old defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Western Carolina — his alma mater — he ran a marathon. Sunburst started at the former College Football Hall of Fame site in downtown South Bend, and ended 26.2 miles later at the 50-yard-line inside Notre Dame Stadium.

Wearing bib No. 398, Collins crossed the finish line with a time of 3:39:23.

“It was a great moment for me,” Collins, now Temple’s first-year head coach, said on Tuesday.

Fourteen years later, Collins finally returns to South Bend on Saturday — this time, as a head coach. The 46-year-old former linebacker and defensive back has never held the head job on any level, instead distinguishing himself as a premier defensive coordinator. Prior to being named Temple’s head coach in December, he worked for 10 different programs — five as defensive coordinator.

There was Franklin High School in North Carolina, Fordham University and Albright College.

More recently, there were successful stints as the defensive coordinator at SEC linchpins Mississippi State (2011-2014) and Florida (2015-16).

In his final season in Gainesville, Fla., Collins’ defense finished second nationally in passing defense (148.5 yards per game), fifth in total defense (292.8 yards per game), sixth in scoring defense (16.8 points per game) and 14th in interceptions (16).

Along the way, he developed a reputation.

“All in all, I think if there's a hallmark for what Coach Collins did at Florida, I thought he used his personnel very well,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “They weren't particularly easy to put a finger on what they were going to run from down to down. I thought he did a good job mixing things up in pressures. Pretty good diversity (in play calling), but not crazy where it was undisciplined.

“It was very fundamental and sound. Just good, solid football."

That’s what Collins is known for, and that’s what Temple is known for.

Philadelphia is where Collins’ climb up the coaching ranks — where this particular marathon — was meant to end.

“Me and (former Temple and current Baylor head coach) Matt Rhule have known each other for 20-plus years,” Collins said. “He’s one of my best friends in the world. So I knew a lot of the things that have been going on here for the last 10 years, and a lot of the philosophies, a lot of the cultures that were already existing.

“Being an SEC defensive coordinator for so long, every year you get approached for different jobs to be a head coach. This was the one because I knew the culture. I knew the background. I knew the things that were in place here, and I knew it was going to be a seamless transition.”

It’s been a smooth transition, sure.

Seamless? That might be a stretch.

In his first experience as a head coach, Collins has approached the job a little differently. For example, instead of presenting a depth chart featuring the team’s starters, Temple’s new depth chart lists — in no particular order — the players who have earned the right to play.

You’re either “above the line,” or below it.

You either cross the finish line, or you don’t.

“I look at depth charts that have ‘or’ written all over them. This kid ‘or’ this kid. This kid ‘or’ this kid,” Collins said. “We’re above the line. You’re ready to play or you’re not, and your reps are going to be determined by how you practice throughout the week.

“If you’re not dialed in in Tuesday’s practice – if you don’t have a good team run – your reps are getting cut. The kids know this. The big thing, the big tenet in our organization is, ‘Practice is everything.’ Everything that we do in practice matters. How you practice is how you play. How you practice determines your playing time.

“If you don’t apply that or you make that just lip service, then what are we doing? So we make sure we hold the kids to a high standard.”

At Temple, high standards are nothing new. Under Rhule, the Owls won the American Athletic Conference’s East division in 2015 and 2016, piling up 20 victories in a two-year span. Last season, the Temple defense finished third nationally in passing defense (152.1 yards per game, behind Collins’ Gators), third in total defense (282.5 yards per game), 11th in scoring defense (18.4 points per game) and 25th in rushing defense (130.4 yards per game).

Simply put, the Owls were above the line.

It’s Collins’ job to keep them there.

And while one marathon ends on Saturday, another one begins.

“I’ve waited a long time for this opportunity to be a head coach,” Collins said, “and all the things we’ve done over the last eight to 10 months has led to this.

“They love playing football. They love competing. They’re tough. They’re disciplined. I just can’t say enough about how passionate I am about them and how much I love them, how much I care about them. I’m lucky to be their coach, and I’m excited to take the field with them. That’s going to be a big thing for us.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Temple head coach Geoff Collins has not released a true depth chart ahead of the season opener against Notre Dame. (Ed Hille/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)