The image of Paul Collins, standing with his arms folded, brow furrowed — an inquisitive look just on the fringe of anger — should be a statue someday.
There are few left who even remember a time when that presence, that image, was not a fixture on a South Jersey sideline somewhere every winter.
It’s true that Collins might not be as vocal as he used to be, but he’s still vocal.
He might not have quite as much fire as once did, but he’s still fired up.
“When I don’t have enough energy to do this properly, I won’t coach anymore,” Collins said Thursday night after winning the 800th game of his 46-year coaching carer as his Burlington City boys’ basketball team topped Riverside, 70-49.
Collins has long been the winningest coach in Burlington County history, and he’s second in South Jersey only to St. Augustine’s Paul Rodio, who has 947 wins and counting.
But more than the accolades, Collins is known for that commanding presence. Stoic. Laser-focused. Intense.
When asked what was going through his head during an on-court celebration after the win on Thursday, Collins grinned.
“The state seedings are going through my head,” he said. “This is a nice milestone, but at the same token, you have to be ready for the next day. There’s another game coming up on Tuesday.”
Really, though, Collins did appear to take a moment to soak it in. After the win, his family and friends and current and former players and coaches joined a full-on party at midcourt complete with cake and sandwiches.
He was presented with a commemorative ball and more hugs than he could count.
“Good players make good coaches, and I’ve also had some great assistants along the way,” said Collins, who coached at Willingboro for 30 seasons before moving on to Riverside for six seasons and finally landing at Burlington City in 2010. “I still enjoy coaching, I love practicing, I love the preparation and I love good players.”
Collins talked about the parts of his coaching style that evolved over the years — how he has adapted to a changing game.
“If my team 30 years ago would have taken that many shots that far from the basket, I don’t know if I would’ve lasted a whole game,” Collins said, noting how the game now centers on the three-point shot. “The game’s evolved. If I don’t change with the game, it’ll go right on by you.”
Still, there’s something almost comforting about those aspects of Collins that haven’t changed, even dating back to his time as a three-sport star athlete at the old J.F.K. High School in Willingboro and his time playing for Harry Litwack at Temple.
Generations go by and Collins’ focus doesn’t wane. He’s still roaming the sidelines. Arms still folded, locked into every play.
And don't try telling his players his fire is starting to fade a bit.
“If he could put on his shoes and play, he would,” said Burlington City senior guard DJ Woodbury. “I promise you, he would be at practice ready to play.”
Collins talked about how much he loved being with the players — how much he cherished practice sessions and preparing for games.
Woodbury tried to sum up what a practice is really like under Collins.
“Intense. From 2:45 to 5:30. Intense. Intense. Intense,” he said.
But the first thing that came to Woodbury’s mind when talking about Collins was the life advice Collins bestowed on him, particularly as Woodbury, a Temple recruit for football, was making his own college decision.
“He’s helped with my game, and he’s helped me in growing up and being a man,” Woodbury said.
There will always be that lasting image of Collins roaming a sideline — something every South Jersey hoops fan has encountered. And there will always be the accolades and the hardware — his team, at 19-2, is a two-time defending sectional champion.
But, perhaps more than anything, those life lessons, those relationships that Collins has built, consistently, over half a century, are where his biggest impact lies over 800 wins.