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June 6, 2012No one pegged Gary Collier as a future Tulsa basketball legend when he first stepped on campus back in 1990. Instead, he endured a coaching change and an unexpected season of probation to lead the Hurricane to one of its most magical seasons ever.
Collier, the 1994 Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, left Tulsa as one of its most prolific scorers and now makes his mark as the head boy's basketball coach of Lewisville (TX) High School. In this conversation, he talks about overcoming adversity and being a key part of one of the NCAA Tournament's greatest upsets of all time:
- Chad Bonham: What led to your decision to play at TU?
Collier: I wanted to go somewhere close to home. I had interest from North Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU, but I didn't want to stay in Texas. When I was thinking about going to OSU, there were a lot of rumors that Leonard Hamilton was heading for Miami, so I picked Tulsa instead. I knew about Paul Pressey and Nolan Richardson, and the Missouri Valley wasn't known for having a lot of big men. I was 6-3, so I felt like I could complete better as a small forward.
- Bonham: What do you remember about playing for J.D. Barnett?
Collier: He was very hard-nosed. He'd push you. But I wasn't a stranger to hard work and I understood that the yelling was just a way to motivate his players. I was already accustomed to it. Robert Hughes was my coach in high school and he was a very tough coach too.
- Bonham: Your freshman season in 1990-91 had some defining moments for you. Talk about that first visit to OSU.
Collier: Everything was so loud. The stadium went straight up and there was barely any room to play. If you went out of bounds you were going to hit a fan. I remember guarding Byron Houston, and he was pushing me around a little bit. I realized I had to get a lot stronger. (Note: TU lost that game at OSU 75-73.)
- Bonham: How disappointed was the team after losing that double overtime game against Southwest Missouri State (82-80) in the MVC Tournament?
Collier: Going into the NIT game (at Oklahoma), we had our hopes on going to the NCAA and we weren't as focused as we should have been. The NIT is a good tournament to be in. I always feel like at the end of the season you want to be playing somewhere. But we were so disappointed in losing that (Southwest Missouri State) game, our focus and motivation wasn't where it should be. (Note: TU lost that game at OU 111-86)
- Bonham: What was going through your mind when Barnett, the coach who recruited you, was on his way out at TU?
Collier: I thought it was just a rumor. I didn't think there was any truth to it. The season was fairly good. It just seemed like it happened over the course of a day. To have him out of there, I had mixed emotions. He was the coach that recruited me and I knew him. But there was another side of me that thought maybe I could get a clean slate with a new coach. I didn't know what I was going to do at that time. I talked to my mother and my brother and they told me to give the new coach a chance.
- Bonham: What were your first impressions of Tubby Smith?
Collier: I didn't know much of Tubby Smith, but I knew a lot about Kentucky. He was coming from a school rich in basketball tradition. After his press conference, I was already wired up for the next season. I was going to do whatever he asked me to do and work as hard as he wanted me to and help the team get better. I always felt I could shoot the three-pointer, but I never really shot enough in a game. When he first arrived, I remember he put in a tape of Kentucky playing basketball and how quickly they shot the three-pointer. Sometimes it would be a three-on-two fast break. They had the numbers and they'd just pull up for a three. That was a very fast-paced, exciting type of basketball. He showed us how the crowd was really into it. That was a point in college basketball when you had Loyola Marymount and Kentucky bringing a lot of energy and excitement to the game.
- Bonham: Talk about that first season (1991-92) with Coach Smith.
Collier: It was a good building year. It was a good year to understand what he was trying to do. We had a really good chance to go to the NCAA tournament but we lost in the final game against Southwest Missouri State. That was the point where we started to believe in what (Coach Smith) was doing.
- Bonham: The next year (1992-93), TU entered the season knowing it couldn't play in the postseason due to infractions committed by the track program. How did that situation impact the team's moral?
Collier: We had the attitude of "what's the point?" I remember the day we were told that we weren't going to have any postseason play. That was a very depressing day. Everybody was down. The seniors were actually crying and I really felt bad for them. I was relieved that it wasn't my senior year, but I was very sad and disappointed for the seniors. Our season probably would've gone a little bit better if they would've told us later. Every game has a purpose. You want to play as hard as you can, but knowing it wasn't going to lead to anything was hard on the players.
- Bonham: Going into the 1993-94 season, was there any indication that the team would be that good?
Collier: We knew that anything was possible if you work hard enough. That's what Coach Smith always told us. But we didn't know how good we could actually become until the (regular season) Arkansas game. You could feel the sense of urgency for them to try to get a lead. We actually put fear in their eyes and that gave us so much confidence. That was a turning point for us. After that, we felt like we could compete with just about any team in the nation. (Note: TU lost at home against #1 Arkansas 93-91 in overtime. Collier had 30 points and 14 rebounds.)
- Bonham: A lot of people were surprised when TU lost to Northern Iowa (79-73) in the MVC Tournament semifinals. What happened in that game?
Collier: I think they were hungrier than we were. We had beaten them twice that season and maybe we went into that game underestimating them. That was one of those games where we didn't go out and play as hard as we should have.
- Bonham: Heading into that first round NCAA Tournament game against UCLA, there were some controversial quotes and some UCLA players didn't know where Tulsa was located. Did that play a factor in the game's outcome?
Collier: It fired us up. That was a big insult, not to know where Tulsa is. I don't think they meant it as an insult. We were so happy to be selected to go to the tournament that it didn't matter who we were going to play. It was like we were living on borrowed time. We were going to do well against whomever we played in that first round. We dominated the whole game. Everything went right. I think they underestimated us a little. (Note: TU defeated #17 UCLA 112-102.)
- Bonham: Talk about the famous game-clinching shot that Lou Dawkins made in TU's second-round victory against Oklahoma State.
Collier: Normally, Lou would've been the fourth choice to take that shot behind me, Pooh (Williamson) and Shea (Seals). For some reason, (OSU) didn't think to put a bigger guy on the bottom block. We missed the free throw and I got the rebound and put it back in and we were up by one. We went back on defense and had a really good defensive stop. I wanted to hold it until the last second of the shot clock. I remember having the ball in my right hand with the dribble. I crossed over to the left and Lou's man came over to help out. I wanted to shoot the shot but I passed it over to Lou. He's not a renowned three-point shooter but that was the biggest shot he's ever made in his career. (Note: TU defeated #19 OSU 82-80.)
- Bonham: The Sweet 16 game against #1 Arkansas was a rematch from earlier in the season. Why do you think the outcome (a 103-84 loss) was so different?
Collier: They weren't going to underestimate us like they did the first time. They knew we were a lot better team and they came out and played harder. They had a great team. I'm not ashamed to say that they had a much better team than us. We felt like that if we could keep it close, we might have a shot at the end. But they did a good job jumping out on us early. We were down by 19 points at half and got it down to nine, but we could never get it closer than that in the second half. I still feel that we could've played any other team in the nation and beaten them, but Arkansas was very strong. (Note: Collier led all scorers in the NCAA Tournament with 31.3 points per game.)
- Bonham: What kind of impact do you think that team had on college basketball?
Collier: People in California know where Tulsa is now. I feel like we helped put Tulsa on the map. Even when I went to (play professional basketball in) Europe, I was so surprised to know that people over there knew about Tulsa. I had a guy come to a game in Germany and he had one of my basketball cards and he knew about Tulsa and the Sweet 16.
Chad Bonham is a 1993 graduate of The University of Tulsa and longtime Broken Arrow (Okla.) resident. He has authored or contributed significantly to 12 published books including Glory of the Games and Golden Hurricane Basketball. Visit his national sports column at features.beliefnet.com/inspiringathletes.