Brian “Penny” Collins inherited the Tennessee State men’s basketball program in 2018, and the head coach had the vision to turn the historically Black college and university (HBCU) into a nationally recognized program and a viable option for highly recruited prospects.
Collins, a Nashville, Tennessee, native, has a deeply ingrained love for his hometown, and he and his family have forged strong relations with Tennessee’s basketball community. Ricky Collins, his father, spent three decades as a high school coach and is in the Metro Nashville Public Schools Sports Hall of Fame. Penny Collins played basketball at Belmont University, a private college in Nashville. Before taking over TSU’s program, he had established himself as an avid recruiter and organized showcases for high school seniors.
“I’m from Nashville, so I’ve always had a lot of love for Tennessee State. When I got a job here, I feel like it’s a personal duty of mine to make sure I do whatever I can to put Tennessee State on a national level, a recognizable program and well-respected program,” Collins told ThePowerBloc. “Right now, this is our fourth year here and it’s time for us to take the next step. The goal is not to just get the program to some height, and then let it be what it is. The goal is to get to continual relevance. We want these young student-athletes coming up to say, ‘I want to go to Tennessee State.’ ”
Collins, 37, has spent the last four seasons rebuilding and rebranding the Tigers program. After only winning nine games his first season, Collins doubled that total in 2019-20 with 18 wins. With COVID-19 protocols and athletes opting not to play, the Tigers netted only four wins last season. They have slowly rebounded this season and currently have double-digit victories.
Most of the rebuild has come without the massive influx of funds in-state rivals such as the University of Memphis and Vanderbilt University have at their disposal. Collins has relied heavily on his creativity to increase community support, rejuvenate team facilities and combat the stigmas of attending an HBCU. A transformation of this magnitude isn’t an overnight process, but the foundation Collins is laying is slowly yielding results.
Collins started by reengaging TSU and the surrounding Nashville community. He and his coaching staff are consciously working to make themselves accessible to students and community members. The coaches attend high school games, homecomings, basketball showcases and community events. They eat lunch with students in the cafeteria and encourage them to promote upcoming games. They have added a live DJ at home games and partnered with local vendors to provide food options to students.
Students and the community have responded, as the Tigers led the NCAA with the biggest attendance jump from 2019 to 2020, increasing from an average of 965 fans to 3,243.
“It was just us being ourselves and letting our personality shine through the community into campus things. We have to be present because this is our community,” Collins said. “Our community has to see you, feel you, and when they feel like you’re a part of [the community], they’ll come out and support.”
Besides fostering in-person connections, Collins has also hosted an Instagram Live show that has featured ESPN anchor Elle Duncan, Los Angeles Dodger Mookie Betts, WNBA forward Alysha Clark, NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin and record executive Master P, to name a few. He has had a few thousand viewers each show, which helps extend the Tennessee State brand.
“I like being creative and being an innovative coach to do some things out of the box. Being young doesn’t hurt because I got enough energy to go be at different places and do different things,” Collins said. “I have to make sure that I’m touching what I need to touch. I go to the cafeteria and eat with the students because I have the energy to do it and I want to do it. For me personally, it gives me joy to be able to pour in different people on this campus. That’s kind of what I look forward to. I feel like this generation is a microwave generation, obviously social media quick clicks, so I like to keep it fresh.”
In October 2021, Collins organized an NBA pro day for his players alongside coach Jerry Stackhouse’s Vanderbilt team, believed to be the first time an HBCU and Power 5 school collaborated for a pro day.
“[Collins] has always been a visionary. He’s always had these great ideas. He can have an idea and put it into action,” said Russ Willemsen, an assistant coach at TSU. “He’s talked about it for a long time and felt like it was time to do it. A head coach in college going to Las Vegas, to meet people with the sole purpose of putting on this pro day and being the first HBCU to do that, all for our players to get exposure. That’s a testament to his character and how much he is a players’ coach.”
With many players on TSU’s roster having career aspirations to play in the NBA, the experience was worthwhile.
“I have never been given a platform like that. Especially getting this platform at an HBCU spoke a lot. It was a great experience playing and the exposure,” said Christian Brown, a junior forward for the Tigers. “[Scouts] go to see me firsthand and let me show my talents. It was a blessing. We don’t always get opportunities like that.”
Collins and the coaching staff have the attention of highly touted prospects. The Tigers landed three-star prospect Hercy Miller, who spent a semester on campus before transferring to Xavier last month following a season-ending injury. The Tigers also appeared in the top five schools for five-star prospects and ESPN 300 players Chris Livingston and Brandon Miller.
“I know they have a good coaching staff over there because Coach Penny [Collins] is one of my cousins,” Brandon Miller told On3 about his recruitment. “I know a lot of people who came out of TSU — Robert Covington — and you see where he’s at now. That just lets you know anything can be done.”
Livingston and Brandon Miller went in different directions, committing to Kentucky and Alabama, respectively. Collins is challenging the notion that HBCUs can’t sign five-star athletes, so if TSU misses out on top recruits, it isn’t going to be from lack of effort.
“[Some coaches] don’t want to waste their time and spend so much time, effort and money on a kid for them just to break your heart. This happened so many times to small schools as much as HBCUs,” said Collins. “It happens so much in the recruiting process where a coach is really invested long term with a kid, then a Power 5 school can come in and just swoop the kid away. And that’s all she wrote. It just happens a lot so some coaches get discouraged by that. I think it’s important that you have a staff that can move around and have amnesia about stuff like that. If it doesn’t work out this time, maybe it will work out the next time.”
NCAA transfers have been good levelers for TSU to recruit high-level talent. The Tigers’ roster boasts six Division I transfers, including four-star Power 5 transfers in Brown and Emmanuel Dowuona. Brown, a University of Georgia transfer, was ranked No. 66 in the Class of 2019 rankings. Before being sidelined with a foot injury, the 6-foot-6 Brown was a consistent scoring threat. Dowuona, a transfer from Purdue, is one of the team’s top rim protectors.
When contemplating where to transfer, both had reservations about switching to an HBCU. Both appreciate their relationship with Collins, and the coaching staff has made the transition worth it, dispelling the misconception of HBCUs being a downgrade. Since making the trek to Nashville, they’ve noticed there isn’t a big difference between TSU and their former Power 5 programs.
“Under Penny, it was just the caring level. I never had a group of coaches who care so much about kids and the team. They’re basically just always pushing me,” Brown said. “My confidence went down. Then just gradually my confidence started growing and just me being as a player and then maybe as a person. Being at an HBCU just made me grow as a person.”
“When you have a setback in terms of health, like you get injured or something and [coaches] tend not to pay attention to you,” Dowuona added. “Over here, I’ve had moments where I’ve not been sick, and coach has literally called me, which I’ve never experienced before. So those are the little things that I look at that keep me going.
“If you really think about it, I’m getting what I need academically and also athletically,” Dowuona continued. “I have a training room and weight room despite the fact that Purdue might have a little bigger facilities. I’m still getting everything that I need, so I don’t really see a difference.”
Collins has worked closely with TSU athletic director Mikki Allen to give a face-lift to the Gentry Center, renovating locker rooms and weight room facilities. Current plans to improve facilities include adding a digital scoreboard and, down the line, creating the Covington Pavilion, named in honor of TSU alumnus Covington, who currently plays for the LA Clippers.
Following his methodical plan, Collins also hopes to dispel the stigma regarding HBCUs. Whether people are saying, “HBCUs never recruited me,” “HBCUs don’t have good facilities” or “NBA scouts don’t look at HBCUs,” Collins has heard it all. That’s why he made an effort to reach out to top-level recruits, and why renovating athletic spaces and orchestrating an NBA pro day were first on his list. When Collins meets recruits worried about their draft potential, he names a laundry list of NBA players from mid-major schools excelling in the league: Ja Morant, who played in the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) against TSU, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and CJ McCollum, among others.
TSU may not have everything a recruit can ask for, but Collins is building a program to anticipate his players’ needs.
“It’s not about what you want. It’s about the stuff you need. We have everything you need to be successful in a place like TSU. We had two basketball goals and a basketball. The goal is to put it into the basket more than the other team,” Collins said with a laugh. “We got a lot more stuff than that, but I’m saying we got a lot of really nice things here. I think that’s the biggest misconception about HBCUs. We really do take care of our guys to the high level and we want them to have a good experience at TSU.”
Encouraging recruits to take their talents to an HBCU is nothing new. Collins rebuffs the idea that what he’s doing is unique; he’s simply educating prospects about the history and traditions of HBCU basketball with the hope that HBCUs can reclaim their profile and prestige with top recruits.
“We [don’t] have to blaze a new trail to do something that’s never been done before. It’s we didn’t even knock on the door,” Collins said about HBCUs making an effort to recruit five-star talent. “One of the things I’ve really been harping on [recruits] is come to Tennessee State and let’s try to make history. Let’s change the narrative. Let’s add a new seat at the table.
“Let’s bring that back to these kids and reeducate them. Over time, they’ll look at us with the same respect that they look at when they look at Duke or Kentucky. As a head coach at Tennessee State, it’s time for the new blue bloods to have a seat at the table. I shouldn’t say a new seat. It’s more like, ‘Give us our seat back.’
“It can happen. A lot of the reason why it hasn’t happened is because of the power of the media. Kids believe what they see on TV. They’re conditioned to believe who’s important [and] who’s best. Well, history has shown us that you can be successful going anywhere, especially HBCUs.”
Hallways in the Gentry Center outside the men’s basketball locker room display the TSU players who reached the NBA. The program has sent 18 players to the league. When the NBA released its 75th-anniversary team, three former HBCU players — Sam Jones, Earl Monroe and Willis Reed — were on the list. The NBA’s sole active HBCU player is Covington, who’s noticed the changes Collins has made at his alma mater.
“It’s been a great turnaround since I left. I’ve always made sure I show my face because I don’t forget where I come from. Exposure is everything. A kid having exposure is everything when you’re at a mid-major. A lot of stuff doesn’t necessarily go your way. It’s a lot of work you have to put in,” Covington said. “[Collins] is trying to give these kids the biggest opportunity that they can. I’ve seen a paradigm shift, and kids have the understanding that they control the narrative and take initiative to do that is really great. If he was able to get a top recruit, it would be good for the program. It would help elevate them and give them more opportunities.”
A month into the conference schedule, the Tigers are finding their stride after spending the earlier months of the season trying to gain chemistry between new players amid injuries and COVID-19 protocols.
“I think our daily goal is to just get 1% better every day. When we first got here, we felt like we had it turned on in Year 2 and then COVID hit,” Willemsen said. “We’re starting to really play good basketball right now and I think it starts off with a simple vision of getting better every day.”
The Tigers are currently fifth in the conference standings (10-14 overall, 5-7 OVC) and are hoping for a late run heading into the OVC tournament.
“The young men that are on our roster, now they understand what we’re trying to do. It’s not always gonna happen in the win-loss column,” Collins said. “We dropped some games and I felt like we should have won and our team feels the same way. But those games made us better, and we’re hoping those lessons that we learned in November will help us have a chance to go on a big winning streak coming into February and we’ll be playing our best basketball come March when the tournament hits.”
The mission for Collins isn’t solely landing a high-profile recruit. He won’t consider his efforts a failure if he doesn’t land a top recruit. Collins’ emphasis has been on building up the TSU program and players leaving as better men. His coaching staff preaches the motto, “Better people make better Tigers.”
“When a young man graduates, I want them to be the first team ever to do something, the best team ever, [and] to have the most wins ever. So that’s the goal,” Collins said. “We want to be best, most and first while we’re here. Let’s break records, and we want to inspire the next kid to come to TSU, and whatever torch they drop to pick it up and take it even further.
“We crawled, then we walked. We got the bronze medal and the silver medal but eventually, we want to win gold. We want one of these top five-star kids to say yes,” Collins continued. “If we don’t, it’s not the end of the world, but that is a goal. We want to start getting McDonald’s All Americans to come to Tennessee State. At first, it was like, just consider us. Now we’re ready to land one.”