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UIC, New Mexico State icon Jimmy Collins passes away

The longtime Flames’ coach and Aggie legend had a big impact on college basketball.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Salt Lake City Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

College basketball lost one of its towering figures on Sunday.

Longtime UIC coach Jimmy Collins passed away at the age of 74, per a post on Twitter by his daughter. Collins spent a lifetime in college basketball, and had a significant impact at two mid-major programs.

The Syracuse native went across the country to play for Lou Henson at New Mexico State, where a decorated career saw him take home multiple All-America honors and be an integral part of the Aggies’ 1970 run to the Final Four. The shooting guard was the 1970 Midwest Region MVP and named to the NCAA’s All-Final Four Team.

He sits at third on the Aggies’ all-time scoring list.

Collins talked the Las Cruces Sun-News about his decision to play for Henson and the Aggies earlier this year.

Coach Henson never saw me play nor did I see him coach. He took a chance on me and I took a chance on him because I had some other offers. Ed Murphy was one heck of a recruiter and he convinced me that the Land of Enchantment was a place that we could come and play and be successful. I’m so glad he convinced me to go there, but it worked out for me.

The star guard would stay connected to his college coach when a brief professional career ended. He served as an assistant on Henson’s staff at Illinois, where he spent 13 seasons and is credited as a key part of recruiting the Flyin’ Illini team that advanced to the Final Four in 1989.

The time in Champaign also saw a run-in with Bruce Pearl, then himself an assistant at Iowa, that would reverberate in the sport for years. The two tangled in the recruitment of a player named Deon Thomas from Chicago, who signed with Illinois. This led to Pearl surreptitiously recording a phone call with Thomas and subsequently reporting Collins and Illinois to the NCAA for recruiting violations.

Collins was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing by the NCAA but, according to the Chicago Tribune, blamed Pearl for damaging his career.

As fate would have it, the two would not be ships passing the night. They would spend years competing in the Horizon, as Collins took the reins at UIC in 1996. He quickly led the Flames to their first NCAA Tournament with a 22-6 campaign in 1997-98, and would go 218-208 over 14 seasons in Chicago.

His most memorable period may have been between 2001-04, when teams led by Martell Bailey and Cedrick Banks posted three 20-plus win seasons and made two NCAA Tournament appearances. Bailey and Banks were high schools teammates at Chicago’s Westinghouse College Prep who Collins convinced to stay home.

Collins remains the only coach to take UIC to the NCAA Tournament, and a mammoth figure in NMSU history.