ST. PETERSBURG— Just hours after a 1-0 loss to Jacksonville on Wednesday night, Neill Collins was summoned to Rowdies owner Bill Edwards’ office. Collins wasn’t exactly sure what the boss wanted, but after a two-hour meeting he went from being the club’s starting central defender to its head coach.
Edwards decided to remove Stuart Campbell on Thursday morning after the Rowdies’ 4-5-0 start, which includes four straight shutout losses.
"Thursday morning, I did not think I would be standing here today,’’ Collins said after Friday morning’s training session at Al Lang Stadium. "It’s been a real whirlwind. When I got the call that (Edwards) would like to speak with me, I genuinely thought it was to discuss what was happening and how we could improve things. Then, two hours later, I’m the head coach. That’s just life.’’
Collins, 34, joined the Rowdies in 2016 as a defender and has been with the team since. He made his 67th appearance for the club Wednesday against Jacksonville.
The Scotland native isn’t expected to play for the club now that he’s taken over coaching duties. He admits it will be difficult not wearing the uniform.
"I’ve given up something that I’ve been doing since I was five years old,’’ Collins said. "It’s going to be tough when it finally sinks in. But I’ll be so focused on improving this team that I won’t have time to think about it. Come the offseason, I might be a bit more disappointed in that respect.’’
Collins has not officially retired as a player, leaving the door open to possibly playing again. But if he can get the Rowdies back on track, his playing days are likely behind him.
The transition to coaching is not a surprise. He owns a coaching academy in Lakewood Ranch and has previously coached for the U.S. Paralympic National team. He also was an assistant coach at Carrollwood Day school in the winter.
Rowdies midfielder Joe Cole, who is two years older than Collins, believes Collins is the right person to transition from player to coach.
"He’s hard-working, driven, demanding,’’ Cole said. "He’s got all the attributes of a good leader. It’s a massive opportunity for him. One he couldn’t turn down.’’
Collins will be the fourth head coach for the modern-day Rowdies. Campbell was 26-22-27 since taking over for Thomas Rongen in 2015.
Edwards said the decision to bring Collins in as coach was based in part on his connection to the team.
"I’ve witnessed Neill’s intensity firsthand, and I know everyone in the locker room has immense respect for his ability and work ethic," Edwards said in a statement. "He’s got the skills, the drive and the attitude to move the club to the top of the table. There are good coaches out there, but I think you can make a great coach by giving someone who already has a passion for the club a chance to lead it to victory."
The Rowdies play at home on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. vs. Pittsburgh.