After heartbreak and ‘hangover,’ Neill Collins hopes a title comes next for Rowdies

Collins has built up the Tampa Bay club, and his own coaching career, since taking over in 2018.
Neill Collins, center, transitioned from the Rowdies' defense to their head coaching job during the 2018 season.
Neill Collins, center, transitioned from the Rowdies' defense to their head coaching job during the 2018 season. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Oct. 21, 2022|Updated Oct. 22, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — After a second straight season concluded with a trip to the USL Championship final and no title to show for it, Rowdies coach Neill Collins couldn’t shake his disappointment.

If the way 2020 ended produced extra motivation, then 2021′s ending yielded what he called a hangover.

Collins’ first attempt at a USL Championship title didn’t include a championship game because a Rowdies coronavirus outbreak caused the league to cancel the game in 2020. That was out of his control. In last year’s title game, Tampa Bay lost 3-1 to Orange County. That was different.

Collins’ hangover lasted through a trip to Key West, through Christmas when family visited, even through the start of the 2022 season as Tampa Bay opened 3-3-4. Some of his longest-tenured players — Collins’ teammates before he became coach in 2018 when the team and Stuart Campbell parted ways — felt those emotions, too.

That showed how expectations had changed, Collins said. The Rowdies’ season is supposed to stretch late into the year.

After that rough start, the Rowdies again made the playoffs this year. They host Miami on Saturday night in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal.

When people ask Collins, 39, if a title this season would rectify last year’s loss, he always responds the same way: No, nothing will. Collins felt the Rowdies should have won last year.

He rebuilt their roster as a first-time professional coach and attracted talent to fit his vision. He has gone from an assistant at Tampa’s Carrollwood Day School to a soon-to-be holder of the top coaching license of the Union of European Football Association (UEFA), the sport’s governing body in Europe.

Collins’ Rowdies tenure has included learning curves and close-call recoveries. The next step, he hopes, is that elusive title.

“Coaching is about rejection,” said Jim Harte, who hired Collins at Carrollwood Day in 2017. “The whole process is about rejection and handling rejection. You didn’t get picked for the team. You didn’t make the roster. Your team just lost. Now what?

“And Neill’s really good at that. He’s really been good at guiding his team through rejection without pointing fingers.”

First taste of coaching

Under Neill Collins, Tampa Bay has made back-to-back USL Championship finals but hasn't won a title.
Under Neill Collins, Tampa Bay has made back-to-back USL Championship finals but hasn't won a title. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

Before Harte became Collins’ coaching mentor, Harte was a West Florida Flames coach who took his Brandon soccer academy to a Rowdies game. He called the club in advance, asking for a player to interact with the kids.

When the Rowdies selected Collins, Harte didn’t recognize him. He figured Collins, a defender who joined the Rowdies in 2016 after 12 seasons in Europe, would hate the task.

But Collins spoke to the players and their families for about 15 minutes. Harte said he felt like he was watching a true coach, though Collins was two years away from a sudden midseason pivot that took him from Tampa Bay’s lineup to its coach.

“For (Collins) to hold their attention using all sorts of things, like inflection, tone of voice, his eyes, lots of obvious talent — teacher and coach talent — that he had,” Harte said. “He just had it.”

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Afterward, Harte introduced himself to Collins. He asked Collins if he wanted to coach and told the player to call him if he ever did. Their conversation led to Collins’ position at Carrollwood Day in 2017.

There, Collins became attracted to elements of Harte’s program: the interactions with others, the global scenarios of expectations, the commitment to looking after players with soccer as the vehicle. Harte witnessed the intensity that now bubbles on the Rowdies’ sideline, what he called an intangible to be both demanding and likable.

“(Collins) always played the role of ‘I’m an assistant high school coach just trying to learn here,’ even though it was obvious that he was a lot more than that,” Harte said.

At one point, Harte uttered a line that stuck with Collins: Most coaches are players who then coached after retirement. Collins was a coach who played.

Never-ending quest for perfection

Neill Collins, pictured during an August 2020 practice, coached at Carrollwood Day School in 2017 while still playing for the Rowdies.
Neill Collins, pictured during an August 2020 practice, coached at Carrollwood Day School in 2017 while still playing for the Rowdies. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Collins doesn’t have many photos in his office, but tucked above his desk, in a frame surrounded by family images, is a Scottish saying: Keep the heid. It means just stay calm, Collins said.

When he was named Tampa Bay’s coach, calmness didn’t immediately follow. He became a sculptor who chipped away at his vision, Harte said. Collins wanted to entertain the crowd — something he felt the Rowdies didn’t do when he played — with forwards who won 1-on-1 matchups and others who matched the fast pace.

The Rowdies were 4-5-0 when Collins took over. He thought the rest of 2018 showed progress. After that season, now-head of soccer operations Nico Castillo took Collins and then-assistant Martin Paterson to Argentina, where Collins wanted to learn how different soccer markets could help the club.

“His passion of the game leads him to want to understand every market, whether it’s Argentina, Brazil, might be an African country or a European market that he’s unfamiliar with,” Castillo said.

In 2019, when the Rowdies lost only two of 21 matches to start the season, Collins witnessed what he called a real positive. Then the breakthroughs came in 2020 and 2021.

Harte said the final product is never finished, though. That also has applied to Collins’ coaching trajectory. In August 2020, Collins started the UEFA Pro License program, a two-year commitment to earn credentials to coach at the sport’s top levels.

He started with virtual seminars, sometimes logging on early in the morning because of the time difference, and has made two trips overseas. He is on track to graduate in the offseason, but that doesn’t mean he plans to reach for different opportunities yet.

“I want to try and become the best coach I can possibly be,” Collins said, “and I don’t know where it’s going to take me.

“Is it going to take me overseas? Is it going to take me to being here for 20 years? Is it going to take me to work in some sort of youth soccer? I just don’t know. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself.”

Collins has kept notes throughout the coaching course, and each stage has included projects. For one, called the North Star, Collins needed to craft his dream vision for a team, with evidence to show how he’d accomplish it.

Collins’ presentation was on the Rowdies. After the last four years, they had become the perfect example.

Up next: Eastern Conference quarterfinal

vs. Miami FC, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Al Lang Stadium

Streaming: ESPN+