His basketball team claimed its first conference championship in two decades and grabbed a third consecutive Section 4 title. Its lone defeat was absorbed from an opponent that would roll unbeaten to State Federation supremacy.
Nevertheless, what Norwich coach Tom Collier is most proud of when looking back on the 2013-14 season?
It is a letter received from Ben Nelson, Section 4’s interscholastic sports coordinator and a highly respected former basketball coach. Its contents saluted on-court success, but moreover such ideals as class and comportment exhibited by the players and coaches.
From Collier’s perspective, that signals mission accomplished.
“It’s more than basketball, it’s life lessons. We talk about that every day,” said the head coach — or, as has been suggested, CEO — of a Class B program that produced what was widely considered the finest team in Section 4 this season.
The Purple Tornado (20-1) was assigned a No. 3 state ranking upon completion of a 20-1 season which included a victory over Class D state champion New York Mills (23-1) in the STOP-DWI Holiday Classic. Some observers identified that game as the indicator Norwich may be headed for big things– Collier not among them.
“The game that hit me was the Elmira game. I had doubts until the Elmira game,” he said. “The Elmira game to me was the one that convinced me that we had a shot to win the whole thing.”
Neither two-hour bus ride nor stepping up two enrollment classifications could deter the Tornado, and the 15-point win set up a Southern Tier Athletic Conference final against Union-Endicott. On St. Valentine’s Day at BU’s Events Center, Norwich dusted the Tigers by a surprisingly one-sided 85-67. That was in contrast to the teams’ summer-league matchup when, “They just destroyed us,” Collier said.
Section 4 tournament wins came by 21 and 12 points, respectively, before the season concluded with a 56-53 overtime loss to Syracuse Westhill — which proceeded to a 23-point average margin through conclusion of its championship season. Following that loss, Norwich’s players lamented that they’d not assemble for practice the following Monday.
“They want to play year-round and they want to practice. How many kids come up and say, ‘I miss practice?’ ” Collier said.
“Our practices are grueling, they’re very hard, very disciplined — but we mix the humor in there. … That’s the balance. When you’ve got kids who want to come in and work two hours really hard and they’re missing it and they want it, then you’ve got a great working environment.”
Collier, 56-year-old investigator for the New York State Department of Labor, makes it known to any and all that he is merely one member of the coaching staff. He especially values input and contributions from his son Brian, formerly Utica College assistant and director of coaching at IMPACT Basketball Academy in Florida; and Tom Dixon, Section 4 Hall of Fame member who was a highly successful coach at New Berlin.
Tom Collier does the reconnaissance, shares his findings with Brian, Dixon and other staff members, and collectively they come upon a winning plan. The staff has its team as prepared for and aware of whatever the next assignment will be — as the results bear out. “If you’re running a play against us, we’re two steps ahead of you,” Collier said.
It has been stated that Norwich’s program simply reloads season after season, plugging in the next underclassman for the departed senior, and all seemingly falls into place. In truth, player development is critical, through offseason attentiveness and diligence from players and coaches alike in a community that broadly supports the cause.
“Where other teams have to gel, we’re kind of already together because we’ve already spotted out who’s going to do what because we get those 40-50 game of experience through AAU and summer league,” Collier said.
And come cold-weather months in the gymnasium: “It’s all structured, and really it’s run like a business. It’s a basketball business or factory or whatever you want to call it. This team isn’t throwing stuff at us that we haven’t seen.”
Of the practice-floor scenario, he said: “Everything is charted, everything is marked, your progress during practice is tracked. This is our goal, this is our emphasis for today and this is what we’re achieving today. It’s just like walking into work — this is what it is, this is what we’ve got to get done. It’s a business plan.”
The Purple Tornado is big on accountability, and on results. No free passes are granted. Sophomore is more prepared than the senior holdover. And the head coach is no different than the rest.
As for how long he’ll remain in the top spot?
“That remains to be seen,” Collier said. “Every year is a one-year contract. I hold myself accountable just like I do everybody else. If I do well this year I can come back. If I don’t, they need to get rid of me, get somebody else. I need to be held accountable just like the kids.”