Sports medicine pioneer retires

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — The doctor is no longer in.

When longtime Mississippi State University team physician and Longest Student Health Center director Robert C. “Bob” Collins first came to the MSU campus it was 1977 and he planned on staying three to five years.

“I really wanted to get into trauma,” Collins said. “I wanted to be part of a big emergency room situation where a lot of things were always going on. What I later realized is that being a college football player can lead to many traumatic experiences as well.”

Collins retired in May after 35 years as part of the university’s faculty. Starting in 1988, Collins served as head team physician for all sports, as well as head of the student health center.

“Right after getting to State, John Longest took me to football practice one day,” Collins said. “I had never been a big football fan. I really didn’t appreciate the violence in Division I football but that is what drew me in. It was amazing to me how hard people hit each other and the things that players could walk away from. I realized that these players need a fairly intensive level of care.

“Athletes have conditioning that is above average to begin with. So our job is not to return the athletes to normalcy. Our job is to return them to a super normal position. The challenge of that is what really piqued my curiosity for this field.”

In 1977, when Collins began this career, sports medicine was in its infant stages. The American College of Sports Medicine was more academic based, focused on physiology and not clinical medicine. Longest was a prominent member of the American College Health Association. Many universities had family physicians based in student health centers taking care of student-athlete needs.

Straton Karatassos is the university’s associate athletic director for development. In Collins’ early years on campus, Karatassos was the head trainer for the MSU athletic teams.

“Strat taught me in the ins and outs of sports medicine,” Collins said. “Back then, you didn’t have the MRI or the CAT scan. The decision to return to play was based on good ol’ fashioned x-rays and a doctor’s interpretation of those x-rays.”

Collins worked to learn the best ways to care for student-athletes. He spent hours reading journals and attending seminars. Much like coaches share information about opponents, doctors did the same — suggesting the best ways to treat certain types of injuries and illnesses.

Collins became a pioneer in the field of sports medicine. He was chosen as a charter member of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Shortly thereafter, the American College of Sports Medicine was put together.

“Dr. Collins was a really on the forefront of things,” former MSU head football coach Jackie Sherrill said. “He was a tremendous resource and he always knew the right thing to say or do. You have to have a tremendous amount of respect for someone in his position. It is easy to have that when the job is performed at such a high level.”

In 1988, Longest resigned as director of the university health center. Collins was quickly eased into that dual-role position, which he held until May. One of his major battles was for the equality of treatment for the student-athletes.

“In the old days, if a football player was hurt and he needed medical attention, we would send him immediately to Jackson to see a doctor,” Collins said. “All of the specialists were down there. So one time we are in a similar situation with a baseball player. I told them there would be no hesitance involved if this was a football player.”

As times changed, technology has improved. Care opportunities have increased for student-athletes. The university lists 34 individuals working in sports medicine this year. The university has nine full-time athletic trainers and a physical therapist.

“Dr. Collins laid the groundwork for so many things that are happening on this campus right now,” said Dr. Clifton Story, who is now the new health center director. “He is leaving a great legacy behind.”

While so much has changed, all persons involved still report to the head team physician who makes all final decisions on treatment of a student-athlete from any sport.

“Our situation is really the best one,” Collins said. “You want your team physician to be part of the health department and not working for the athletic department. Coaches and administrators might have a different thought process about how something should be handled. Everyone wants to win and you can’t have that be the motivational factor behind your actions.

“The coaches, the athletic director and myself, we all have the same common boss — and that is (university president) Dr. Mark Keenum. If there is a situation between a coach and a doctor, it behooves us to get that worked out between ourselves before going to the boss.”

Through his association with numerous athletic directors and head coaches, Collins has found that all of the coaches in the end have respected his expertise. Some — such as Sherrill — may have fought a little harder to get a player back in the lineup. Still, in the end the decision rested with Collins and he felt like all of the coaches involved had has blessing.

“It varies from sport to sport,” Collins said. “I still love (former baseball coach) Ron Polk to death. You have to marvel at what (current baseball coach) John Cohen has done with the program in a very short period of time. In football, Dan Mullen has been to great work with. Before that, Sylvester Croom was incredible. We all have the same goal and are fighting the same thing. It’s just best when everybody does their part and plays their role.”

In March, Collins was recognized as this year’s recipient of Jack C. Hughston, M.D. Sports Medicine Person of the Year award. The award is given by the Southeast Athletic Trainers Association in recognition of someone for their outstanding contributions for the student-athletes in the field of sports medicine.

Collins won the award on the 25th anniversary of his mentor Longest, getting the same honor. Longest won the award in its inaugural presentation.

“Some of the great physicians of our time, like Jimmy Andrews, have won the award in the past,” Collins said. “It means a lot because it comes from the trainers, the people who are on the ground and in the trenches every day.

“The award is even more special since it came on the 25-year anniversary of John winning it. It is a humbling experience and quite a great way to end my career.”

Collins and wife Pamela plan to remain active in the MSU community for years to come. Pamela Collins remains an assistant professor for plant and soil sciences. Her day-to-day responsibilities include upkeep of the rose garden location on the north farm entrance to campus.

Collins plans to attend a football practice or two and will remain a baseball season ticketholder.


Information from: The Commercial Dispatch,

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