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Tales from the Bench: Virginia 1981 with Louis Collins

Posted on September 15 2020

Louis Collins spent four years donning a football uniform for Virginia before swapping his helmet for high tops and joining the Cavaliers hoop squad. As a post-graduate student, Collins, a 6-5 guard from Richmond, Virginia, played in 18 games for the Cavaliers during the program’s memorable 1980-1981 campaign.

Collins joins The Chucker, High-Volume Shooters’ resident historian, to reflect on the Wahoos’ magical run to the 1981 Final Four.

In the late 1970s, when some colleges still had JV basketball teams, Collins did double duty as a varsity football player – he played tight end and wide receiver – and JV basketball player. When Virginia captured the 1980 NIT title, Collins, who had exhausted his football eligibility, practiced with the team – an up-and-coming squad led by 7-4 freshman Ralph Sampson and 6-6 guard Jeff Lamp. At the conclusion of that season, head coach Terry Holland asked Collins if he might return for a fifth year. “I took it as a personal honor to even be asked.” With a degree in secondary education already in hand, Collins entered a Master’s degree program in education and career counseling.

Over Collins’ four-year tenure on the Virginia football team, the Wahoos had morphed from ACC doormat to respectability, including a 6-5 record in his senior year that included wins over Georgia and Virginia Tech. “We had changed the atmosphere on the football side.” Collins says that’s one reason Holland leaned on him. “Virginia basketball had been competitive, but there was a sense we could build it even more. Because I was older and more mature, my role was to be an encourager and help build that culture.”

In fact, Holland even leaned on Collins in the recruitment of Sampson, the nation’s prized prep basketball recruit coming out of Harrisonburg, Virginia. “I actually had to cancel a date to show Ralph around. He got a helicopter tour of Charlottesville and on the top of University Hall someone had painted Ralph’s House.”

Powered by Sampson, Lamp, and senior forward Lee Baker, the Cavaliers entered the 1980-1981 season ranked #8 in the season’s first AP poll. Those were hefty expectations for a program that had only one NCAA Tournament appearance to its history. “Our goal was to win the ACC. Do that and you’re in the mix to be one of the best teams in the country.”

Virginia rushed out to a 14-0 mark that included victories over top 20 squads North Carolina, Maryland, and Clemson. On January 25, Super Bowl Sunday, Virginia hosted Ohio State – a squad with five future NBA players. In the nationally televised game, the Cavs dropped the Buckeyes 89-73. “Herb Williams was talking trash that he could handle Ralph, but Ralph just dominated. That was a statement game for us and where we learned we could play with the best of them.”

Collins enjoyed his own moments against Ohio State, too. When he got in the game in the closing minutes, he chucked a long jumper on a two-on-one fast break and happily fouled a Buckeyes player. “When you foul someone, the cameras get a close-up on you.”

The Monday after downing Ohio State, the 15-0 Cavaliers topped the AP poll for the first time in program history. “That was a big deal, something to defend with honor, but we never really talked about it all that much. The focus was on doing what we could to get to the Final Four.”

Virginia would make it to 22-0. Collins says Lamp, who would go on to play six NBA seasons, “was a coach on the court,” while freshman like Ricky Stokes and Othell Wilson were energetic young guns that brought energy and aggressiveness to the floor. “There were great guys on that team who deserved more accolades than they ever got.”

Sampson, of course, was the lynchpin, a dominating interior presence who would go on to become a three-time National Player of the Year and the top pick in the 1983 NBA Draft. Sampson’s roommate, Collins describes “Big Ralph” as a “lighthearted, carefree” guy who sometimes struggled with his stardom. “In public, everyone was pointing at him, which made him uneasy. He needed a moment to be himself and inside our place, he was relaxed and genuine. I always told him, ‘You be you,’ and he did that well. That’s why I appreciated being around him.”

Virginia suffered its first loss at #11 Notre Dame on Feb. 22, an Orlando Woolridge bucket giving the Irish a one-point win. “That was a wake-up call because we didn’t finish what we should have.”

Three nights later, the Cavaliers lost at #12 Wake Forest 77-63. “After 22 straight wins, losing two in a row was a humbling experience. We had to do things differently if we were going to get to [the Final Four in] Philadelphia. We were among the best and needed to play that way.”

After winning the ACC regular season title with a 13-1 league mark, Virginia entered the ACC Tournament a marked squad. In the semis, Maryland pounded the Cavaliers 85-62. “That kind of loss questions your pride. After that, there was a collective sense that we needed to play with a purpose. There was a new season in front of us with new opportunities.”

The Cavaliers’ resolve showed in March Madness, as the Cavaliers downed Villanova, #15 Tennessee, and #16 BYU to reach the Final Four. “We walked on the floor with the attitude that we were going to take it. We looked at each other like, ‘Bring the best you got.’ And each night, someone did a little something extra.”

In Philadelphia, Virginia faced a familiar foe in ACC rival North Carolina. Though the Cavaliers had topped the Tarheels twice that season, the Cavaliers knew a third victory was far from guaranteed. “You either have their number or it can flip. We all understood that.”

Unfortunately for Virginia, it flipped as UNC guard Al Wood shot 14-19 from the field and 11-13 from the line in a 39-point outburst. “What do you do when a guy’s in his zone? He did in real life what kids do now on their Xbox.” The Tar Heels won 78-65. “Did we want it? Yes. We just ran up against a buzz saw. Give Al Wood and North Carolina their props.”

After the loss, Collins recalls a disheartened locker room. “We knew we were better and should have done better.”

Two nights later at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, Virginia outlasted LSU 78-74 in the NCAA third-place game. “We viewed that game as a positive, not a negative. It was an opportunity to compete and something we could carry into the future.”

Collins, now a pastor in Richmond, reflects fondly on that 1980-1981 season that included a then-school record 29 wins, an ACC regular season title, a Final Four appearance, and lasting memories. “I came back to have fun and to be a part of something special and I was. We brought pride to Charlottesville.”

And Collins lets out a good chuckle when asked about his final college basketball stat line. In 59 minutes of game action, the high-volume shooter put up a whopping 42 shots. “There’s an old saying: if you get an opportunity, take it. As I didn’t have a lot of minutes, I took my shots. I always thought, it’s just a game.”

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