Jon Isopo was just starting his college football career in August 1998 when he found himself with all of his then-C.W. Post teammates in an auditorium for a team meeting. The school had just promoted defensive coordinator Bryan Collins to head coach, and it was Collins' first day on the job.
In walked Collins, wheeling in about 100 red bricks with him. He handed one to each of his players, who looked at him as if he were crazy.
"'Tonight is Day 1,'" Isopo, an offensive lineman, recalled Collins saying, "'and with these bricks, we’re going to build the foundation of our program.'"
Ask anyone who played for Collins during his tenure. He didn’t just help build a successful football program — he helped mold lives.
"He was like a father," said Ian Smart, who graduated in 2002 as the NCAA’s all-time leader in touchdowns (95), points scored (570) and yards per carry (7.58). "He was a mentor. He gave us guidance. We were young boys when we got there, and we all left as men."
Collins resigned last Monday after 23 years leading the program, which now competes in Division I FCS as the LIU Sharks.
"It’s important as a coach to know when it’s time," he said in an interview with Newsday.
Collins, 56, leaves as LIU’s all-time winningest coach with a record of 162-84. He guided the program to six NCAA Tournament appearances and eight Northeast-10 championships, including three undefeated seasons in the conference — 2002, 2016 and 2018. He was named Coach of the Year seven times and coached 12 All-Americans and 25 All-Region players.
"It really is a brotherhood," Collins said, "and we as coaches are part of that family as far as circling it around and creating the culture for it to thrive and creating moments that players become even tighter. That was very important that we created that tightness within the team and that we grew it."
Collins said one of his most special moments came on Nov. 5, 2016, when his son Tyler — who quite literally grew up on the Post campus, attending preschool there and spending time around his dad’s program — caught his first career collegiate touchdown in a win over Merrimack.
Collins also was the school’s athletic director from 2006 to 2016, a challenge in which he was able to draw from his coaching experience.
"We created the environment within the department that no one team is more important than us as a whole," he said. "And that was the same thing we did with the football team — there’s no one player that’s more important than the whole team."
Smart, who now lives in Florida and works as a deputy sheriff while running his new health nutrition shop, saw that approach first-hand during his record-breaking season.
"To me, it was never about [the records]," Smart, 41, told Newsday. "To me, it was about the brotherhood, the family, us being one that rubbed off on me."
Smart went on to play in four NFL regular-season games with the Buccaneers in 2004. He also was a two-time CFL Western All-Star for the BC Lions and was named the CFL's Most Outstanding Special Teams Player of the Year in 2007 after setting the league record for kick-returns and kick return yards.
Isopo was Collins’ first recruit and home visit as head coach. He said Collins’ best trait was his ability to build a team-first, brotherly culture.
"It doesn’t matter how talented you are," said Isopo, 40, who works as a spinal implant distributor for Stryker Corporation. "If you don’t create a culture and a family-type environment, your success is going to be minimal. He’s had tremendous success over his career, and it’s because he built that culture."
Jake Carlock, who was Northeast-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and spent training camp with the Giants the following summer, said one of the main reasons he transferred to LIU Post from Stony Brook was how quickly he and Collins connected — a bond that remains to this day.
"I just call him for advice," said Carlock, 24, who founded ONE4 Fitness earlier this year after hanging up his cleats. "I call him when I need to know something, and I know he’ll answer it and give me honest feedback."
Honesty was a staple of Collins’ coaching style. He always was direct with his players, who appreciated the way he knew what buttons to push to get the most out of them.
"He was the ultimate players’ coach, and I say players’ coach in not as someone who just let us run wild," said Rob Blount, a four-year starting quarterback under Collins from 2002 to 2005. "He coached with tough love, he held us accountable at all times, regardless of whether it was on the field, in our social lives, academics-wise. He was always there."
Blount, the head football coach at Oceanside High School, is part of Collins’ coaching tree, which spans from FBS to junior college to Long Island high schools. Collins’ influence on his descendants is quickly noticeable.
"I find myself saying a lot of the same things he did," Blount said. "When I started as a young head coach at 24, I was still fresh out of college, and a lot of the building blocks that I learned in that program underneath him are the same building blocks that we still have today when I’m teaching and coaching."
Most of those building blocks weren’t even related to Xs and Os.
"The majority of stuff that he was talking about had nothing to do with football," Blount said. "It was all about how we should handle situations later on as young men, as future fathers, as husbands, how we should handle things in the workplace. And the lessons that he gave us and the words that he spoke really transcended into how we are today."
Jonathan Gill, Collins’ passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach, was named LIU’s interim head coach. A spokesperson said the school plans to have a permanent replacement by NEC Media Day at the end of July.
Collins, who lives in Sayville, said he plans to get back into coaching or potentially back into the administrative side.
Wherever he lands, there’s little doubt that bricks will continue to be laid.
"He’s like the Bill Belichick of Division II," Smart said. "He took a bunch of guys that were overlooked by other programs and he gave us an opportunity. He gave us a chance. We believed in him, we bought into what he was trying to do and it paid off."
And the last thing Collins took with him when he cleared out his office? His brick.