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Mike Collins, who played at Cherokee, will bring his 14 years of head coaching experience to River Ridge after being approved at a school board meeting Thursday. (Photo: Will Fagan)

River Ridge found the third football coach in its history Thursday, after Mike Collins was approved at a school board meeting.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for Collins, a Canton native who played at Cherokee and later served as an assistant on Brian Dameron’s staff before getting his first head-coaching job in 2005 at Pebblebrook.

Collins went on to spend three years at Pebblebrook and two at Chamblee before spending the last nine seasons at Wheeler. He stepped down from the Wildcats’ helm earlier this week.

“I felt like I brought Wheeler as far as I could bring them,” Collins said. “It gives them an opportunity a guy to bring in a guy with some fresh encouragement. I think they’re close to being a state contender. River Ridge gives me an opportunity for a change of scenery. The administrators share a similar vision to myself. It just felt like a great fit.”

Collins will replace Tyler Wynn, who went 9-31 in four seasons as River Ridge’s coach. Robert Braucht coached the Knights from their inception in 2009 through the 2014 season.

Collins went 37-56 at Wheeler, making the state playoffs three times and posting a 6-4 record last season. He has a career record of 69-79 in 15 seasons as a head coach with six playoff berths and a region championship at Pebblebrook in 2006.

Next fall, Collins will be tasked with leading River Ridge through a challenging Region 6AAAAAA field, with the Knights looking for their first winning season since going 8-2 in 2011.

“First and foremost, we want to make sure everyone in the program is in an environment where they can improve on a regular basis,” Collins said. “I want to make sure everyone is taking steps forward every day, from the feeder program to the high school team. We feel like, if we can get that accomplished, we’ll be able to compete.”

With four more years of head-coaching experience than the length of the entire River Ridge program, Collins said he has learned lessons on what it takes to run a successful program.

“I think, from top to bottom, I’ve gotten better with the work,” he said. “When you look at the whole program, you have to make sure everyone knows what the standard is. You have to set a common goal and work toward it, which is what we’re looking to do at River Ridge.”

At Wheeler, Collins ran an up-tempo spread offense that focused on getting the ball to playmakers in space. He said he would like to do the same at River Ridge, but he is willing the change the look of his offense to fit his personnel.

“Even at Wheeler, we always wanted to make sure we did what was most suitable for our players on both sides of the ball,” Collins said. “It always has to be adjusted. The philosophy doesn’t change, but you have to adjust. In a perfect world, I would like to be a spread attack with a fast-paced offense that gets a lot of people the ball in space.”

The first step for Collins will be putting his staff together. He did not say how many assistants will be following him from Wheeler, or how many he will retain from Wynn’s staff, but putting together a final list of coaches is his first priority.

“It’s the next step in the process,” Collins said. “We wanted to make sure all the formalities were taken care of first. I’ve been contacted by several qualified and talented coaches who are interested in joining the staff. I’ll sit down with the administrators at River Ridge, and we’ll try to make sure we bring in the best folks to help us meet our goals.”

Collins will start at River Ridge in March. That will be his first real test to evaluate the talent he has available, but he said it will be just as important to connect with the community.

“We need to connect with the players,” said Collins, who maintained a residence in Cherokee County, even as he coached elsewhere. “I want to share my vision and give them an understanding of what I stand for. You have to connect with the community leaders and people who have skin in the game. That’s how you start to build a program.”

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