COLLINSVILLE – The Collinsville Panthers are turning to a familiar face to lead their football program once again.
Ernie Willingham, who retired following the 2019 season, is coming back to coach the Panther football and baseball teams. He replaces Daniel Garrett as the football coach. Garrett accepted the Rogers High School football job almost two weeks ago.
Pending DeKalb County Board of Education approval, it will be Willingham’s third tenure at Collinsville. Willingham first coached the Panthers from 1998-2002. He then became the head coach at Appalachian and coached there from 2004-10 before returning to Collinsville in 2013. Willingham remained the coach at Collinsville from 2013-19.
Health issues forced Willingham to step down following the 2019 season, the school’s 100th year of the program, but he went out with a bang. He guided the Panthers to a school-record 12-2 season and was named the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s Class 2A Coach of the Year.
Willingham has an overall head coaching record of 131-84 (80-54 at Collinsville).
“I’m excited to be back coaching,” Willingham said shortly after the Panthers finished their weightlifting on Monday. “Most of those kids played for me in some form or another. We changed a few things back and they all seem to be really excited. I thought we had a really good day (Monday).
“I’ve got some really good assistant coaches. A lot of these guys coached with me before (Chris Conde, Teddy Helms, Mike McElrath, Tanner Nelson and Jeff Stanley). Ryan Stanley didn’t coach with me when I was there before, but all those other guys did. They know what we do and how we did it before, and we expect to do it like that again.”
Collinsville principal Bradley Crawford feels fortunate to have Willingham back in the fold on such short notice.
“This late in the summer, finding a new football coach is a definite challenge,” Crawford said in a statement on the school’s Facebook page. “Our goal was to identify the best head coach possible for the moment we find ourselves in and we are very fortunate to have someone with experience like Coach Willingham in our community willing to serve.”
This time around, Willingham will be leading the Panthers in their second year since moving up to Class 3A. They compete in Region 7, along with defending state champion Fyffe, Plainview, Geraldine, Sylvania, Asbury and Brindlee Mountain. The Panthers went 6-4 in 2020 and just missed making the state playoffs under Garrett.
“They got put a little bit on the spot,” Willingham said. “Coach Garrett left just three weeks before the first day of practice. Mr. Crawford called me and asked me what I thought about coming back, and that finding somebody this time of year was going to be really hard. We decided that he’d go through with the search, see how everything turned out. If he couldn’t hit a home run, then I’d take it for a while.”
Willingham said he’s still retired from teaching. He’s strictly just coaching football and baseball.
“When the season is over, we’re going to sit down and address it again, whether it’s more than one season or not,” he said.
“I feel good about it. I was a little sick before and I didn’t feel real good when I quit. I’d had some medical problems. I was working really hard and felt tired. I thought the best thing for me to do was to retire (after the 2019 season). I feel pretty good now.”
Collinsville opens the 2021 season Aug. 20 at home against Section.