Sept. 3, 2015
The seasons change but the stage remains the same.
Thirty-four years after surviving his one-game job audition, Mike Collins still considers himself much too lucky to take for granted any day, or even a single moment, when he punches his time card at Notre Dame Stadium for another season of Irish football.
As the veteran game-day voice of this proud program, Collins handles each season, each game and each individual play like there is no other.
"I'm still kind of in awe that I have this job," says Collins, the public address announcer for every Notre Dame home football game since 1982. "Each game I work, I look out into the stadium and say to myself, `How cool is this?' I say to myself `Never forget this moment.' You just never know what tomorrow will bring."
Tomorrow arrives today with Texas in town when Collins "straps on" his headset again and opens his 34th season behind the stadium microphone for his milestone 200th career game, never missing one along the way.
"My stomach has been in knots, but I've never been ill for a game," Collins says. "Somehow that really has been a blessing."
Notre Dame's matchup with Miami in 1988; The Game of the Century against Florida State in 1993; The Bush Push Game with USC in 2005, and so many others: Collins has seen and called them all, and treated every game with an equal reverence to the classics.
"No matter what the score," Collins says, "I just believe in having great respect for our opponent."
Thankful, gracious and never one to take himself overly seriously, Collins, 70, offers this quip when he's asked about an occupation he once practiced 60 years ago as a child in his parents' basement back in Pittsburgh. "I feel like a kid in a candy store with my parents' credit card."
But when it comes to work, nobody takes more seriously their preparation and game-day responsibilities than Collins.
Almost 40 years of television work as a reporter, news anchor and news director before his retirement in 2007 taught Collins the importance of accuracy and immediacy.
"Mike's many years of experience as a news anchor in the television business made him perfect for this role," says John Heisler, Notre Dame senior associate athletic director and a longtime press box colleague of Collins. "It's all about delivering facts and other information in a timely and appropriate manner -- with just slight bits of flair and creativity to go with it."
Who Woulda Thought?
The journey for Collins to 200 games started in the 1982 season opener with a prime time matchup against Michigan -- the first ever night game at Notre Dame Stadium. Ironically, game No. 200 for Collins is the first season opener played under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium since that 1982 game.
Void of a press credential that evening, Collins had to sweet-talk his way into the stadium, and once finally in the PA booth and situated he remembers, "It got dark after the game started, I looked up because I couldn't see and there was no light bulb in the socket," Collins says with a laugh. "I don't know where they got it but we sent some engineers out somewhere to find light bulbs so we could see what we were doing."
Poor lighting and no credential were just a couple minor snags during a life-changing night Collins never saw coming just three days earlier.
Enjoying his television work and a job as the public address announcer for Irish hockey, Collins was minding his own business when he got an unexpected call from long-time Notre Dame sports information director Roger Valdiserri.
"Roger asked if I could work Saturday night," Collins recalls. "I thought he was talking about a hockey game."
Renown Irish football PA announcer Frank Crosiar decided to retire, leaving Valdiserri in a tight spot to at least cover the football season opener. He turned to Collins.
"I never told Roger that I had never done PA for football before in any way, I had only done PA for hockey and baseball," Collins says. "I guess Roger had the faith in me. I didn't even know where the PA booth was my first football game. I owe everything to Roger."
Feeling equal parts eagerness, nervousness and unfamiliarity, Collins reached out to a friend and colleague back home for some occupational guidance and was put in touch with legendary Pittsburgh Pirates PA announcer Art McKennan, who delivered some advice Collins still wears on his sleeve and shares with young understudies.
"Don't fall in love with your voice and always remember that nobody is paying a dime of that ticket price to hear the public address announcer," Collins says. "We're there to be professionally enthusiastic and to help the fans follow the game. It's as simple as that."
So armed with some sage advice, a few roster sheets, a chance to fulfill a childhood dream, and a love for the University he graduated from in 1967, Collins survived, passed his one-game "audition," and was hired to finish the 1982 season. More than 30 years later, he has become an integral part of the Notre Dame Stadium experience.
"To serve as the public address announcer for Notre Dame football, I am very emotional about it," Collins says. "I want it to be something that Notre Dame is proud of. That's what I strive for every game." As if holding one dream job at Notre Dame wasn't gratifying enough, Collins hit the career jackpot this spring when he was hired by his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates as their PA announcer for spring training in Bradenton, Florida.
To escape the South Bend winters, Collins and his wife, Melissa, had recently bought a condo in Sarasota, Fla., only about 15 miles from the Pirates training facility. Following his move to the Sunshine State, Collins sent an employment inquiry to his childhood team with no real expectations.
Timing is everything: A week before spring training started, the previous Pirates PA announcer quit.
"Well, every job I've ever had in my life, I pretty much got because there wasn't enough time to interview anybody else," says Collins, who plans to hold his Florida job as long as they'll keep him. "They checked my credentials, called a few people, found out I was the real deal and hired me, so now I have two dream jobs. It's unbelievable."
And as any loving partner would be interested in, Melissa asked her hubby what his new job would pay.
"Oh," answered Mike, "... I forgot to ask that part."
If It Ain't Broke
Much of what makes Collins so valuable and respected within the Notre Dame community is his never-ending appreciation and dedication to the University. Thirty-three years on the job could have naturally created complacency, but not for Collins.
"I probably do far more homework through the week than anybody should," he says. "But I'm just driven by the fact that you want to do this as well as you can."
Each game week includes hours of prep, complete with a full dress rehearsal at his South Bend home where he spreads out his roster sheets on the kitchen counter and calls a game as if it's happening on his kitchen floor.
As part of his game-day regimen, Collins must arrive at the stadium exactly two hours before kickoff and if any friends or family are planning on hitching a ride with him, "God forbid anyone would break my routine," he says.
In an era before cellular telephones, not even mom was excused about 20 years ago when she arrived at her son's home post departure time for a ride to the game, only to find a note and cab fare taped to Collins' front door.
"I left without her," Collins says with affection. "She didn't show, and that was her fault. God bless her, but I had to get going."
Melissa chooses the word committed instead of crazy to describe her husband's weekly routine.
"The dogs and I sit and listen to him practicing going over the names so that they just roll off his tongue," she says. "The dogs look at him a little strangely, though. `Oh, it's that time of the year again, huh?'"
The father of two grown boys and the grandfather of three, Collins is the first to admit he may be a little over the top when it comes to routine, but hard work brings great rewards.
Collins broke Notre Dame's PA longevity record in 2010 by working his 171st football game; he was recognized by the University with an honorary national championship ring for his important work during the 1988 title season; and more recently, Collins co-wrote a book along with longtime stadium colleague, friend, and amusing PA public safety announcer, Sgt. Tim McCarthy, titled "May I Have Your Attention Please ... Wit & Wisdom From The Notre Dame Pressbox."
"Mike is a great mentor and a great representative of Notre Dame. It has really been a pleasure working with him," said McCarthy, who recently retired after 58 seasons at his post and 33 seasons working alongside Collins. "Everybody thinks that being a game announcer is really a plush job, you just sit up there and call the plays. People don't realize the hard work that Mike puts in."
In 2009, Collins accompanied Lou Holtz and a collection of renowned Irish alumni players to Tokyo as part of the Notre Dame Japan Bowl, and he travels with the team every year to legendary venues as part of the Shamrock Series travel party, which includes a trip to Fenway Park in Boston in 2015.
"What this job has led to is just amazing," says Collins, theorizing he may become the first PA announcer to ever work in both Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.
Never comfortable or satisfied, Collins continues to be his own harshest critic, routinely reviewing a DVR copy of every Irish home game to evaluate his timing and voice behind the commentary of the television crew.
Retirement is not in any immediate plans, but Collins plans to go out on top when the time comes.
"I am monitoring myself so I can walk away before anybody knows that I have lost anything," he says. "I want to walk away with pride because this University deserves nothing but the best."
Safe to say that 200 games and 34 years prove that Notre Dame already found the best.
-- By Todd Burlage