As senior associate athletic director Kenny Mossman stood before a crowd of friends and fans at Marita Hynes Field on a windy Sunday afternoon, he began to wrap up his discourse with a quote from Aristotle: “A friend to all is a friend to none.”
A little less than an hour prior to Mossman’s statement, the crowd had taken their seats at the hallowed stadium, but for the first time in a while they weren’t there to catch a game. Instead, they had come to the most appropriate of places to celebrate the life of a man who had fully given himself to supporting Sooner sports.
“Aristotle never met a guy like Taco,” Mossman said, concluding his statement.
Tom Collins, the man many knew as “Taco,” died Sept. 26 at 72 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Collins volunteered at many nationally recognized sporting events in his day, but the roots of his work as a helping hand in the world of athletics ran through Norman at the University of Oklahoma.
“The first time I met Taco, I was sort of taken aback by his way,” said Joe Castiglione, OU's athletic director. “It was at an event, and he came up and just started talking to me, and pretty much telling me what he thought about a wide variety of things. He barely got his name out before he launched into this stream of consciousness about all things related to OU.”
Such was the nature of Collins, who was not afraid to say what he thought about anything. From his longtime love for OU to his opinions on ticket prices and facilities, he laid it all out there for Castiglione during their first encounter.
This footloose and free style of conversation that Collins always displayed was one of his greatest qualities, as were his dry sense of humor and quick wit.
“I didn’t necessarily recognize it on that first meeting, but subsequently I just learned that he had that sort of undertone of sarcasm in everything he would say,” Castiglione said, “but that shouldn’t ever have been seen to mask what a truly good person he was.”
A charming character who drew people to himself with his consistently joyful mood, Collins had been a supportive figure to many throughout his life. KWTV sports director Dean Blevins’ relationship with Collins began at a young age, and Blevins became more aware of his friend’s encouraging presence as he grew older.
Blevins was introduced to Collins by his older brother Paul when he was in the fifth or sixth grade. The three of them, and several others, proceeded to form a tight-knit group of sports fans who would do everything together, from trying to break world records in hacky sack to betting against the spread on a Sunday afternoon in a bid to win a chicken dinner.
Though he was about 10 years younger than Collins, Blevins and his group of friends stuck together through his time as a premier athlete at Norman High School several years down the road, with Collins and the others coming out to support him in his endeavors.
“Taco would come to all of the games and it was kind of a big family,” Blevins said. “Norman was a smaller town, Norman High was the only school and everyone kind of had their ‘rah rah’ team spirit, so Taco was right in the middle of that, and he and a lot of those guys would come to all the games and all the sports I played.”
Alongside his vivid personality and supportive presence, Collins’ love of being around people was also one of his finest character traits.
He became very well known for the trips that he and Blevins often planned in an effort to group together as many friends as possible. These big expeditions eventually donned the moniker of “Taco Tours.”
During these “Taco Tours,” Blevins and Collins would take loads of friends on buses to various sporting events, such as Bedlam in Stillwater and OU-Texas in Dallas.
“We told people he’s a ‘sick’ guy,” Blevins said. “We had ‘sick bus’ No. 1 and ‘sick bus’ No. 2, and just all the fun you could have.”
Throughout his life, Collins seemed to have this magnetism about him that pulled people to him. He didn’t have to work very hard to rope them in either. He just had to be himself.
Ultimately, all the good qualities Collins exhibited served him well as he volunteered at various sporting events. A hefty portion of his event staff career was spent around softball, a sport he had previously played.
Collins loved softball so much that he worked at the NCAA Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City for 27 years, a feat that few, if any others can claim.
Castiglione was usually with Collins during the Women’s College World Series as the humble servant cheered on his beloved Sooners. For many years the two stood together near the press box and celebrated every big play as they watched OU compete for a national title.
Though he loved the nostalgic atmosphere and the free access to the game he loved, these pleasantries were not what kept Collins coming back to the tournament.
“What he cared about was the cause, the reason, the purpose, who it helped, what it did for the greater good,” Castiglione said.
The result of Collins’ kind labor and his never ending adoration of OU athletics was an army of fans that grew in number with each person he met.
From players to administration and former coaches such as Barry Switzer to current coaches like Patty Gasso, everyone came to love and adore Collins.
“Everyone wanted to know Taco and he was an omnipotent presence,” Blevins said. “He had a presence at all of these events, never wanting to put on a show or anything but to be there in support.”
Eventually, Collins’ service morphed into an alignment with the Big 12 conference.
It all began when the OU athletic department started using him as a photo steward. He was placed inside the photography area around the basketball court at the Lloyd Noble Center, checking credentials and making sure that all the people in the area were in their appropriate seats.
Collins worked in this capacity at some postseason games that were held in Norman, and through his time there he developed contacts with those affiliated with the Big 12 conference. Unsurprisingly, the Big 12 wanted to use him in the same role.
Through this avenue Collins ended up volunteering abroad at high profile events such as the Big 12 Basketball Tournament and the College Football Playoff. Within those channels he became known and admired by athletes and coaches all over the country, putting his dynamic profile on a national stage.
“What started as a few benign basketball games here in Norman really blossomed into a lot for him,” Mossman said.
Though his efforts had grown far and wide beyond the surroundings of Norman, Collins was still an Oklahoma fan through and through.
For Castiglione, the coolest part of playing games on the road became walking into an opponent’s arena and seeing Collins already in place, doing his work on behalf of the Big 12. He had become more than just a friendly face. He was the ambassador, the link between OU and the Big 12, always asking to be assigned to the Sooners during the time that they were present.
Castiglione took further notice of Collins’ continued investment in OU through his stewardship at the recent Big 12 Media Days in Dallas.
“He would take our head coach and our players wherever they were supposed to go during the course of the day,” Castiglione said, “and I know they got to know him and know his quick wit and learn how much he loved the University of Oklahoma just in those few minutes walking from one media event to the other.”
Even pancreatic cancer couldn’t keep Collins away from supporting OU, as he continued to work at events despite his illness. He was definitely not alone in his battle, as those in the Sooner community to whom he had given so much began to repay him for his selflessness.
Friends of Collins’ came together to do anything they could from making shirts to raising money in an effort to help him along the way.
“He really had a Sooner following,” Blevins said, “and all that love and time and adoration that he put into OU sports for all those years came back tenfold to pay him back in his latter years.”
Though Collins’ illness severely hampered him during his final days, the way he handled his situation was yet another great example of what a good-hearted fellow he was.
“I know that when I die if I can carry myself with the dignity that he did, it will be quite an accomplishment,” Blevins said. “I was just overwhelmed with how well he handled it.”
As Blevins, Mossman and others took to the podium at Marita Hynes Field on that gusty Sunday, they delivered a memorial tribute the likes of which few have received before.
There was great joy and laughter as friends and family recalled Collins’ love of country music and sprint car racing, and chuckled at memoirs of his adventures as a traveling sports fan. Stories of his distaste for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, who he always referred to as “the Aggies” brought smiles to the faces of many who were present.
There was also great sorrow, as many mourned the loss of the wonderful man who had been a great encouragement to them. Ultimately, these friendships defined who Collins was more than any hobby that he had or anything that he accomplished as a sports volunteer.
The way that Collins cared for those around him had become the legacy he left behind, providing a lesson to all who knew him that they should treat others how they wish to be treated.
As Blevins closed his portion of the ceremony, he offered one final farewell to the man who had impacted him and many others so greatly.
“So rest in peace my friend,” Blevins said, “a man that everyone knew, and a friend impossible to forget.”