April 18, 2019 Atlanta - Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins gestures as he shouts instructions during a practice session at Georgia Tech's football outdoor practice field on Thursday, April 18, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Geoff Collins’ strong ties to the AJC Peachtree Road Race

Given his embrace of all things Atlanta, it’s no surprise that Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins has a fondness for the AJC Peachtree Road Race. His connection to the world’s largest 10K race, which celebrates its 50th running Thursday, goes deep.

Not only has Collins himself run it, but his father, Billy, ran in the first Peachtree in 1970. Billy Collins, who died in 2015 at the age of 64, loved the Peachtree, Geoff Collins said.

Beyond that, Collins grew up in a family of runners for whom the Peachtree was an annual event. Collins, himself a runner growing up who has one marathon to his credit, has memories that may sound familiar to many Atlantans.

Members of the Collins family ran the 6.2-mile race in the morning, “and then we would have a huge family barbecue in the Briarcliff area,” he said. “That was a great tradition for our entire family for a long, long time, centered around the Peachtree Road Race.”

Billy Collins was no mere casual jogger, an identity that hardly existed in 1970 before the running boom took hold in the U.S. To be a competitive runner at that time required a different outlook and mindset, according to Jeff Galloway, the winner of that first Peachtree. Galloway went on to compete in the 10,000 meters in the 1972 Olympics and become an esteemed elder in the Atlanta running community.

“Even though the highly competitive, focused runners are still looked on as a little obsessive – or a lot obsessive –the bottom line today is that there are a lot of people who are running and understand the benefits of running,” Galloway said.

Back then, there was no such consensus, at least among non-runners. It makes Billy Collins, then 19, stand out all the more. Collins, in fact, blazed through the first Peachtree, finishing in 40 minutes, seven seconds, good for 19th among the 110 finishers, a group that has earned prized status as pioneers in a cherished event.

The starting line of the first Peachtree Road Race. Geoff Collins said he thinks his father is the young man in the middle of the photo, in the second row behind the two boys, in the white shirt with his head down. (Courtesy Atlanta Track Club)
Photo: Special

While there is some discrepancy about whether the race course was the full 6.2 miles – some have reported that it was closer to an even six miles – that time is exemplary. Even if he ran only six miles, had Collins completed the full distance at that pace, he would have run 6.2 miles in 41:27, which would still have been close to the top 1 percentile of finishers of last year’s Peachtree.

Not long after, he was off to Georgia to run for the Bulldogs.

“He did that, and then a little Geoff Collins came along during his freshman year and he ended up transferring to Georgia State,” Collins said.

A photo of Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins' father Billy Collins, likely taken during Billy's freshman year at Georgia in the 1970-71 academic year. He is in the photo with Geoff Collins' mother Barbara Vlass (then Barbara Phillips). (Courtesy Geoff Collins)

Running was a way of life in the family. Billy Collins’ younger brother Danny ran at Tech, and in fact still holds one of the school’s top times in the 1,500 meters. Danny was a roommate with and teammate of Alan Drosky, the longtime Tech women’s track coach.

Billy Collins became a physical-education teacher and coach at Edwards Middle School in Rockdale County, serving with such dedication that the gym at the school bears his name. He continued to run as much as 10 to 12 miles a day, Geoff Collins said.

“You couldn’t go out in Conyers without seeing my dad out running through the city,” he said.

Geoff Collins, too, ran for his father at Edwards Middle School and then at Rockdale County High. Perhaps his crowning achievement was completing a marathon in 2003 in South Bend, Ind., when he was defensive coordinator at Western Carolina. The race began at the College Football Hall of Fame – then located in South Bend – and finished at the 50-yard line of Notre Dame Stadium. He finished in an impressive 3:39:23.

“I wasn’t as prolific a distance runner as my dad,” Collins said. “He was really good.”

Returning to the race that his father held dear may be in Collins’ future, a civic institution with strong ties to Tech. Race founder Tim Singleton was a Tech graduate, playing football for Bobby Dodd and running track. Galloway was coaching at Tech at the time of the first Peachtree.

“If I had known it was the 50th, I would have made plans and I would have trained and run it, but I didn’t,” Collins said. “I’ve been fairly busy for the past six months, but hopefully next year, once we get the culture settled and the first season, all that stuff, maybe it’ll be something to do in honor of him.”

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