You know the Burton Burns who’s coached eight running backs from the University of Alabama practice fields off Hackberry Lane and onto NFL squads.
You’re familiar with the Burton Burns who honed the first Heisman Trophy winners in the program’s history and had a third represent in New York City as a finalist. You know the guy who received a minute-long thank you from Derrick Henry during last year’s acceptance speech.
You may even know the Burton Burns who turned down overtures and pleas from a sitting Louisiana governor to break the color barrier and become LSU’s first African-American player in the 1970s only to forge his own path at Nebraska, or you may have heard that he was the son of a World War II Marine veteran awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
But you don’t know Burkie.
His family and friends call him Burkie, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone, even those who coach and go against him in the cutthroat world of recruiting, say a single bad word about the man who turned 64 last week. It was a birthday filled with phone calls and messages, many from former players who remain rigidly loyal to their coach.
There is the easy-to-identify excellence from Burns the coach. Crimson Tide running backs have run for nearly 15 miles since Burns signed on to coach the position back in 2007, a total of 25,850 yards and 299 rushing touchdowns. Nearly all of the starters have been drafted into the NFL.
— Burton Burns (@UACoachBBurns) April 19, 2016
Then there is the side of the man fewer see, a man so completely heartbroken by the death of a former player that for a time after the young man’s passing no running back was allowed to sit in his seat in the meeting room.
Burns is a tough and unrelenting task master, but he’s also a big softie, a loving father of four and grandfather of two, who cares for his players old and new alike like they there were a part of his own family. It is in those competing ideals that you’ll find the real Burns. Call it the duality of Burkie.
Find yourself on an Alabama practice field and you’ll undoubtedly be fascinated by the running backs. No, not by the the sheer size of them or the number of great players you’ll spot — although that in its own right is a testament to Burns’ eye for talent and recruiting ability — but in how hard he pushes them.
Mark Ingram, UA’s first Heisman Trophy winner, arrived in Tuscaloosa from Flint, Mich., a long way from home and with a lot to learn.
“He expected you to know defenses, learn defenses, know fronts, learn how to tell where pressure is coming from, all that,” Ingram said. “How to be violent with your cuts, one-step cuts. He was just on you consistently.”
You can’t play for the former Nebraska fullback (1971-75) without a firm understanding of the fundamentals: footwork, mastering how to press the hole, how to properly carry the ball, learning how to block, importance of a sharp cut upfield. And if you fail to execute those things he can dress you down.
Those qualities of demanding perfection and not settling for anything less are things he learned playing for legendary New Orleans high school football coach Otis Washington at St. Augustine. Washington coached at the school for 11 years (1969-79) and lost a total of 17 games. Burns took those lessons with him to Nebraska.
“Burton would knock your teeth out,” former Cornhuskers running back teammate Tony Davis said. “Burton played like he coaches. He’s a technician, and he’s a teacher, and he does these things right. He’s got that rare combination of the ability to teach attitude as well as technique. He’s just so damn good. He was like that as a player. So this stuff that he’s doing now, it doesn’t surprise me.”
After Nebraska, Burns returned home to New Orleans and took a job working for Washington at Saint Augustine.
“I hired him sight unseen,” Washington said.
When Washington went to Southern University, Burns joined his staff in 1981. From day one he was always a running backs coach, and from day one he demanded a certain style of play.
As a player, he tried to run over you. He coaches the same way.
That trademark toughness is his calling card and it carries over to his players. Alabama runners aren’t exactly known as scatbacks picking their way at the edges of defenses. Their reputation is of physical down-hill runners. Directly or indirectly that is reinforced every day with Burns at practice.
“Burkie is a guy who is not going to let anybody outwork him,” his brother Ronnie Burns said. “He’s going to teach the fundamentals. He’s going to make sure those guys do the drills to perfection and make sure they know why they’re doing those drills.
“When he recruits a player, he’s looking for a certain mentality of player. Obviously they’re talented but they have to have that mental edge to them, too. ‘We don’t give up. We don’t quit. We follow all the way through.’ And I think he teaches that in his drills. He gets fired up when he’s coaching.”
That tenacity in his coaching style isn’t just something he preaches. He lived it. It was the way he played, the only way he knew how to.
“I will tell you that of the 10 or 11 running backs you’d pair up against and go against each other, I always tried to avoid Burton because he would just knock your (freaking) teeth out,” Davis said. “There is no ease up. It was always you just got drilled. With Burton he was 5-10, 5-11, 230 pounds and he could run and he had power. He had that snap. When he arrived to the pile the fricking pile exploded.”
SO WHAT! NOW WHAT! pic.twitter.com/DnLRosdFk3
— Burton Burns (@UACoachBBurns) May 1, 2016
With his players, Burns has the ability to see beyond what they want and give them what they need. Sometimes that involves intentionally angering them or manufacturing something to motivate them. He quickly figures out what gets under a player’s skin and uses it to extract the best from them.
“I think he understands the hot buttons of these kids,” Ronnie Burns said. “That’s a talent all in its own, to understand what motivates you, what motivates me. He knows how to press those buttons.”
That applied to Derrick Henry, a notoriously driven player who was known as being the hardest worker on the team and a sort of self-starter. Even he was the subject of Burkie’s motivational ploys.
“He would just say things just to get your motivated, things he knew you were thinking about and wanted to get better at,” Henry said. “He’s always listening to you to make sure he constantly stayed on you just so he did his job to help you get better and make sure you were working hard. That’s the biggest thing for me is he would nag me on things I needed to get better at and he made sure they stayed in your mind.”
With Ingram, a player who welcomed truthful feedback, Burns knew there was no out of bounds.
“I didn’t mind criticism or him being rough on me,” Ingram said. “He would push me and be on me. If there was sometimes I thought I was practicing good and he thought I was slacking off, he’d let me know. Then I’d come to practice ready the next day.
“He’ll lift you up and he’ll bring you down. If you need encouragement, he’d encourage you. He knew when to be tough on you and to make you get right. That’s why he’s my favorite coach who I’ve ever played for.”
Burns can be ardently tough on his guys, but he’s also got a soft side that few outside of his realm see. His players see it. They saw it Oct. 20, 2015.
That’s the day one of his former players, running back Altee Tenpenny, died in a one-car accident in Mississippi. It hit Burns, and the team, hard.
Behind the scenes Burns had been working for Tenpenny since the North Little Rock, Ark., native arrived on campus. At first he worked developing the player. More and more, though, it became counseling the person, trying to keep him at Alabama despite some setbacks. After it became apparent things weren’t going to work out for Tenpenny in Tuscaloosa, he made phone calls to other programs to make sure he had a landing spot. Then came the call that Tenpenny, just 20 years old, was gone.
Those in his inner say he was devastated.
One person close to Burns said, “It caused him to think deep about how much more he could have done to help him. He did everything in his power but he was sad because in the end, it didn’t save him.”
When the news broke, Burns called a meeting with his running backs. He wanted them to be together, to be a family in that moment.
“He really was heartbroken,” Henry said. “When Altee passed he talked to us and told us just remember the good times with Altee and how he was. That’s what Altee would want us to remember him as. When we found out the day he passed, nobody sat in his seat he used to sit in at the running back room. So we just paid respect to him in that way. You could sense that he always loved Altee.”
That love and sense of family comes from within for Burkie. He comes from an extraordinarily close family, patriarched by his father Winston Burns, a junior varsity and high school football coach in his day under whom the legendary Washington did his student teaching.
The Burns are beloved in New Orleans. They are beloved in Tuscaloosa. It seems that anyone who comes in contact with the Burns family, and especially Burton and his wife of 43 years Connie, can’t help but love them.
“It’s trite and maybe an oversimplification, but they’re just good,” New Orleans media member and area sports historian Ro Brown said. “You just come away from them knowing that they’re just so good. And I’m talking as a collective. It’s just quality people. They treat people the right way.”
That goodness and decency engenders a lifetime loyalty.
Recently Davis was instrumental in presenting his friend Burkie with the Alumni of Excellence Award awarded by the Nebraska Greats Foundation. It was the first time the award had been given.
Even those who’ll wear purple and gold Saturday night will be pulling for Burns.
“Whether you’re an LSU fan or not, people respect him and they like him because he’s good,” Brown said. “They know he’s coaching at Alabama. I wish he was at LSU. The high school coaches here want their kids to go to LSU. They do. But none of them are going to stone wall Burkie.”
Now with the New Orleans Saints, Ingram can still hear his old coach when he fumbles or messes up during a drill. He’s knows that demand for excellence comes from a place of love.
“All the goals you have for yourself, he wants those and more for you,” Ingram said. “He’s just a special guy and a special person and a special coach all in one.
“His family loves you. His wife, Mrs. Connie, she’s amazing. They take you in. I was far, far away from home when I went to Alabama and they embraced me and made me feel at home. They’re family still to this day.”
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.