By Mike Podoll • Associate Publisher • This Is AFCA Magazine
There are individuals among us who want to be seen as leaders of men and who want to be recognized for having great influence on the world. Others crave positions of power as a means to gain greater influence. Whether ego-driven or an altruistic vision, this yearning to influence often requires a need to shout from mountaintops and stand in the spotlight.
And then there is someone like Bob Burt.
Bob Burt, a veteran coach at the high school and college levels for 51 years, is a man who has influenced scores of people and helped countless others through sheer displays of positive actions – solely for the purpose of helping the greater good of the community. He is a man keenly aware that, as a football coach, he has an opportunity to make a real difference.
Currently the head coach at Cypress High School in Hemet, Calif., Burt doesn’t talk about being an influencer. He simply influences through a collective volume of positive work. This work is driven by a personal mission to serve – to serve his community, serve his players and serve the game of football – all of which he has done regularly, and relentlessly, during his career as a head coach.
Burt’s story is unique. It is fascinating from a coaching perspective and motivating as an example of how a motivated person can make a real difference by helping people. At the same time, his tale is also both equal parts heart-breaking and heart-warming. And it all centered on a man who views himself as an ordinary, everyday football coach.
Far from ordinary, Burt has now been recognized for his career-long mission to serve others by being named recipient of the American Football Coaches Foundation’s 2013 Power of Influence Award.
With a career in coaching that started in 1962, Burt says he’s never held another job outside of football. He also proudly points to the fact that he’s only ever worked for four head coaches total before ultimately becoming the head coach of his own team. The coach from Southern California views all four men as personal mentors and speaks in glowing terms when describing the impact they had on his development as a coach.
“I’m extremely fortunate, in that, I have only worked for four men in my life and all of them were tremendous mentors,” says Burt. “All four individuals were also about as different from a personality standpoint as you could possibly be to one another – yet I learned something special from each of them.
“They all had one amazing thing in common, too. Each of the four head coaches I worked under all hold title as ‘the winningest head coach in the history of their school.’”
Burt says that all four his former bosses – Marijon Ancich, Terry Donahue, Dick Tomey and Gene Murphy – all possessed unique attributes that drove their success. He tried to absorb each trait along the way, and ultimately, those characteristics became the tenets he used to develop his own coaching philosophy.
“The Worker” & “The Communicator”
Burt’s first job in coaching was in 1962, where he served as an assistant coach at St. Paul High School (Santa Fe Springs, Calif.), working under Marijon Ancich, who is now considered a legend and is often called, “The Dean of High School Coaches.” Ancich is the second-all-time winningest coach in the history of California high school football and has an all-time record of 360-134-4 (second in all-time wins only to Bob Ladouceur’s 399 career wins at De La Salle HS in Concord, Calif.).
“Marijon Ancich had just an incredible work ethic,” says Burt. “Working for him taught me about the importance and value of work ethic to a football coach.
“There is nothing about our jobs as football coaches that is 9-to-5. You’d better forget looking at your watch – unless it’s a timed segment in a practice, of course – and don’t concern yourself with the hours you’re putting in. Try to focus on getting your work done.”
In 1975, Burt left the high school ranks and joined Terry Donahue’s new staff at UCLA. Donahue would go on to be the winningest coach in the history of UCLA Bruin football. The coach describes how his time at UCLA taught him many valuable lessons on handling all aspects of a large-scale football program – especially as it pertains to communicating with a wide variety of people to get the job done. When it came to people skills, Burt says, that Terry Donahue was a master.
“Terry Donahue could communicate with everyone – players from different backgrounds, school officials, members of the media, you name it,” says Burt. “He showed me just how important that people skills and the ability to clearly communicate is to a football coach.”
Burt also says that coaching in the college ranks was a humbling experience. After more than a dozen years of coaching in high school with a fair amount of success, he says the reality of coaching college football hit him early.
“I thought I was a hot-shot who knew a lot about football coaching,” says Burt. “Well, when you get the college ranks, you discover in very short order that you didn’t know nearly as much as you thought you did. College coaches possess vast amounts of knowledge.
“The Organizer” & “The Bright Light”
After UCLA, in 1977, Burt was hired by Dick Tomey, joining his staff at the University of Hawaii. The coach calls Tomey the winningest coach in the history of two different schools – the University of Hawaii and the University of Arizona.
“Tomey taught me the value of being organized,” says Burt “I mean, that man was the most-organized football coach I have ever met – down to the most meticulous detail. Being organized allowed him to function at the highest-level possible as a coach.
“Another thing that Tomey taught me was that, as a coach, YOU are the person who is ultimately responsible. The buck stops with you. If a player is not performing up to his fullest capability, then it is something YOU are doing wrong as a coach, and you’d better fix it.
“I learned that it’s critical to examine your coaching methods and continuously evaluate the entire coaching process. What are you teaching a struggling player, and how do you teach it?
Burt also credits Tomey for showing confidence in him and giving him the opportunity to serve as coordinator on his staff – which he says, probably more than anything, put him on the path to where he is today.
In 1980, Burt joined Gene Murphy’s staff at California State University, Fullerton (Cal-State Fullerton). Murphy is the winningest coach in the history of Cal-State Fullerton football. Burt remains outwardly grateful and deeply moved by the impact Gene Murphy, who passed away in 2011, had on his life.
“Gene Murphy was just a bright light to everyone who was around him,” says Burt. “More than anything, Murphy taught me that, along with everything else I had learned in my coaching career – the knowledge, the work ethic, the organizational skills, the need to continuously self-evaluate – was that a football coach must remember to embrace his love of the game and have FUN.
“Enjoying the game is often overlooked. It’s something coaches don’t often discuss, but having fun is critical to maintaining longevity in this profession. Have fun while you are working hard – in what is oftentimes a very difficult job.
Despite having four coaching legends as professional mentors, Burt says that the learning and development process for a coach never stops.
“I’ve been coaching for over 50 years, and in the last few years, I have had circumstances come up that I have never experienced before,” says Burt. “New challenges will catch you off-guard of you are not prepared.”
In 1986, Burt took over as the head coach of his program at California State, Northridge. Armed with the lessons of his four coaching mentors, loaded with an abundance of knowledge and fueled by a passion for all aspects of coaching, the coach says that a desire to give back to the game began to grow.
“Like all young coaches, I started out just loving many aspects of the game – the competition, the strategy and helping develop young players,” says Burt. “Most guys who get into football coaching enjoy those aspects of the game. Over time, I began to realize that there was more to it than just the Xs-and-Os.
“The true size and scope of the role as a leader of the football program began to sink it for me – how we affect people, how our program affects the school, our impact on the local community, how we are viewed by parents – all that stuff. When you start to grasp the wide-scale impact that you can have as a coach in this sport, it becomes humbling and provides a deep sense of purpose.”
Burt says that he eventually came to the realization that he was getting more from the game than he was giving back. He says that had to change.
“I knew that I could do more to give back and do more in my capacity as a coach than just prepare for a game or prepare for a season,” says Burt. “I felt as if Iwas wasting my potential as a head coach to do more. So I decided to take action to correct that.
In 1987, with his career on a roll and determined to use his status as head coach to do more to help others, Burt’s world changed forever when his 19-year-old daughter Erin died unexpectedly.
An event as devastating as the sudden loss of a child would crush the spirit of most individuals, but Burt discovered that, despite the immense personal pain and sorrow he felt, that the horrific family event actually emboldened his determination to help others.
“Losing my daughter was an event that completely changed my focus on how I approached life on a daily basis,” says Burt. “It caused me to examine what I was doing each day, how I approached life and how I evaluated my actions each day.
“It opened my eyes to the fact that I wasn’t doing everything I could be doing to make a positive difference in the world. I could do so much more.”
Burt says that his responsibilities as a coach were always clear and that the role meant a lot to him. The family tragedy, however, sharpened his perspective, and according to the coach, it fueled his desire to help people.
“The whole situation showed me that life was valuable and short. You need to make every second of every day count while you can,” Burt says. “Make each day meaningful – because our time here on Earth is finite and precious. There is no time to waste.
“Losing my daughter didn’t fundamentally change who I was as a person or how deeply I cared for my players – that inner value was already in place – but it heightened my overall sense of urgency for making a difference in the community beyond just football games.”
New Take On Old Problems
Dealing with the tragic family events of 1987 not only lit the fuse on Burt’s sense-of-urgency to do more positive things, but it also altered how he viewed other adversity in life and how he handled everyday problems. He found himself possessed by a newfound personal demeanor that allowed him to stay calm, focused and logical during problematic situations.
“People are always running to the head coach to report some problem that’s going on. And they’ll often seem frantic or panic-stricken by the prospect of how bad things are going get because of it,” says Burt. “But after what my family had been through, suddenly, all these everyday problems just don’t seem like that big of a deal to me.
“Not to diminish or devalue anyone’s opinion of a problem, because I would never do that, but in a weird way, after my family tragedy, I became a much better problem solver than I ever was before.
“And for those problems that we can’t fix or change, I can now shake them off easier and move on to doing other things that would net positive results for our team.
For situations we cannot change, I now say things like, ‘Well, guys, if that’s the worst thing that is going to happen to us, then we’re going to be just fine.’
Another area where Burt found his new outlook on life useful is dealing with losses. Losing games exacts a large personal toll on many coaches – mentally, physically and emotionally. For Burt, a man who was forced to deal with real loss in his personal life, losing games became just another problem to solve.
“When I was a young coach, whenever I’d lose a game, it used to absolutely devastate me,” says Burt. “Does that mean I don’t care about losses today? Of course not, I hate losing.
“Look, I’m about as competitive guy as there is, and I still hate losing football games. But I approach it with a more problem solving situation that needs corrective measures. A loss is something that needs to be fixed.
“The idea or notion that winning or losing a football game is a life-changing event in any way, after all that has happened during my life seems just laughable now.”
Taking Action, Doing More
Burt says his newfound perspective also impacted how he saw his role as a member of the football-coaching community. He made a concerted effort to better serve the game by taking an active role within coaching associations and serving as a member on various committees. As an AFCA member, he served on the AFCA Rules Committee in 1990 and 1992.
In 1995, he began serving as Vice President of the Southern California Interscholastic Football Coaches Association (a post he still assumes to this day) and since 1998, he has served as a committee member for three California Interscholastic Federation “Southern Section Committees” – the football advisory committee, ethics committee and playoff committee.
“If you want to affect positive change and impact how people view our profession, you have to be proactive,” Burt says. “You can’t let people outside the profession determine what is right or wrong about the game.
“Serving as an active member of the profession and being an association member – shows people what the game is really all about. It demonstrates to those outside of football, who we are as individuals dedicated to the game and what we truly care about as coaches. It is a key component to the growth and prosperity of football.”
Accolades & Awards Honor Service
By the 1990s, people began to take note of Burt’s coaching achievements and all the positive impact his work was having on the community. The professional honors and community service awards soon began to flow in the coach’s direction.
In 1990, Burt received “Coach of the Year” Awards from both the AFCA and the Western Football Conference, followed by CIF “Coach of the Year” awards in 1995 and 1998. His coaching career was honored by his Southern California peers in 2003, when he was inducted into the SCIFCA Hall of Fame.
Burt also received recognition for his off-the-field work in the community. In 2005, he was presented with three awards – the “Distinguished American” Award by the National Football Foundation, the California state “Model Coach of the Year’ Award and the “Sportsperson of the Year” Award. In 2007, he received the CIF “Champions For Character” Award, and in 2011, he received the Inland Empire “Home Town Hero” Award.
As the personal and professional accolades poured in, the coach found himself growing reflective on the work he had done. It all energizes Burt to do even more.
“I was surprised and honored by the awards, because you don’t do what you do to receive accolades,” says Burt. “Seeking personal recognition for doing something positive is counterintuitive to the mindset that motivates you to help people in the first place.
“To be honored by your peers in coaching, or to be recognized by a community – in a county of more than two million people – for, hopefully, doing some good, is a humbling thing. At the same time, it’s also extremely rewarding because it gives you a sense that the work you’re doing to help people, might actually be making a difference.”
Rewards of Coaching
More than any award or industry honor, the thing that clearly touches Burt’s heart the most, are the personal bonds he’s formed with people and players during five decades of coaching
“During my 50 years coaching, the most-rewarding part has been the relationships that I have with people,” says Burt. “I still receive phone calls from former players I coached in the 1960s, who ask me to join them for golf on the weekends. It means the world to me.
“I’ve seen young males transform into responsible men before my very eyes. Unfortunately, I’ve also attended far too many funerals of former players and coaching friends. I have gotten a chance to coach my own son in college football. All these rare opportunities are incredible.
“As coaches we give a lot to this game, but I hope all coaches take just a moment to reflect on all the special things that football gives back to us.
“I can’t think of another industry and or another job that offers the kind of personal growth, life-long relationships and emotional satisfaction that coaching provides.”
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