NEW ORLEANS — Burton Burns grew up here. He was a star running back at St. Augustine High School where he later coached two different times. Then-LSU coach Nick Saban tried to lure him to Baton Rouge. Finally, when Saban landed at Alabama, he convinced Burns to make the move to Tuscaloosa.
It’s been quite a hire. Consider that since Burns arrived five years ago as associate head coach and running backs coach, all Alabama has to show for it is a national title, a Heisman Trophy winner, another Heisman finalist and now an appearance in Monday’s BCS national championship game against, of all teams, LSU.
“He’s a tremendous coach. I wouldn’t want to play for any other running backs coach in collegiate football other than him,” Alabama star running back Trent Richardson declared. “A lot of people, us as a team or our running back unit or the media, we don’t give him enough praise as he deserves. Because Burton Burns, he has done a real good job.”
Alabama has a few Louisiana players making a homecoming this week, including running back Eddie Lacy, wide receiver Bradley Sylve of Port Sulphur, and Kenny Bell, a wide receiver from Rayville.
While Lacy played at Dutchtown High School outside of Baton Rouge, he grew up in New Orleans before being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Dutchtown, by the way, is the same high school where current senior Landon Collins, one of the most highly recruited players in the nation, announced Thursday that he chose Alabama over LSU.
And, coincidentally, or maybe not, Dutchtown is in Gonzales, La., where Burns’ own parents ended up for a couple of years after Katrina before returning to New Orleans. Which all tied in a bit in Burns getting to Alabama.
Burns, 59, played fullback at Nebraska for Tom Osborne. He went back to St. Aug, coached at another New Orleans high school, and when his old high school coach, Otis Washington, took the job as head coach at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Burns joined his staff.
But Burns went back to St. Augustine again, this time as assistant head coach, and his nine-year run there led to him getting hired at Tulane under Buddy Tevens. When Tevens left, Tommy Bowden took over and kept Burns. And when Bowden got the job as head coach at Clemson, Burns went along, staying eight seasons
At which time Saban left the Miami Dolphins for Alabama.
“I knew Nick from when he first came to Louisiana through recruiting connections,” Burns said. “I still recruited this area and he was actually recruiting this area when he first came to LSU. So I had a chance to meet him. Actually, he tried to hire me one of those years, but I had just gotten to Clemson. But we had established a relationship and when he got the job at Alabama, well, timing’s everything in this profession.”
Burns’ four children were grown and his wife, Connie, was getting ready to retire. What’s more, her father still lives in New Orleans and Tuscaloosa is a lot closer to this city than Clemson, S.C.
“I tried to hire him two or three times when I was at LSU because he had a great reputation as a recruiter and a teacher,” Saban said. “So, finally, when I went to Alabama, he decided to come and we were glad to have him and he’s done a wonderful job coaching our running backs and recruiting good players.”
Those players, obviously, love him.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” Lacy said. “He keeps practices very entertaining, he keeps film watching entertaining, but at the same time, it’s a business and with coach Burns you get the best of both worlds.”
Heisman winner Mark Ingram, now with the Saints, was the focal point of the Alabama offense when the Crimson Tide won the 2009 national title.
This year, Alabama is 11-1 largely behind the running of Richardson, who finished third in this year’s Heisman voting.
“One thing about coach, he says I can’t teach you how to run, I can only teach you the fundamental things. He doesn’t try to take all the joy from you …” Richardson said. “ … He’s one of those guys who doesn’t try to be in the spotlight and it’s big for him to stay as humble as he is and stay grounded. In our room, he tries to be a coach, but most of the time he just tries to be a father-figure for us and how to be a man.”
“We just work hard,” Burns said. “I’m from the old school, work hard and good things will happen. We just pay attention to the little things. The fundamentals.
“First of all, these guys have great talent. Then they have great work ethics and they’re not afraid to work. I’m honest when I say this: These guys have great attitudes. That’s a big part of it, but we just stick to the basics and work hard. Sell them on doing the little things. If they marry that with their athletic ability, they have a good chance to be successful.”
Richardson has carried 263 times for 1,583 yards and 20 touchdowns and has caught 27 passes for three more TDs. Those numbers aren’t far off the record 2009 that Ingram had (1,658 yards, 20 TDs) while playing in 14 games, one more than this Crimson Tide team.
“It’s kind of gone unnoticed a little bit,” Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said of Burns. “He’s done an unbelievable job.”
“I admire him, he’s a good friend of mine and he’s been a mentor to me in many ways, ” LSU running backs coach Frank Wilson said.
Lacy, quite talented himself, has been battling a badly injured big toe but still carried 84 times for 631 yards and seven TDs.
When Burns recruited Lacy, “he was just real,” Lacy said. “He told me Alabama was basically the best place for me to go and had the best offense for my running style. He told me it was going to be hard and not the easy road. I needed that. I didn’t need to go to a place where I would have a lot of leeway. I needed a strict environment and that’s what I came to.”
Now they both get to play at home on the biggest stage.
“First of all, I’m excited to be home.” Burns said. “But I’m really excited for this team, especially for guys like Eddie and Kenny Bell and Bradley. They get a chance to come back home. For them to leave the state and take a chance on us, that was a big sacrifice on their part,” Burns said. “For them to come back home and play for a national championship in front of their families, that’s special to me…”
He paused and smiled.
“This team is a really special group of guys. You do this for so many years and you have some good and bad team and then you have some special teams. And these guys here, they made a commitment last year and they’ve worked through it. They’ve done everything a coach always asks kids to do. They have a second chance and second chances don’t come that often and if there’s ever a group that deserves it, it’s this group right here.”
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