Leon Burtnett: a legend in his own right

PULLMAN -- The count is unofficial, since he has devoted not one minute of his active life adding all there is to add up. With priorities cramming his space -- finding a replacement for linebacker Will Derting is most urgent -- Leon Burtnett was caught a little off-guard this week when asked to reflect on his eventful past.

Saturday he will coach in his 428th football game, give or take a handful of forgotten Friday nights and Saturday afternoons on sidelines or in press boxes shaping causes won and lost. For 41 seasons, from his first high school job in Mt. Hope, Kan., in 1965 to the Cougar football team he assists now as linebackers coach, Leon Burtnett has lived a life visited by challenges and victories, disappointments and defeats.

And legends.

Burtnett coached Eric Dickerson and Rod Woodson, recruited and later drafted Jeff George, traded tips and quips with coaches whose names ring a bell almost anywhere the game is played.

Legends then, legends now.

The legends Burtnett mixes with today are local, contemporary, fellow assistant coaches --- actually targets of coach-fraternity hazing more than bon-a-fide national football heroes.

Doesn't matter. To Burtnett, five WSU assistant coaches with deep Cougar roots are The Legends.

Mike Levenseller, George Yarno and Timm Rosenbach are prominent Legends on the offensive side of the coaching staff. Mike Walker and Ken Greene work the defense. All came out of WSU to play professionally, some as stars, some as journeymen. All contributed to the football heritage of the school they work for now.

Burtnett is a distinct minority, not coming of age in Pullman.

"Only four of us aren't legends," Burtnett said of head coach Bill Doba's staff. "We're just lucky to get close enough to touch one of `em."

The praise --- OK, the barb --- is delivered with voice raised, as if Rosenbach or Greene had just wandered within earshot. It doesn't hurt to have a thick skin when one of your co-workers --- Burtnett in this case --- was stockpiling lines when you were still in Pampers. When he got his start in this nomadic business, Burtnett's immediate boss, defensive coordinator Robb Akey, was not yet born.

"Don't tell him that," Burtnett growls in our telephone interview.

Why? You're still going strong at 63.

"I'm only 62."

Sorry. Sixty-two. Burtnett is a man who neither talks, dresses nor acts his age, an advantage he attributes to his profession ("coaching young people keeps me young") and his native American heritage. He's one-quarter Creek Indian with signs of longevity. His mother is 84.

All those games. Thirty-two as a high school coach, 10 at Colorado State, his first college post, some 80 in the NFL, including exhibitions, 11 at Washington State in his first go-round as a Cougar assistant in 1971.

LB Cory Evans

TODAY HE'S PREPPING THE linebackers, minus the injured Derting, for Saturday's game with Stanford. Three of his charges --- freshmen Greg Trent of Keller, Texas, Jason Stripling of Tyler, Texas, Cory Evans of Lena, La. --- are Burtnett Specials, lightly recruited prospects pulled out of seemingly nowhere and now destined for prime time.

Thirty-four years ago he was doing much the same, prepping a previous generation of WSU defenders for what became a fabled Saturday date with Stanford.

The defensive game plan back then stopped a quarterback named Don Bunce, and the underdog Cougs knocked off Rose Bowl-bound Stanford 24-23 when Don Sweet split the uprights as time expired. Then, the country was locked in an unpopular war half a world away. USC was No. 1. Gas prices were about to skyrocket. The Cougars were coming off a disappointing loss with Stanford next up.

Change? What change?

What has changed is the comfort level of the coaching experience, flights out of Pullman instead of the winding bus ride to Lewiston, or the 79-mile trek for home games in Spokane.

"Facilities are better ... way better than what they were in 1971," Burtnett observed.

Back then, his boss, Jim Sweeney, was a tiger.

The Fear Factor: Jim Sweeney

"Coach Sweeney was the only coach I ever knew who motivated by fear," Burtnett said. "Players were scared. Shoot, coaches were scared. If he'd have ever come after me I would have turned and ran, and I was a lot younger than he was. It wasn't just the assistants. Athletic directors, presidents, didn't matter. Coach Sweeney treated ‘em all the same. They were scared, too."

That cuts against the grain of Sweeney's public personae, that of the affable Irishman.

"Coach Sweeney was an intelligent coach," Burtnett said. "By the time I worked with him the second time, at Fresno (in 1994-95), he'd calmed down a bit. He still cried after every loss. That didn't change."

As a young coach Burtnett moved early and often, seven stops in his first nine years, to get exposure to different coaches and ideas. Along the way, at Wyoming in 1972-73, he watched Fritz Shurmur develop the 4-6 defense, the defense Buddy Ryan got the credit for in Chicago.

"Fritz used it first, or at least had it going before Ryan did," Burtnett said.

Fritz Shurmer and Buddy Ryan. Two more legends. Shurmer went on to Super Bowl fame as Mike Holmgren's defensive coordinator at Green Bay, and later in Seattle. Ryan, who punched a fellow assistant coach while at Houston, enjoyed more than his share of fame and infamy.

Of all the coaches, bosses and employees, the honored and the non-entities, over 41 years, the football mind who impressed Burtnett the most never worked as a head coach. Most fans never heard of Tom Bass, but Bass tops Burtnett's list of players and coaches who truly understand how the game works. An assistant under John McKay at USC and later in Tampa Bay, Bass also worked for Chuck Knox and banged around as a pro scout.

Burtnett put in coaching stints under Jim Young, who was good enough to win at Army, and Daryl Rogers, who won at San Jose State, both tough assignments. A master at delegating detail work to his staff, Young recognized strengths and weaknesses, playing on his team's strengths, hiding its deficiencies. Burtnett called Rogers a tactician who understood both offense an defense.

Rogers brought Burtnett with him from San Jose to Michigan State. That was the foot in the big-time door. From there Burtnett moved to Purdue, and on to the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.

His most memorable game?

He was head coach at Purdue when the Boilermakers knocked off Notre Dame in the inaugural game in the Indianapolis RCA Dome. With future NFL standout Jim Everett at quarterback, Burtnett's Boilermakers beat the Irish and whipped Ohio State and Michigan on the way to the ‘84 Peach Bowl.

IT WAS LEE CORSO WHO urged Burtnett to bolster his staff at Purdue by hiring an Indiana high school coach named Bill Doba. Two decades later it was Doba who hired Burtnett.

"He still comes down and helps me at practice (with the linebackers)," Burtnett said. "With a lot of head coaches you don't want ‘em around. Bill's different. He understands."

Bernard Jackson circa ‘71

In his first hitch as a Cougar assistant Burtnett ran the secondary with an envious eye on the other side of the ball, where record-setting Bernard Jackson stood out at tailback in Sweeney's triple option.

"I used to tell him, ‘Come over here with us. This is where you're gonna play in the pros,' "Burtnett said. Of course he was right. Jackson had a long career as a DB with the Denver Broncos.

The talent he did have to work with back then didn't exactly come off a scrap heap. Burtnett reels off the names of Ron Mims, Robin Sinclair, Eric Johnson and a kid named Harry Thompson whom everybody called Torpedo.

"We ran bump and run a lot then but we did have to mix coverages some," he said. "We played against six of the top 10 quarterbacks in the country that year."

At least you had Torpedo.

Well, not exactly.

"He was always knocking himself out," Burtnett said. "We could never keep him on the field."

A legend then?

In a way, but not like the ones Burtntett works with now.

"I didn't make that up," the coach said. "They were legends long before I got here."

Got here the second time, he means.

"I tell Rosenbach he must have played pretty well in that UCLA game because nobody remembers a damn thing he did here otherwise," Burtnett said.

He's kidding. I think. There's a short laugh, kind of a snort, as if the barb was delivered with Rosenbach suddenly in the room.

Rosenbach indeed performed well in that UCLA game. That was in 1988, when he engineered WSU's come-from-behind upset of Troy Aikman and the No. 1-ranked UCLA Bruins. That qualifies as legendary, doesn't it?

Rosenbach had other moments of brilliance as well, Burtnett is reminded.

The coach has to bolt but he makes time to reply. It comes out in sort of a hybrid snort.


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