Coach's Corner

Last weekend the Washington Huskies hosted their annual coaches clinic. Designed as a teaching tool to help high school, junior high, and youth coaches, it has always been one of the most important yearly public relations or "sharing" events. In addition to the obvious recruiting and publicity benefits, the clinic usually features outside speakers.

This year one, of the speakers was Nigel Burton, Portland State University's Head Coach. Nigel is also an ex-Husky who played for us in 1996, 97, and 98. He was also an Academic All-American.

I can remember how Nigel became a Husky, and it was mostly due to the University of Pacific dropping the sport of football, and the fact that we were on probation and had limited scholarships available. I don't know if it's the same nowadays, but back then the NCAA allowed you to replace graduating seniors mid-year, and considering football was done at Pacific, Nigel jumped at a chance to continue his education with us.

I had watched him play on tape against Nebraska as a puny little freshman safety. He simply threw his body at the Cornhuskers but was obviously a "mighty mouse", and often bounced off the burly 'Huskers. Still, he kept showing up on film, and once I began to talk to him on the phone I could tell he was a special kid.

He might have only been 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, and he was barely a 4.7 in a 40, but he understood the game. He was also an excellent student, and knew Washington was a really good school. When I finally met him, it confirmed everything I had thought; he was small and not really fast, but he was really bright. We took a chance.

By his senior season he was firmly entrenched as a starting safety and our defensive team captain. Early in his career he played against BYU when their quarterback was some guy named Steve Sarkisian. It's ironic to me that both of these guys would end up becoming head coaches, especially when neither had any inclination toward coaching when they played.

I had always told Nigel that he should consider coaching. He thought I was crazy, and was set on becoming an accountant. I was relentless, however, and by his senior year he was starting to listen - although he wasn't totally convinced. That year I got fired, and like Nigel, I too decided that coaching was not all that cool.

When he was done at UW, it didn't take long for Burton to miss the game. Without any prodding from me, he finally decided to give coaching a shot. Next thing I knew, he was coaching at Oregon State, and the Beavers were beating the Huskies. Go figure.

Here was a kid who had made the winning play to beat the Beavers when they went for two in Husky Stadium, and now he was on the other side, trying to beat the Dawgs. In both cases he was on the winning side.

Coach Burton has a wonderful confidence about him, and he was indeed our "mighty mouse". When Lawyer Milloy left, we still had Tony Parrish. When Tony left, we had Nigel. Are you kidding me? Compared to those two future NFL stalwarts, Nigel was way too small, way too slow, and yet he still ran the show on the back end of our defense. He was "thinking" the game, and he thought he could play - it was that simple. Nigel Burton played the game with his mind and that's why he ended up a captain.

When I was coaching at UW, I used to give out "Dick Notes". They were tendency sheets I wanted the linebackers to memorize with regard to set and situational favorites of our opponents. Coach Scott Pelluer, who coached our safeties and outside linebackers, asked me to start including his group, and Nigel became a human computer of tendencies. He made up for that extra step of speed by having an extra two steps of anticipation. He won the mental game every time.

Now he is a head coach, and I was the one sitting in an audience listening to him lecture on football. Like his playing days, Nigel is still bright and articulate, and did a wonderful job of covering some very basic and important fundamentals of the game. He was giving back to the game. He was sharing the game with coaches who literally coach for nothing but the love of the game.

Like anyone who has ever coached the game, I have always taken great pride in our kids that have gone into coaching. My coaches told me they knew I'd end up coaching, and I knew that Nigel would end up as a coach; he just didn't know it at the time.

Nigel has a tough job at Portland State, simply because they are a second-tier program. Like all FCS schools, PSU has to find a way to win with kids that the big schools passed on. He has limited scholarships, limited finances, limited attendance, and limited facilities. He does have an opportunity to prove he is a good coach, and if he can overcome his scheduling, he just might turn it around like June Jones did years ago. I believe FCS schools are limited to 65 scholarships, although they can split some of them up. That's 20 less than at the upper division, and depth is obviously an issue.

In order to operate their football program PSU is almost forced to play for pay. That means they are at the mercy of the paycheck, and yearly have to play at least one or two BCS schools to help pay their bills. It's almost a damned if you do or damned if you don't situation. Last year Portland State played Arizona State and Oregon, and the two Pac-10 schools beat up the Vikings by a combined total of 123-9. The Ducks beat up their Portland neighbors 69-0. For the pleasure, PSU earned $715,000 for their athletic department.

In 2011, Portland State has agreed to play at TCU, last year's Rose Bowl winners, and that game will generate roughly another $400,000 for the PSU coffers.

Now Washington has signed up, and paid up, to "play down". The Huskies will pay Portland State to start their 2012 season at Qwest Field. It's designed as a "warm up" game for the Huskies. Hopefully Nigel will have a good team ready to go, and they play a good game. They can think about winning, but they merely need to show up and they will be given a paycheck that will pay for their season.

It's not an ideal situation for the PSU kids but it does give them a chance to be the next Appalachian State and play in a "big time" football atmosphere.

I know this - they will "think" they can win the game, and that's what coaching is all about. In the case of their coach, however, that's exactly what he's all about. Top Stories