Jon Teitel's Coaches Interview Series: Cal-State Fullerton's Bob Burton

August 28th, 2010

In the latest installment of his Greatest Coaches interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with current Cal-State Fullerton head coach Bob Burton, who has won 123 games and made one trip to the NCAA Tournament since taking the job in 2003. Coach Burton has been a head coach for forty years and shares the honor of being a member of the California Community Colleges Coaches Hall of Fame with the likes of Jerry Tarkanian and Lute Olson. The task for Burton and his staff going into 2010-11 is to replace four starters from last year's team (16-15, 8-8 Big West; t-3rd). 

Jon Teitel: At West Valley CC you went 488-158 in 21 years, were named conference Coach of the Year nine times and made three appearances in the state title game. How were you able to be so successful and why did you decide to leave?

Bob Burton: The success came when I started getting good players. I changed my whole recruiting philosophy, and then I was able to get the top players in the area, and later a few kids from outside the area. I was honestly close to getting out of college coaching at the time, as I was getting tired of driving vans around after games at 1AM. However, my former player Ray Lopes got the head job at Fresno State and I think he just wanted an old guy around, so he brought me in and let me run the offense. Coach Jerry Tarkanian left us a lot of good players, and we were able to win the WAC. I had never gotten a serious interview with a Division I program before, but after one year at Fresno I got a serious interview with Fullerton and they hired me.

JT: You came to Fullerton in 2003 and inherited a program that was coming off of NCAA probation and lost several potential starters for a variety of reasons (concussions, cancer, knee injuries, etc.). Were you a little worried about the situation you were stepping into, and how were you able to pull it all together?

BB: My 1st year was just disastrous, as it was a constant battle, but we had a nucleus of some good young kids (including Bobby Brown, who was our first recruit). After making it through that first year, I was able to keep the nucleus together and bring in some new players, and we had a dream season and made it to the NIT and got some credibility. What really helps is when your good players have friends who are also good players!

JT: In your first season your team was 0-4 in overtime games but in your second season you were 3-0 in such contests. What caused the turnaround, and how does your coaching style change when a game goes into overtime?

BB: It is basically just about the players. We had the ball and were leading USC late in a game that 1st season. However, the ball went right through our big man's hands, USC came down the court and hit a three, and then they won it in OT.

JT: In 2004 you were inducted into the California Community Colleges Coaches Hall of Fame. What did it mean to you to receive such an outstanding individual honor?

BB: I do not think guys at the D-1 level can relate to that, but I grew up as a California JC guy. I remember going to the first state tourney in 1964 and seeing Tarkanian walk in with his team. When I got the job at West Valley, they had not won in awhile, and I thought I was in over my head. As a historian of the JC sports scene out here, to get inducted into the Hall which had guys like Tarkanian and Lute Olson was very special.

2005 National Invitation Tournament

JT: Ralphy Holmes scored 27 points and had 13 rebounds, and his fade-away jumper at the buzzer gave you a two-point overtime win over Oregon State. Did you think he was going to make the shot, and where does that rank among the most clutch shots you have ever seen?

BB: We designed the play for him, which was called "Taco". As a pessimist, I was not sure if were heading for another OT. It was one of the great moments of my life. Ben Howland joked with me before the game that we could not win in Corvallis, but we proved him wrong.

JT: In your school's first nationally-televised game in 15 years, you lost to Georgetown in front of a standing-room-only crowd of 2,604 in McDonough Gymnasium because circus preparations made the MCI Center unavailable. How big of a home-court advantage did the Hoyas have, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards?

BB: Two things hit us hard: the small gym was a tough environment, and Ralphy hurt his knee and was unable to play. We only had eight healthy guys, as another guy got hurt during warm-ups. We had another kid trip over an ESPN cable before the game, but thankfully he was able to play.

JT: In 2008 you won the conference title and led your team to its first NCAA tourney in 30 years before losing to Wisconsin (despite a career-high 31 PTS from Josh Akognon). What are your memories of that game?

BB: We were playing really well at the end of the year, and were a match-up problem for other teams because we were a small team that was deceptively good. Wisconsin was the Big Ten champ, and had two 7-footers, so it was actually an awful match-up for us. What I remember the most is how it was such a first-class event; we had a charter plane (unlike the NIT, when I had to send different players on different planes!), we went to practice with a police escort, etc. The toughest thing for a guy like me vs. a guy like Coach K is that it is a pretty quick stay. Once you get a taste you cannot wait to get back, but you might never get another chance.

JT: In February 2010 your team hung on for a triple overtime win over Cal-State Northridge by a score of 113-112 thanks to a go-ahead three-point play in the final seconds from walk-on guard Eric Williams, who was only playing as a result of 11 total players fouling out. Was that the most amazing game you have ever been a part of, and how on earth was your team able to keep from collapsing due to exhaustion?

BB: I was more worried about a guy my age not collapsing! One of the big debates now is how to play defense when you are up by three points at the end of a game. Every possible scenario happened in that game (let the team shoot, foul them before they shoot, etc.), and we capitalized on every single one. I thought that CSUN had it won, but the ball just bounced perfectly for Eric. We ran off the court and were just shaking our heads in disbelief that we won the game. It ranks as one of the weirdest wins I have ever had.

JT: In the first round of the 2010 Big West Conference Tournament Jacques Streeter threw a bounce pass to Gerard Anderson who jumped over Vinnie McGhee and threw down a tomahawk dunk that became an instant internet sensation. What do you remember about that dunk, and where does it rank among the best you have ever seen?

BB: The CSUN coaches are all really good friends of ours. At the post-game press conference I said, "Guys who say slam dunks are only worth 2 points are out of it". When Coach Bobby Braswell heard that, he wondered what he should tell his team afterwards, so they gave me a lot of grief about that. I have seen Gerard do a lot of incredible things like that, but it was such a spectacular dunk that it helped change the momentum of the game.

JT: You are known for having one of the highest scoring teams in the country. What is the key to your offensive philosophy?

BB: The biggest thing is to keep it simple and let them play. I give them the confidence to shoot the ball, but the key is to get good players. As long as you play hard and play together, you can live with an occasional bad shot. The only time we had 1 guy who really dominated without a lot of other scorers was Josh. I think it has a lot to do with why kids come here, as it was with Josh (who wanted a more up-tempo style).

JT: You have been a head coach for 40 years. What is the key to sticking around so long, and how do you want to be remembered once your coaching days are over?

BB: The key is passion and love for the game. I still feel the same way I did when I started out coaching in 1969. If you love it and enjoy it like I do, then you will never really look at it as a job. I loved it on every level, be it high school, JC, or 4-year college. In D-1 it is more about winning, so that changes things a lot. I hope to be remembered for being honest with everybody, which I have done from day 1 to a fault. I tell my players that "the only agenda here is that there will never be an agenda", so they all know that they will get treated the same.

Coach Burton is on Jon's list of best coaches in Big West history

Cal Poly: Jeff Schneider (1995-2001) 70-84, one conference title
CSU Fullerton: Bob Burton (2003-present) 123-92, one NCAA Tournament appearance, one conference title
CSU Northridge: Bobby Braswell (1996-present) 205-181, two NCAA Tournament appearances, three conference titles, three-time conference Coach of the Year
UC Riverside: John Masi (1979-2005) 462-269, six-time conference Coach of the Year
UC Davis: Bob Williams (1990-1998) 158-76, four conference titles, one Division II title, one-time national Coach of the Year
Long Beach State: Jerry Tarkanian (1968-1973) 122-20, four NCAA Tournament appearances, four conference titles
Pacific: Bob Thomason (1988-present) 365-262, four NCAA Tournament appearances, five conference titles, five-time conference Coach of the Year
UC Irvine: Pat Douglass (1997-2010) 197-191, two conference titles, one-time conference Coach of the Year
UCSB: Jerry Pimm (1983-1998) 222-201, two NCAA tourneys, one-time conference Coach of the Year