Jan. 20, 2010
For anyone who has ever visited or spent an extended amount of time in San Diego, it is pretty unusual for the weather there to be anything less than picture perfect. Yet more unusual than a cold and miserable day in San Diego, Calif., is having a coach return to a school for a second coaching assignment. Fortunately for San Diego State University, the unusual turned out to be the exception to the rule with women's basketball coach Beth Burns in the fifth year of her second stint as head of the program.
"When I first came back, several of my peers wondered if anyone did something like this," said Burns, who rejoined the Aztecs in 2005 "[Georgia coach] Andy Landers said that this was a great testament to me that in our crazy business, it just doesn't happen where schools want you back, but they (San Diego State) wanted you back. I appreciated his words and his comment. My answer at the time was that I wasn't sure of anyone other than Phil Jackson had done this, but he had Kobe Bryant."
Burns may not have the likes of Kobe Bryant on her roster, but it is the energy and enthusiasm that she brings to a team that makes everyone around her feel like an NBA All-Star.
"It's her absolute expectation that she is going to win and everyone around her knows that," said San Diego State Senior Women's Administrator Jenny Bramer. "Every single coach here knows that Beth Burns is going to have a successful season. Even when they had a bad season, everyone knew that they would go to the NCAA's in the next few years. It's just the feeling and expectation that she has and expects of everyone around her. She will also make you work, but it's the air and confidence that attracts players like Quenese Davis who knows she will be one of the best by playing for Beth and getting Jené Morris back because they remember that this program is going to be something special. It's that grit and hard work of knowing she is going to win."
Grit and hard work seem to be the winning combination for Burns as it was in her first time as coach of the Aztecs that she took a team from the bottom of the conference standings with a 7-23 record in the 1989-1998 season, to a team that finished with a 23-7 record at the end of the 1996-97 season. In addition, during Burns' first stint at San Diego State, the Aztecs made four appearances in the NCAA Women's Tournament (1993, 1994, 1995 and 1997).
"I remember we were having an impressively bad year and one of my first headlines was about how I was wearing a goose egged necklace," said Burns. "That has stuck in my mind from 1990."
After building the team up during her first head coaching position at San Diego State, Burns decided it was time to pursue opportunities away from the sun and surf of San Diego. This time she found herself at Ohio State University where she coached the Buckeyes for five years. While at the head of the Ohio State program, the Buckeyes went to the NCAA Tournament in 1999 and won a WNIT title in 2001.
Instead of moving on to another coaching position, after leaving Ohio State in 2002 Burns took a three-year time-out to focus on basketball from a different perspective.
"I was taking a nap," joked Burns of her hiatus from the coaching ranks. "During my break I decided to become certified in strength and conditioning," said Burns. "It was like going to medical school and I loved it. It had been a while since I had taken a test, but I just decided I would be great at it."
Greatness for Burns came in the form of starting and running her own strength and conditioning business. BB-Hoops. This led her to a life-changing event and having the opportunity to be part of one of the elite programs in women's college basketball.
"Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer is in my top five of favorite people as she was the first head coach I coached under as an assistant at Ohio State," said Burns of her mentor. "Tara hired me to as a strength and conditioning coach for her at Stanford. It was like having a physiologist who had a basketball brain. If you understand how Tara is and how mentors are, the next thing I knew I was living in Half Moon Bay. I don't know how it happened, but it was a wonderful opportunity and I could have done it forever."
Forever only lasts as long as it takes until the next opportunity comes along. Burns' next opportunity came when San Diego State started searching for a coach to rebuild the women's basketball program.
"I like a challenge and I trusted the place," said Burns. "California isn't a perfect place and there are lots of challenges in coaching here, but it was a known quantity. I wrestled with it in the respect that I wanted to know who the administration was going to be. In this day and age it is so critical especially when I knew the program had not been successful. The day after I accepted the job the Athletic Director who hired me was hired at the University of Colorado. At the 11th hour I talked to my agent and told him I wasn't going to do it as I had a great job at Stanford. The athletic director who hired me was very honest with me during the process and I thought he had a great chance at the job in Colorado. My agent asked me if I was taking the job just because of the athletic director who hired me being here. He also reminded me that athletic directors are just like coaches and you can't take a job just because of the athletic director. So I said 'why not?' and I tried it. If I am in it, I don't do it half way."
Since returning to San Diego State, Burns has once again re-built a program. Last year the Aztecs not only made their first NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament since 1997, but they were ungracious first- round hosts when they upset DePaul 76-70. In addition, Burns has taken the program from the bottom of the conference standings to being the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West Conference with players such as the Morris, who is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the Mountain West Conference and Johnson, who was a member of last year's All-Mountain West Conference First Team honorees.
"What I have enjoyed about both times coaching here is that we have taken a program that we built from the ground up," said Burns. "Both situations were ones in which you could put your fingerprint on them by bringing in people who believed in something. That's why I'll always value people like my first recruit Tammy Blackburn (who is now an associate director with San Diego State's Alumni Association) and current players in Johnson, Davis and Morris because they could have gone anywhere, but they believed in what we were selling and came here when we were a non-program. I think that the thing you remember is the opportunity to build, have great wins and accept the challenge of taking something and doing it again."