Robert Burke may not have been the players' first choice for head coach, in fact most of them had not heard of him, but that has not stopped Burke from winning them over in his first week on the job.
When he was selected as Milan Brown’s successor last week, the players responded bitterly over the shunning of first assistant coach Brion Dunlap, who had been Brown’s right-hand man for all seven years of the Brown era. So committed to Dunlap were the players that team manager Matt Yeshnik delivered a petition to Lynne Robinson before the selection was made that featured, among others, the signature of every eligible returning player.
One week later, not only have the players heard of Burke, but they are drinking his Kool-Aid.
“I really never knew him before. I was hurt that coach Bri didn’t get the job but we had to move on and coach Burke – I looked at his background, he had a good background and seemed like a good dude so I’m ready to go to work under him,” said returning team captain Shawn Atupem.
Fellow captain and rising senior Jean Cajou echoes Atupem’s sentiments.
“Me personally, I’m going to try to get on board with coach Burke as far as what he wants from us this summer coming up. What he expects from us,” Cajou said. “I already know because we already had our meeting and stuff, like really find out when we start playing, when we get into workouts and stuff like that.”
Cajou does, however, wonder how Burke will respond to team's established style of practices.
"I think we’re definitely thinking like when we get after each other in practice, how will he react? Because definitely with our team we’re really competitive and we’re really aggressive during practice," Cajou said. "I don’t know if he’s that type of dude yet, like I said we haven’t seen that. I hope he likes that and is encouraging that knowing that at the end of the day we all walk out and we’re all cool, but between those four lines, we’re going to compete."
As much as Burke has won over the players he has inherited, so has he won over the administration and some of the fans. This is largely due to the respect and knowledge Burke has shown for the history of the program, namely the work Brown and Jim Phelan have done.
“I do again want to acknowledge the pride that’s associated with Mount St. Mary’s basketball that coach Phelan and coach Brown, and especially coach Brown, he was put in a position where he was supposed to fail,” Burke said. “It’s almost impossible to follow someone like coach Phelan in this business and to succeed.
“And to the credit to the university and to coach Brown and most importantly to the players sitting there, the group was able to maintain, reestablish, and push that product forward. It will be our responsibility to continue that process and see if we can’t just take it a little bit further each year,” Burke added.
Phelan was in attendance and was asked by President Thomas H. Powell to stand for the crowd of approximately 50 people, which yielded the loudest applause of the afternoon. In addition to Phelan, many of the returning players, team managers and Mount coaches from other sports were in attendance. Burke’s wife Michelle along with seven-year-old son Connor and five-year-old daughter Ella were seated in the front row across the aisle from three print media members representing the Frederick News-Post, Carroll County Times and Hanover Evening Sun.
Burke used the introduction of his wife to put his sense of humor on display as well. After wondering whether he was the Mount’s first choice as its new head coach, which Powell stated that he was, Burke had this to say about his wife:
“I wasn’t Michelle’s first choice either, so that’s how it goes,” said Burke, drawing laughter from those in attendance.
Burke also showed an emotional side as he choked back tears twice when speaking about his family before acknowledging the big shoes he has to fill.
The respect Burke displayed for the program’s past was not only evident in his knowledge of its history, but also in the style of play the team employed under Brown.
“We’re winning so ‘if it’s not broke why fix it?’ would be my approach … I’m coming into a situation where the culture is as good as it can be probably,” Burke said. “The team will be characterized by being unselfish, by being competitive and by being confident in what they do.”
But that is not to say he does not plan on making a few changes.
“Coach Brown left a great foundation, he left a great defensive foundation and that will continue to be our foundation, but I believe that some of the things I’ve done offensively, I have some different offensive experiences,” Burke said. “I want to use my Princeton knowledge, I want to use my Siena knowledge … People seem to forget ... at Siena where we [were] top five [in the country] in scoring [for] three years ... and we pressed every possession.”
That would be an eye-opening transition for a Mount team that seldom pressed and was able to compete if its offense was in the top five of the NEC, not the country. The players are well aware of the offensive philosophy Burke brings to Emmitsburg that will hopefully compliment the aforementioned defensive foundation.
“He definitely told us that he’s like an offensive dude,” Cajou said. “He’s going to try to keep some of the stuff we’ve been doing as far as pushing the ball, playing up-tempo, but he’s going to mix it in with his type, which seems more like a slow-down, set style offense.
“I’m not worried about that because I feel that we can adapt to anything, especially if coach Burke is still letting us run up and down then I think the addition to his set style offense will only help us – I don’t think will hurt us,” Cajou said.
Burke also hinted that he may not schedule as ambitiously as his predecessor. When asked his philosophy, the first-time coach discussed using the non-conference schedule to prepare the team for NEC play while still competing for victories.
“Now we will have the approach, and I talked to Dr. Powell in the interview about this, we’re not just going to play whomever just to go play them,” Burke said. “We’re stepping on the court to win. I don’t care what’s on the other person’s jersey, or how big or little, or what arena we’re playing in. And so it is good to test yourself, hopefully you’re going to play some of those teams again in March when you win the NEC tournament.
“But yes, a variety of plays, styles of play helps so that you’re prepared for different styles of play. You know, you use your non-conference schedule to get your team ready, that’s what you’re doing,” Burke said.
Perhaps the most interesting portion of the press conference was Powell announcing that Burke’s contract was for five years. That matches the length of Brown’s new contract at Holy Cross, although Brown had seven years of head coaching experience to Burke’s zero before signing the new contract.
Additionally, it took Brown five years to earn a contract of that length at the Mount despite serving multiple seasons as an assistant to Jim Phelan before taking the reins. And Brown’s five-year vote of confidence did not come until April of 2008, a few weeks after he won the school’s first NEC tournament since 1999 and first NCAA tournament game ever.
This signals two things on behalf of the school, and namely, Powell: 1. He already has more confidence in Burke than he ever did in Brown. 2. Burke’s performance will have no correlation to how long he remains the coach at the Mount because the school surely would not be willing to pay two coaches at once if it had to buy-out Burke’s contract.
Burke, however, cannot be blamed for receiving such a generous first-time contract. All he did was pursue the job and sign the contract. It was Powell and company who took such a risk by granting him a lengthy contract.
But to say the school is stuck with Burke would be unfair. He has an impressive background for a first-time coach, handled himself well at the press conference and most importantly has already won over the players.
“Like I always say, change is just different, and something you gotta get used to. And I think after awhile we’ll get used to it,” Cajou said. “I’m just excited, I’m excited to see what’s next. I’m excited for us as a team. I’m excited for everybody, even all the young guys that haven’t played that much to see what they’re going to do for this opportunity. I’m excited.”
Atupem, while equally excited, says he has accepted the change and is in a calm frame of mind.
“I’m not really too worried anymore. I’m at ease now. I’m at ease,” Atupem said. “I’m just more focused on trying to get better than wasting my time on things I can’t control.”
The one man who has all the control now is Burke, and there are plenty of people eager to see what he does with it.