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‘Rocky Top’ of the world

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Burton named to Tennessee coaching staff

By Jeff Moreland

J.T. Burton is making his way toward the top of the mountain of college basketball coaching. After the announcement of a new position last week, you might say he’s reached the Rocky Top.

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Burton, a Washington County native, served as head coach of the men’s basketball program at St. Catharine College in Springfield since 2008. Last week he was named director of player development of the men’s basketball team at the University of Tennessee. He will work for new Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall, who spent one year as head coach at St. Catharine himself in the 1996-97 season. Tyndall ran things from the bench that year, while Burton ran the game on the court as the starting point guard for the Patriots. Together, the two guided the team to a 30-5 record in a season that ended with an appearance in the junior college national tournament, the first appearance for SCC.

As the news of Burton’s new position was making its way around Washington County last week, he was still trying to grasp the reality of it.

“This is a great opportunity, and things like this don’t happen to a guy that’s coming from a small place like St. Catharine,” Burton said. “I was fortunate enough to know Coach Tyndall, and he gave me an opportunity, and I can’t wait.”

Burton didn’t have to wait long. After officially resigning as coach of the St. Catharine team on Thursday, he spent a few days with family in Springfield before hitting the road to Knoxville to start the next chapter in his coaching career.

The relationship between Burton and Tyndall is one that has remained close over the years. Burton said Tyndall taught him to be a man, and he hasn’t forgotten that.

“He brought my grade point average from a 2.0 to a 3.6 and got me on the dean’s list. His practices and games were tough; we started out with 27 kids and ended up with nine, and all of us are still best friends, and all because of him. He showed me the way to win, how to be a man, how to do the little things to succeed,” Burton said.

When their days together at St. Catharine were over, Burton said he stayed in contact with his former coach, and he said any time Tyndall has moved up the coaching ladder over the years, he went to visit and spend some time with him at his new location.

“Every job he got, I would always go hang out with him for like two weeks. When he got a job, he would call me and I’d go hang out with him. It was like a father-son or a brother relationship. I’d go hang out, then come back and do my thing.”

Despite returning to do his own thing, Burton was eager to move ahead with his career. He said he would talk to Tyndall about it, but for a long time, he got the same response.

“When he first got a job at Morehead and I got the job here, he always told me I wasn’t seasoned enough. ‘You ain’t seasoned enough, J.T., you ain’t seasoned enough.’ When he got this job, I called him and told him, ‘I’m done, I’m burnt. I wasn’t seasoned, but now I’m well done.’ He obviously thought the same thing because he gave me this opportunity,” Burton said. “This time, he gave me a call and he believed in me enough to give me a job. I’m blessed, I’m lucky; I was in the right place at the right time, I guess, and the chips fell my way this time. I’m happy.”

As director of player development, Burton said he will work with players in practice to evaluate them, as well as focusing on their academics off the court and making sure they are doing what they need to be doing and that they are in the right place at the right time.

During games, he will be seated on the bench, and he said you might see him on TV if you watch the Vols play.

“They’ll see me on television. That’s going to be a little odd. Like I was telling my sister, I ain’t gotta ride in vans no more. Now it’s charter flights. I ain’t gotta drive, where you play on a Tuesday and you gotta leave on a Sunday if you’ve got a 12-hour trip. That’s kinda tough. It’s nice when you get the first-class stuff.

“I’m used to doing stuff on my own, having to do different things. Now, I don’t have to do that. The responsibility is to produce players and win games. It’s unbelievable, and I can’t wait to get started,” Burton said.

On the court, Burton is expecting big things of his new team, and he knows Tyndall will do well based on his success at other stops in his career, including the past two years, where he posted a 56-17 record at Southern Miss.

“Coach Tyndall has proven himself. The man won 56 games in two years. I played for him, and I know he can do it, and he’ll do what he has to do to get us there.”

Messing with his mind
Looking back, Burton recalled that his new boss, along with one of his fellow coaches, had some fun with him before he got the word that he had been hired at Tennessee. Burton said he was in a meeting at St. Catharine College when he missed a call from Tyndall. When he tried to return the call, he got no answer. Shortly after that, he received a text message from Adam Howard, an assistant under Tyndall when he coached at Southern Mississippi, and now at Tennessee.

Burton didn’t realize it, but Howard and Tyndall were riding together in a car.

Howard’s message asked Burton if he had heard from Tyndall. Burton said he missed the call, but was not able to reach the head coach when he tried to call him back.

“Coach Tyndall had given me a window of when he was going to call, but I was in a meeting and couldn’t answer,” Burton said.

Howard played on Burton’s nerves by telling him that Tyndall was talking to the next guy on the list that could be hired for Burton’s new job.

“I was sick; I didn’t know what to do,” Burton said. “They kept playing with me, and at the time, I didn’t know they were in the same car.”

Tyndall started texting Burton a short time later, asking why he should hire him for the job. Burton responded, saying, “We all just want that one OPPORTUNITY. That’s all I’m asking.”

After a few minutes of messing with his mind, Tyndall let Burton off the hook and called to tell him he had the job.

Trading blue for orange
Burton grew up in Springfield with a mother, as well as brothers and sisters, who were primarily University of Louisville fans, so naturally he was a University of Kentucky fan.

“I really cheered for Kentucky when Kentucky and Louisville played because my family and most of my brothers and sisters are Louisville fans, but me and my sister, Crystal, and my brother, Peno, are Kentucky fans. But now, I’m all orange,” he said.

Burton said he has friends who are Kentucky fans, too, and some have been in contact to congratulate him, and he appreciates that. But if you want tickets to see the Wildcats play his Volunteers, forget about it.

“Everybody wants tickets for the Kentucky game. I’m like, ‘You want me to give you tickets, and you’re going to cheer for them? Go ask Coach Calipari or somebody for tickets, cause you ain’t getting none from me!’”

A huge step forward
The environment in Knoxville with orange all around is impressive, Burton said, especially Thompson-Boling Arena, where the Volunteers play their home games. The arena seats 21,678 fans, and is a sea of orange on the court, surrounded by black seats.

“It’s unbelievable, the orange and black in that arena. I was telling the assistants that you could put our gym in there at least four times. I’m used to coming out of an office with six guys in it; now I’ve got my own. It’s nothing against St. Catharine, because that’s what makes that school. But now, being able to go from there, I was fortunate enough that I didn’t have to go to the middle, I went from St. Catharine to there – I went from good to great. With that being said, it’s a blessing.”

Although he’s now taking a huge step for his career, leaving St. Catharine College is not a move Burton made without some emotional attachment.

“It’s been 15 years of coaching, and I wouldn’t take nothing for it. St. Catharine has been a very special place to me. You can tell; I’ve been there for years with three stints there. They’ve been to the national tournament three times, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved all three times.”

Those three appearances included his time as a player in 1996-97, as well as head coach in 2011-12, and again in 2013-14, when Burton guided the team to the Elite Eight of the NAIA tournament.

St. Catharine College President William Huston said Burton’s hard work is paying off for him with the new chapter in his career, and he is happy for him, although he hates to lose him.

“I’m very pleased for him, and I know that he’s been offered a number of positions before now, and it would have taken something special to get J.T. to leave. But to work with Donnie (Tyndall), his old coach, and to work at Tennessee, an SEC school, it doesn’t get any better,” Houston said.

Losing Burton will be a hurdle for St. Catharine to overcome, but Houston said he also sees a situation like this as a positive one.

“Springfield should be proud that one of their own has made it to this level. I know that as president of St. Catharine College, when I lose someone like this, it’s a plus because it’s a tribute to the program, the college, and the community can take it as a tribute to J.T. I couldn’t be any happier.”

Tom Bystrek is athletics director at St. Catharine, and he was also one of Burton’s high school teachers. Burton said without Bystrek throwing tennis balls at him in class to wake him up, he would have never made it.

“We wish Coach Burton the best as he moves on to the next stage of his coaching career. It is a great opportunity for him as he reconnects with Coach Tyndall.”

Replacing Burton’s success won’t be an easy task, but Houston said the college has been inundated with phone calls, emails and even personal visits inquiring about the opening.

“It makes our job easier filling his position when you have a winning program, and the previous coach is now in the SEC,” Houston said.

As for Burton, he hopes one of his former players who served as an assistant under him will get the job.

“I’m hoping that one of my former players/assistants, Arthur Latham or Brandon Johnson get the job. I look back at those guys when they first came through the door and the success that they’ve had. They went from having a 1.6 and .3 (GPA) coming through the door to dean’s list and master’s degree now,” Burton said, and he’s as proud of those accomplishments as what the players have done on the court.

“I’ve graduated 100 percent of my players since I was there. I had five or six graduate this time, and two of them got their master’s degree. It’s not all about basketball, it’s about helping these young guys like coach Tyndall did me. He taught me, now I try to teach these young guys and help them out.”

Burton said he could not have achieved what he has without the support of Houston, Bystrek, and others on the SCC campus.

“I want to thank everybody at St. Catharine. I want to thank President Huston because he believed in me when I was 32 years old and had only coached (high school) girls’ basketball. He gave me a chance when the whole school was making a jump from junior college to the Mid-South Conference, the toughest conference in NAIA.”

Burton said Bystrek showed him how to do things the right way, and gave support during high school, as well as at St. Catharine.

“The staff of the college helped a lot, too, and with the support they provided, they helped me get where I am today.”

Burton said the entire experience has been an exciting so far, and he has enjoyed the ride.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster this last month, but all the fame and pats on the back are almost over, and it’s time to go to work.”

 

BURTON’S BIO

EDUCATION
• Washington County High School - 1995 graduate
• St. Catharine College - 1995-1997
• Tennessee Wesleyan - 1997-1999
• Campbellsville University - Master’s Degree - 2005

COACHING
• St. Catharine College mens’ assistant - 1999-2000
• WCHS girls’ head coach - 2003-2006
• St. Catharine College mens’ assistant - 2006-2008
• St. Catharine College men’s head coach - 2008-2014
• University of Tennessee director of player development - current