There is a story to tell during this health crisis of a coach who is fighting sickness that many do not know about, but would want to know. He is not fighting Covid-19, but the fight of cancer, a fight coaches are acutely aware of thanks to Jim Valvano. The fact that most do not know about this coach being sick, terminally sick is because he did not tell anyone. I spoke to Ken Burmeister, my first ever boss probably 2-4 times a month once he returned to coaching at Incarnate Word in 2006. He never mentioned cancer until one day in February flippantly he said, “I have some bad news, I have cancer and its stage 5.” I knew that day I would have to write about the man everyone in coaching knew, but few really knew or understood.
I looked back at my texts and his wife sent me a text on June 22, 2017; “I’ve noticed you are trying to reach Ken so just letting you know he had some surgery… some stomach issues. If you would please keep it quiet. You know Ken is a private person.” Everyone knew Ken Burmeister, the coach, a meeting with him would be unforgettable whether it was his time as an assistant coach at DePaul, Iowa and Arizona, where in 1984 he was rated the #1 Assistant Coach in the Country, or his time as a head coach at Texas San Antonio, Loyola and Incarnate Word. What you might not know is that his teams compiled a 330-262 record in 20 years at schools not known for being winning programs.
But I am not writing this to talk about how he was underrated as a coach and all his accomplishments. You can do that by reading Wikipedia. I am writing to tell you about a man that most only knew on the surface. I will probably never know why Coach B liked me so much, continued to ask for coaching advice from me, made me feel like the smartest coach he knew. I never asked, and today the man who is probably remembered as much for his voice that could be heard doors away from his office, or at the highest reaches of the stands, has no voice as he lays in a hospice bed in San Antonio.
I am not writing this for him or me, but for those who played for him, which also means his son Sam, who played the last 4 years of his coaching life, and for his wife Brenda and daughter Amanda. I know Ken loved 2 things – coaching basketball and how can he help his players on and off the court. Ken Burmeister was what the coaching profession should always be about. Unfortunately the competition and pressure to win almost always drowns this out. His teams at Loyola never had a team GPA under 2.8 and I am sure that it was the same at Incarnate Word.
This is for his players: He wanted you to graduate, not only graduate, but graduate with good grades. When I came to Loyola as a 23 year old assistant coach, my most important job was to make sure the kids did well in school. Making them go to class, study hall, staying on top of classes that were a struggle, helping them with schoolwork – nothing was more important about my existence as an assistant coach than that. He proved this over and over bringing kids personally to the gym for 6AM running til you puke sessions for missing one class. He would threaten to fire me in front of the players, yelling at me with a fury that anyone who knows Coach B needs no further description. After the player apologized to me and promised to not do it again, he would pop his head in, “That should make your job easier.”
He not only wanted them to graduate, he badly wanted them to become successful Alumni. Whether it was in his office or a late night phone call, we had more conversations about summer jobs for players, and their lives after graduation, than we did basketball. This was the Burmeister players never knew. He wanted them to be great at basketball for 4 years but even more for them to be great for life. He once asked me to be a fake agent to help a player buy in to what he needed to do on the court to play professionally. Needless to say it worked as the player led the team to a 7-2 record after our conversation and he did eventually play some professional basketball. This is what drove Coach B and anyone who coached with him or under him knows it to be true. Beyond the roughness was a love for people and seeing them succeed.
For his son Sam: There was nothing we talked about more than him, starting about 8 years old when coach would start to tell me of his shooting prowess. I followed Sam through his winning shooting competitions, bad AAU coaches, great HS games and eventually to the court for Incarnate Word. While talking about him as a basketball player was part of our conversation, more was about him, how smart he was and how his dad knew he would be better than him. It was all he cared about; he did not want him to endure the hardship of being a basketball coach, because he knew that Sam was destined for something better. But like his Dad, Sam is already proving he could follow in his footsteps having coached a travel team to great success last year.
For his daughter Amanda, there were less conversations, but the pride he felt as her father was no less important. Just like players, he talked of her great grades, how much she was like her mom and again how she would be better than him. She would get married, and of course her husband would be great, because Coach B would settle for nothing less than someone he felt was better and smarter than him.
For his wife Brenda, Ken knew he was never the best with words, it may be why he liked me so much. He would always tell me to get out of coaching because he thought I was too good to be a coach. I hope the words on these pages will always be something for you, because the truth is there are no words that could express how much he loved and needed you. I always say the best men overachieve, and that is how Kenny felt every day – that he overachieved every day of his life with you.
For the coaches that knew him and for whatever you felt about Ken Burmeister, he deserved better than what he received in coaching. He coached until he was 71 years old, coached while having cancer and no one knew, because very few really knew him like I did. He was fired unexpectedly at Incarnate Word because the cruelty of coaching is winning comes before people. Ken Burmeister deserved a great retirement ceremony from basketball where those that loved him could honor him like he deserved. It will instead have to be a celebration of his life where I just want him to know one thing, “You are as smart as anyone I know and thank you for caring as much as you did – you are what any real coach should aspire to be.”