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Coaching Is More Than A Whistle! An Interview With Coach Burton

By John Yevuta - Staff Writer | Mar 17, 2021

H. John Rogers once said that the highest title you could confer on a person was “Coach.” Bob Burton has done that honored title proud for over 40 years. Were a Mt. Rushmore of area coaches ever built, he would surely be on it.

You spent one year at Kent State University.

I was 17 years old and many of my teammates were veterans who were there on the G.I. Bill. Some were married, and others had played at Ohio powerhouse schools like Massilon and Canton McKinley. Because of homesickness, I returned home.

You’ve seen plenty of changes in your life. Tell us about your experience with “separate but equal” during the late 1950’s at West Liberty.

When our team went on trips, we had difficulty finding places to stay. At Kent State, there were separate water buckets for white players and black players.

At the end of practice, we would throw our pratice clothes in a pile; one for white players, and one for black players.

here were restaurants we couldn’t eat in because we had black players on our team.

Tell us about how your mom would feed the West Liberty basketball team.

After a game, home or away, some restaurants wouldn’t serve us; my teammates and I were hungry without food being avaiable. My mother organized other mothers and made all kinds of homemade dishes to take care of us.

You were a starting quarterback at Magnolia High School as a sophomore. Share a few memorable games with us.

In 1955, we beat the returning state champions, Follansbee High School, for the first time in many a try. The same year, we beat another championship team, Benwood Union High School.

What was your first teaching experience?

I student taught at Moundsville Junior High School in 1961. My coordinators, Paul Craigo and Charlie Helinsky, were two of the finest gentleman I’ve ever known.

What was your early experience at Paden City High School like?

I taught History & Social Studies for grades 7-12 and probably taught every student at Paden City High.

I learned a lot in college, but I learned more in two years of teaching than I did in four years of college.

You began your coaching career under the legendary Henry Healy.

He was a great mentor and was almost like a father to me. His wife, Margaret Ann, and my wife, Sharon, were very close.

I was a Split-T quarterback and Mr. Healy ran the Single Wing which gave me the best of both worlds.

How did you get your first head coaching job?

Following the first year as Mr. Healy’s assistant, he called me in and said, “Bob, you’re going to be the head basketball coach next year.”

What was that first team like?

We had three Division 1 Football players. John Stender played and later became a great coach. All five starters on that team were over 200 pounds. We got all the rebounds but had trouble scoring.

As a young coach, what was the most important thing you learned early in your career?

My first four years of coaching I scrimmaged with the team. Then I realized they needed a coach more than they needed a friend. You just can’t put a whistle around your neck and call yourself a coach. There’s a lot more to coaching than just showing up.

What were your practices like?

We rarely scrimmaged. Most of our time was spent on practice drills and working on skills. My main principle was working with fundamentals. If we were going to be successful, it was because we did fundamentals over and over again. So, for instance, when a player caught the ball and needed a fake or a pick, he knew exactly what he was doing. As far as throwing the ball out and letting them scrimmage, that wasn’t Bob Burton.

Conditioning was a key.

My team was always in shape. If it came down to conditioning, we were going to win the game.

What about plays?

I didn’t teach a lot of plays, I taught to the best of my ability. You have to be a team; you have to know the rules of the game.

What is something you said that was indelibly printed in your players’ minds?

How can you not know the rules? Kids would laugh when I’d say, “You have to let Mr. Half-Court and Mr. Sideline help you in your trap. You’ve got four people helping you; Mr. Half-Court and Mr. Sideline are going to help you.”

Every successful head coach is blessed by having good assistants.

That’s true. I was lucky enough to work with Jack Starcher, Jamie Natali, Fred King, and Jess Bowers. Every one of them could have made some program a great head coach. They helped me tremendously and, if nothing else, you have to have someone to hug when you lose.

Coaches aren’t in it for the money.

My first year I made $15 a month as a coach.

You were able to develop a feeder program.

The B&K (Burton and King) Basketball Camp started out with 25-30 participants and expanded to over 200. I felt if I could get one or two potential players every year out of it our High School team would benefit. In addition, it was great to see all the kids learn and get better.

What is your coaching philosophy?

You get the players fundamentally and mentally sound and then you play the game. You show up on game night and do your coaching during the week.

You coached other sports in addition to basketball.

I really enjoyed being assistant football coach for 19 years. Part of the reason I did it was to become familiar with the boys and try to get them to come out for basketball. In a small school, your good athletes have to play both football and basketball.

Who were the head coaches you helped?

I started with Coach Healy, Coach Renner, Coach Flannery, and, then, Coach deem was the last one in 1979. Steve deem came in and not only did we have an undefeated season, we won the State Championship.

What were some other great football teams?

In 1963, we went undefeated and I think that team could have beaten any team in any class in the state of West Virginia. The 1964 Magnolia team was a great one and could have given any team a tough time. In 1967, we went undefeated and in 1968 we played Monongah in the championship game. Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban was the quarterback of that team. Monongah had two great running backs, Kerry Marbury, who played at WVU and for the 49ers and Jimmy Miller who, I think, played some Canadian ball. In 1969, we played Monongah again at Parkersburg and they beat us again. Mike Nelson got a scholarship for his outstanding play in that game; I don’t know how many times he stopped Marbury in that game.

So many outstanding teams.

The next year, 1970, we won the State Championship against Wirt County. It was the same day the Marshall Football team’s plane crashed. I can still remember looking at the paper and on the right side it said “Paden City wins State Championship” and on the left side was “Marshall plane crashes.”

When did your basketball teams start to have success?

In 1967, 1968 and 1969 we were kocking on the door every year. In 1970 and 1971, we got to the Regionals and lost in the finals. In 1972, we finally knocked the door down and got to Charleston.

Was that the year the bus broke down on the way to the game?

Yes, our bus broke down and I walked 2 1/2 to 3 miles for help. I called the director of the tournament, Mr. Eisman, and told him that if he wanted us to play he’d have to send some buses for us. He sent two city buses. When we made it to the locker room, the fans were yelling, “bring them out Burton,” not knowing what had happened. I’ll never forget when Reverend John Negley was standing at the door and said, “Burton, I’m going to say a prayer.” We had our prayer, a quick warm-up and the game started. The first half we played pitifully because of what th’eyd gone through. The second half we came back and beat the team that was undefeated. The next day we played a really nice Oakville team in the finals and they beat us by 6 or 8 points.

Nothing succeeds like success.

The kids came back all enthused and we had a great summer league. Our regular season wasn’t the greatest but, when tournament time came, I don’t know what happened. We started playing lights-out basketball. The next thing you know we were back in Charleston.

That’s when another fluky thing happened.

We were supposed to stay at the Heart of Town. I went to the desk and said, “I’m Coach Burton and I’m here for Paden City High School.” The desk person said they had no record of us and were completely booked. Norman Trowbridge happened to witness what happened and rescued us. He took us to his aunt’s house, which was a mansion, in South Charleston. People from the neighborhood showed up with blankets, food and provided lodging for us. It was unbelievable the response we got from that neighborhood. In the championship game, we were down 13 points with 3 minutes to go and we came back and won by one point.

When Paden City High School was destroyed by fire you had to scramble to find a place to practice.

We were practicing when a kid came in and said, “Coach, the school is on fire.” I told them to get their stuff out of the locker room and leave the building. I went up to the top floor to check if anyone was still in the building. It started on the third floor. Coach Starcher and I ran in and rescued the trophies. Magnolia High School allowed us to squeeze in one hour of practice each night. I’m a two hour practice guy. Coach Potts volunteered his facility at River High but we weren’t permitted to take players into Ohio for practice. Our 1975 team was a heckuva team. Dave Tallman was on that team and he was a good player and a good kid. His dad, Homer, was a great player before him and a big supporter of the team. Many of the players were sophomores on the’ 73 State Championship team. I take full responsibility for us not winning again but our limited practice time wasn’t good for our conditioning.

The ’82 team had quite a story.

Some of the players on that team were Wetzel County Superintendent of Schools Ed Toman and former policeman Steve Kastigar. During the regular season, we lost 14 games in a row. It wasn’t that we were bad but the teams we played were so good. We would lose by a point or two. Come tournament time we had a kid who had just moved in from Florida. He was “Jitterbug” Gilbert’s son and Jack Starcher did an excellent job coaching him on the Junior Varsity team. We moved him up to the varsity and it was unbelieveable. We were beating teams we’d lost to and beating them by 10 or 15 points. We sailed right through the Sectional and Regional and were back in Charleston. We lost to Mullens in the finals but I was so proud of that group of kids. When you lose that many games it’s hard to show up for practice. They were amazing and it was one of my all-time favorite groups of players.

Your program was rolling.

We had some really good teams in the 80’s and they increased the number of teams to 8 in the State Tournament. We made it to Charleston in ’86, ’87, and ’88. The ’87 team was undefeated and we played another undefeated team, Bramell, in the final game and beat them.

Now we’re to the 90’s.

We had nice teams and good kids. We made it to the states with ‘D’ Bosley who was a great player and has the school scoring record with over 2,000 points. In the basketball season of 2000, I put the word out that I was going to retire. We got to one of the tournament games in Wheeling and, although we were ahead, Cameron came back to beat us, When the game was over, the Cameron fans lined up to shake my hand; the referees gave me a big hug and one was actually crying. My wife and both my daughters, Elizabeth Spiek and Tricia Shannon, were there and it was very difficult to say after 40 years that’s it.

That had to be quite a lifestyle change.

I made the adjustment; I think I made the right choice.

Referees are a big part of the game.

Refs are human beings and they have tendencies. I would tell the kids before a game what some refs liked to emphasize. It might be traveling, three seconds or taking a charge. It’s a big facet of the game. It’s one of the little things that most people don’t think about. I was awarded the Sportsmanship Award from the referees 7 years in a row.

River High Coach Dick Potts was a good friend of yours.

Coach Potts told me once that we were part of the show and during the game we’d walk toward each other pretending to have an argument. The refs would come over wondering what was going on and we let them in on our act. He told me you have to treat people right and that included referees.

Any advice for younger coaches and teachers?

You have to treat people the way you want to be treated. That doesn’t mean you let them get away with anything they want to do. I held out one of my best players at a Regional game because of discipline problems. The fans were ready to attack me for it but the players bailed me out with a last minute basket. Kids want discipline and, if you have it, it’s best for everybody. I tried to teach kids something besides winning but winning is important. People can get down on you if you don’t win.

You have been blessed.

I had support from the local administration, county office and, most of all, the people of Paden City were tremendous. I had great players and they were the ones who made the baskets. Like Coach Potts used to say, “You can’t win the Kentucky Derby on a plow horse.” I would do it all again. I’ve got a great wife. I’ve said there will be a special place in Heaven for coaches’ wives. We also have two wonderful daughters, Elizabeth Spiek and Tricia Shannon.

You’ve coached other sports.

In the early 60’s, I started the first actual track team with uniforms and took the teams to the OVAC. I had two of the fastest kids who ever ran in West Virginia; they were the Gatian brothers. Had there been a 100 meters instead of the 100 yard dash, Robert would have been a state champ. He always finished strong and the 100 meters is almost 10% longer. We won all the relays when they ran. Robert got second in the state and Richard was third or fourth. Robert ran a 21.8 second 220 yard race on a cinder track which is the only comparable race that is longer than the ones run today using the metric system. I also coached Girl’s track and we were highly competitive. Jan Dunham was a long jumper who jumped 1 feet 4 inches one night at Middlebourne. That is one heck of a jump for a high school girl or boy.

Final thoughts?

Life has been good to me. I don’t think I’d change anything; I’d do it all the same way. God Bless America. Let’s think more about WE than I, and I think we’ll be a lot better off.