Bob Burchard retired late last month after 31 years as the director of athletics and head men’s basketball coach at the college. In October 2012, Columbia College, along with alumni, colleagues, former athletes and friends joined together to establish the Bob Burchard Celebration of Excellence Scholarship. The scholarship provides support for student-athletes and the Department of Athletics at Columbia College. To honor Coach Burchard with a gift to the Bob Burchard Celebration of Excellence Scholarship, please visit my.ccis.edu/burchard.
When you’ve had a relationship with anyone, or anything for 31 years – as Bob Burchard has had with Columbia College, both as its head men’s basketball coach and director of athletics – you’re bound to have built up a treasure trove of memories in that span of time.
Some of these stories have been told before, and others might be seeing the light of day for the first time. Yet they each speak to the respect Bob has had for this institution since he arrived on campus in 1988.
Gary Filbert was the longtime head coach at Missouri Western State College, and hired Burchard to the St. Joseph, Missouri, campus to serve as his assistant coach in 1981. A year later, Filbert moved to Columbia to work as an assistant for Norm Stewart at the University of Missouri. The two remained in contact, and in 1988, Filbert pitched Burchard on the open Columbia College job.
Part of the lure to get Burchard to campus was a proposal by Filbert to then-Columbia College President Dr. Don Ruthenberg to house the Missouri Basketball Hall of Fame in Dorsey Gym.
Burchard imagined all the people interested in basketball in the state that would flock to the Cougars’ campus to view the various historical artifacts and exhibits that would be on display. In addition, Dorsey itself would be the perfect setting. “If you walk into Dorsey Gym,” Burchard says, “you are basically walking into the same gym (Dr. James) Naismith started the game in.”
Fundraisers fanned out statewide for the project, and there was ample interest, though for Columbia College’s sake, perhaps too much: John Q. Hammons, a prominent Springfield hotel developer and philanthropist, supplied the needed funds, but with the stipulation that the project be expanded to the entire Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, and that it be moved to Springfield. Filbert’s pitch to his former assistant was all for naught.
That fall, Burchard was set to coach his first game for the Cougars. As the teams were going through their warmups with about 20 minutes before tipoff, a fellow staffer approached him and asked what the plans were for the playing of the national anthem. Not necessarily something an A.D. thinks he’ll have to worry about – especially while wearing his head-coach hat at the moment – but Burchard sprang into action.
“I ran out to the parking lot, got into my car, and drove down to Streetside Records, because they had everything,” said Burchard of the venerable and now-defunct store on South Providence. “The guy at the counter was in black leather, chains, had everything pierced, and his hair was spiked. I said, ‘I’m really in a hurry; do you have a tape of the national anthem?’
“He goes in the back, and you when you’re in a hurry, minutes seem like hours.” As he gets ready to finish recounting the tale in his Southy Building conference-table chair, Burchard’s smile gets even broader. “Finally, he comes out, and he says, ‘Sir, I couldn’t the national anthem. Will The Star Spangled Banner work?’” I said, ‘It will tonight.’”
Burchard, who noted that he was able to race back to campus to play Francis Scott Key’s song without delay that evening, laughs at the recollection. “I was in too much of a hurry to give a teaching moment.”
When Burchard was first hired, he left his wife, Faye, and young daughter, Jennifer, back in St. Joseph. College officials put their new A.D. and basketball coach up in Miller Hall until he could find a home for his family. On his first day at work, he walked across campus from Miller to his new office in what is now the Southy building.
“My very first day at work, there was only one other full-time employee, a soccer coach at the time, and then me. And the very first day I walked into this office, the soccer coach walked in and handed me his letter of resignation.”
Burchard proceeded to give a little history lesson on his office he’s occupied for these last 31 years. The building was Howard’s Garage and taxi stand before the college bought it, and Howard’s office and desk became Burchard’s. At the time, the office walls were paneled and had grease on them, and the back area – where the indoor turf and batting cages are currently located – was all garage, and still had the car lifts, Burchard says.
“A guy came to the front door and knocked on my door. I asked how I could help him, and he said he had a delivery for me and that I needed to sign for it.
“I said, ‘What am I signing for?’ He said, ‘Mufflers.’ I politely declined to sign for mufflers. So those were my first two duties on my first day at Columbia College.”
The big time is where you are, because in all those things that I really wanted to get to nationally, I got there from here. I wanted to be able to coach elite players; Got there. I wanted to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats of the game; Got there. From here! And that’s cool. You don’t have to chase it, because it’s all right here.
– Bob Burchard
For a man who has spent his life on the hardwood, Bob Burchard has a thing for concrete – and burying things in it. One instance has its roots in Columbia College’s longstanding rivalry with former American Midwest Conference member McKendree. “They were our fiercest rival – those games were always the biggest, the best. It was just one of those rivalries where we were both good,” Burchard says.
One year, the Cougars were the No. 2 seed in the AMC tournament, and as the No. 1 seed, McKendree was the host. Burchard’s Cougars headed east to Lebanon, Illinois, and won the title on their rival’s home floor. It’s tradition to cut down the nets after winning a championship like that, yet McKendree officials refused to bring out a ladder, so Burchard’s squad improvised. “We got up on each other’s shoulders and cut down the nets.”
When it was time to expand and renovate the Southwell Complex – it was a brand-new facility when Burchard arrived in 1988 – Burchard hatched an idea.
“I had the nets from that championship in my office, so when they were going to pour the floor for the foyer of Southwell, I got a net and told the guys pouring the concrete, ‘I want you to put this net right here.’ Now, every time you walk into the arena, you’re stepping on McKendree.”
On the northeast side of the Southwell complex, there’s a triangular area of ground formed from the stairwell entrances to the building. As it was taking shape, Burchard kept thinking to himself that something needed to inhabit that space.
Ever since the Burchards moved to Columbia, they enjoyed trips down to the Lake of the Ozarks. On every drive down and back, they passed a shop that had bronze sculptures of various animals, and on every drive down and back, Bob would tell Faye, “You know, one of these days, I’m going to stop in there and see if they have a cougar.”
One of those days, Faye had had enough. “Stop. Pull over,” she said. Bob went into the store and asked the woman at the front if there was any chance she had a cougar sculpture.
“She took me back to the back of the warehouse, and there that cougar was sitting back there. It looked like it was meant to be there, it was the perfect size.”
Burchard bought it on the spot and had it delivered to Columbia. Jim Innes, who recently retired from 22 years of service in the facilities department, built the platform for it – “He’s so skilled,” Burchard says – and Columbia College had a new landmark. “I said, ‘Man, that was made to be there.’
“It’s been so amazing how that one little piece right there is such an emotional attraction for people. Kids just have to touch it. Every athletic graduation picture is taken around it. Dr. (Terry) Smith touches the nose of the Cougar every single day.”
Burchard also meshed regular care for the bronze cougar into another tradition. He learned from the store owner that the best way to care for a bronze sculpture is with WD-40, so the day before the first men’s basketball game of each year, his teams have all taken a rag and some WD-40 and cleaned the cougar. “It’s gotta be looking good for the new journey,” Burchard says.
Burchard’s second love-affair with concrete came in 2009, not long after the Cougars’ memorable run to the NAIA National Championship game. Workers were redoing the sidewalk in front of the Cougar, and Burchard decided to bury one of the runner-up plaques presented to the team. It was placed right in front of the nose of the cougar, where the players stand to clean it every fall. The message to his players is one of continuity: You’re standing right where the others before you have stood.
This past summer, Pannell Street, which leads up to and terminates at the Southwell Complex, was renovated and re-paved as part of a project to create a new formal entrance to the college’s athletic facilities. As part of those renovations, the concrete in front of the bronze cougar was once again torn up. Burchard was concerned that the plaque might have been pulled up and discarded. He went out to the construction site and discovered that the plaque had indeed been pulled up, yet whomever did so was kind enough to lean it up against the base of the Cougar. “When the new sidewalk was poured, I buried it again,” Burchard says.
As he finished recounting those tales, he pauses, a sort of a dazed grin forming. “I don’t know where that concrete stuff comes from.”
Although it doesn’t have a direct relationship to athletics, Burchard is pleased to have experienced another new tradition developing on campus.
“I’m really excited about the bells on campus,” he says of the digital carillon that was installed atop St. Clair Hall in time for the college’s Holiday Lighting ceremony this past November. “I think in time, it’ll be a special memory for people that have spent four years of their lives on campus.”
Burchard was alone on campus on a recent Saturday, awaiting to unlock the doors to Southwell to allow a visiting team to practice. It was a quiet, snowy day. “I’d just happened to step out to open the door and heard the bells across campus, and I thought that was really cool.
“Sights, sounds, smells, memories – they’re all connected.”
As our time wrapped up, Burchard looked back on his time fondly, noting that he’s been very fortunate for himself and Faye to have worked in the same place their entire married life, including their time at Missouri Western.
“The neatest thing for me personally has been that CC has always changed, so it didn’t get boring, but Gary Filbert always told me how important it was to be professionally involved. I became active with the National Association of Basketball Coaches, and through that, all of a sudden I got to do some camps overseas, and from there, I got nominated to be involved with USA Basketball. Now I’m working with the most-elite coaches and players in the world. I was with them for five years, and then I was selected to be the first NAIA representative to the NABC Board of Directors.
“I think most coaches are always chasing the ‘big time’; I still got to touch the big time, yet be at a place that really fit my core values. Professionally, Columbia College just fit for me.
“The big time is where you are, because in all those things that I really wanted to get to nationally, I got there from here. I wanted to be able to coach elite players; Got there. I wanted to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats of the game; Got there. From here! And that’s cool. You don’t have to chase it, because it’s all right here.”
Kevin Fletcher works in the Columbia College public relations office. His introduction to Bob Burchard and Cougar Athletics came in the spring of 1997, when he covered the men’s basketball, softball and men’s volleyball teams for the Columbia Missourian. He chronicled the Cougars’ first-ever American Midwest Conference regular-season title, along with the team’s run to the NAIA National Tournament.