Becky Burke began her post-playing career in the fall of 2013 as director of basketball operations for the Cal State Fullerton women’s basketball team. However, she needed to figure out if coaching was the path she wanted to take.
The following fall, she joined Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, as a coach, serving as an assistant, recruiting coordinator, and strength and conditioning coach on the women’s basketball team.
Her responsibilities gave Burke meaning and she received a crash course in just how much falls into a coach’s responsibilities. When you work in a program on the ground floor of coaching, it’s the small details that make the big picture.
Doing so much made it clear that there was no question she wanted to be a coach. She absorbed every moment and nothing in her nine-year coaching career has ever been too difficult. Burke thinks she has the best job in the world. No, the best career in the world.
“We have days where we start training at 6 a.m. and then I drive six hours to a high school gym to recruit,” Burke said. “And you talk about 14-15 hour days, but I’m just so grateful for that. It’s not work. I do not work! I can watch basketball for a living, I can train, I can play basketball. This isn’t work. We are so fortunate and blessed to do that.”
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Burke’s work on smaller programs, whether it be coaching, training, or uniform sorting, has helped her climb the ladder and establish thriving cultures. It prepared her to become the new head coach for women’s basketball at the University of Buffalo.
“On a journey like that, you appreciate every step along the way,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz, who coached Burke from 2008 to 2012, told The Buffalo News. “That’s one thing Becky does. She understands the process, where she started, how it went, and she’s continued to move up, and she’s had great success along the way.”
“Teach me why this makes sense”
Burke, 32, has spent the past seven years as a head coach at Embry-Riddle (2015-18), the University at Charleston (2018-20) and the USC Upstate (2020-22). Her interest in coaching began when she was a guard in Louisville.
It wasn’t immediate either, because of Walz’s influence. In an April 2009 ESPN story, Burke recalled when Walz berated her for the mistakes she made in her freshman season with the Cardinals and banished her from filling water cups on the sidelines during a practice session.
This is how Walz motivated Burke.
“But she played with passion,” said Walz. “She was fiery. persistent. A competitor. She hated losing. Everything you want in a player. She wasn’t always the biggest or the fastest on the floor, but she found a way to contribute to our program and be successful.”
After playing professionally in China and Poland for a year after graduating, Burke had to decide what to do next and the opportunity at Cal State Fullerton was open. It was a sharp departure from her childhood plan to become a doctor like her father, Michael.
Walz’s coaching inspired Burke to be a leader.
“I was so interested not only in our success, but also why we had that success,” Burke said. “‘Why do we do the things we do? Teach me why that makes sense.” I went from a player mentality to a manager mentality during the game and that was really very interesting for me. I wanted to soak up everything I could.”
After doing anything and everything at Cal State Fullerton and Saint Joseph’s College, she was tasked with building something from nothing when she became the head coach of the inaugural women’s basketball program at Embry-Riddle in Prescott, Arizona in 2015.
She had a year before Embry-Riddle played his first game. She planned for the long term, not only building the program but sustaining it for success.
Burke also had a challenge: convincing players to buy something that wasn’t there. She didn’t have a terrific sale. She didn’t promise too much. Rather, she emphasized the aspect that her players would be part of history, part of the school’s first-ever women’s basketball program. It wasn’t going to be easy either.
Katana Martina, a forward on Burke’s first two teams at Embry-Riddle, recalled the physical wear and tear of Burke’s early drills, workouts that saw players vomit, faint, cry and sustain injuries. She also recalls pacing the pitch as the season progressed and noticing greater mental and physical stamina in herself and her team as opponents gasped in the late minutes of a game.
“Becky will push you until your tank is empty and then find a few more drops of gas in you to push you beyond your limits,” Martina said. “It’s a very difficult coach to learn from, but if you want to be the best you have to train like the best. Becky teaches that.”
Embry-Riddle was 14-12 in 2016-17, Burke’s first season, and 21-6 in her second season.
“Coach Burke brings players an extra level they never knew they had,” said Martina. “She pushes them to their absolute limits and finds the athletes willing to do more than ever, not just for them but for their team. And I appreciate her drive to improve herself, and I think she does that in part by making every team she coaches better, and it just makes her make the next team she coaches even better to lead to greater success.”
‘Being able to start a program from scratch’
When UB athletic director Mark Alnutt reviewed candidates for the women’s basketball coaching inauguration, which was created in late March after Felisha Legette-Jack took the same job in Syracuse, what stood out about Burke wasn’t just her experience as a player in Louisville or they work fast to make USC Upstate a winner.
UB sporting director Mark Alnutt announces Friday, April 8th
Burke’s resume and her metaphorical rise over the past nine years from the bottom rungs of the ladder to a Division I coach stood out for Alnutt, particularly her work at Embry-Riddle.
“It means being able to start a program from scratch,” Alnutt said. “Looking back on those experiences that led her to Charleston led her to Upstate. For me it’s one of those situations where she had that experience. She understands the Xs and Os of the game. She understands the value of mentoring young women, but more importantly, she understands the recruitment landscape and portal in today’s world.
“The experiences she was able to gain will help her enormously in this job. And the culture that is here. I’m serious because there are many people here, in this department and on this campus who can help. They understand that women’s basketball is a big part of this department.”
Alnutt gained insight into Burke’s organizational skills and knowledge of overseeing and managing a basketball program down to the smallest detail.
“As your organization’s head coach and CEO, you don’t need to be an expert in these different areas, but you’ve seen it,” Alnutt said. “You understand what it looks like. For me, every time you are a first-time head coach or a new coach comes into a position, there are some blind spots. But her experience of working her way up from the bottom makes her recognize what those opportunities are, and even some of those pitfalls might be.
“To be in a position where you have to roll up your sleeves you have to be the one doing the work, that’s very valuable to have that mentality as a head coach and to be able to recruit the staff that will come here with you and carry out your plan.”
All of this work gave Burke a greater appreciation for deserving coaching opportunities.
“I don’t want to be fed a silver spoon,” Burke said. “I want to work for whatever I get. I want to earn people’s respect. I just want to make sure I’m doing this from scratch and essentially deserve whatever I get.”
On a recent episode of “Off The Walz,” a podcast that focuses on women’s basketball in Louisville, Burke looked back on her coaching career and explained that she provided her players at Embry-Riddle and Charleston with a standard for them and for she trained.
“I coached every team like I was a DI coach,” Burke said on the podcast. “I haven’t changed at all, my standards and my expectations.”
But throughout her journey, she has maintained the philosophy of being present, even when she wants to look back or think six steps ahead.
It all started on April 8th in the Alumni Arena.
“My first priority is the players,” Burke said. “I love her. build relationships with them. Make sure they know they’re wanted.
“It forms a staff. Finding an apartment because I need a place to sleep at night. There aren’t enough hours in a day, but I’ve done this so many times that I understand what those first few weeks are going to be like. They’re going to be overwhelming and long, but I’m so excited.”
UB women’s basketball coach Becky Burke
Overall coaching record: 113-55 in six seasons
USC Upstate, Division I: 2020-22: 30-23
University of Charleston, Division II, 2018-20: 48-14
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical, NAIA, 2016-18: 35-18
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