When Michael Burnett came from Leesburg, Va., a town of 52,000, to interview for the Harvard-Westlake football coaching position last December, he was driving down Coldwater Canyon Boulevard in Studio City on a weekday morning. To say he was reintroduced to Los Angeles traffic would be an understatement.
"I only had to go a mile and it took me 15 minutes,” he said.
Luckily, he didn’t turn around. Perhaps it brought back memories of coaching at Santa Monica High from 2002 to 2005 before he left for Virginia to be closer to his wife’s family.
At Broad Run High, he taught social studies and coached football. A team that had rarely made the playoffs won two state titles. In 2010, he moved to a newly opened school, Tuscarora, where in 2015 he was named the Don Shula high school coach of the year by the NFL.
Now he has come to Harvard-Westlake, a school with strong academic and athletic success but little tradition and low player numbers in football. He welcomes the challenge.
“What I’ve done is mostly built programs,” he said. “I’m a pretty high-energy, positive person and try to get all the kids out.”
Burnett, a Massachusetts native, has quite a back story. He was a lawyer and litigator back east when he quit his job at age 27 to become a teacher and coach.
“How did you get lost?” I asked him.
“I think I got found,” he said. “I always joke that the only people who ask me why I stopped being a lawyer are my lawyer friends. For me, I was going to do something I loved even if it didn’t make financial sense. It made me happy.”
With three advanced college degrees, he also has an interesting philosophy on practices. His players will always be in shorts and no one is allowed to tackle someone to the ground.
“We’re trying to make it safer for kids and a lot of concussions are happening when kids hit the ground,” he said.
He’s teaching players to go full speed, have fun and learn fundamentals. It seems to be working.
“I love coach Burnett — just the positive vibe he brings and getting more players out and making practice fun,” quarterback Jameson Wang said.
The Wolverines didn’t have enough players for a junior varsity program last season. They will have a JV team this season. They are shooting for 60 players in the overall program after being in the low 40s last season. Burnett has helped grow the program with his sophomore son, Jack, a center. He also has a seventh-grade son who plays football.
Burnett will teach three AP economics classes. He’s the first football coach at Harvard-Westlake to not teach P.E. since 2004. He welcomes being an academic teacher.
“I’m going to see them when they come to gym anyways, but I’m also going to see them at a different level. It’s worked very well for me. I always felt for me as a teacher I got to them all day long and find kids and let them know the program we’re going to run.”
The head of athletics, Terry Barnum, a former USC running back, said Burnett is “a great fit” for the Wolverines.
“He’s a teacher first,” he said. “He teaches through his coaching.”
Barnum is hoping a buzz is created by Burnett that will excite parents and students alike, increasing participation in the football program.
Burnett coaches the offensive line and will also call plays. He uses the pistol offense and wants more balance, saying being able to run the ball effectively will be a key to winning a playoff game.
He seems to have adjusted to L.A. traffic. The first test of his football team comes Aug. 17 at home against Birmingham.