FOOTBALL ’91 : THE COLLEGES / CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE : Burt’s Bluster Yields to Kinder, Gentler Side : College football: Underneath CSUN coach’s gruff exterior lies a compassionate man struggling mightily to cope with the loss of his daughter.
Sometimes two and two are four, the stereotype is bold and appropriate, and a book can be told by its cover.
Here we have a big, burly fellow who grew up near the docks in San Pedro playing games against the hard-nosed children of fishermen and longshoremen.
He is a football coach. His team, the Cal State Northridge Matadors, is an NCAA Division II squad that labors in the shadows of USC, UCLA and its own dimly lit, rustic and painfully ugly stadium.
Most of his players would rather have gone elsewhere. They are at Northridge because they were a few pounds too light, a few steps too slow or a few grade points shy of attending a major-college football factory.
He has an in-your-face style with little tolerance for errors--whether they be of mental, physical or metaphysical origin.
The perception is that Bob Burt is a tough guy. Outwardly, he favors that reputation.
His office is distinctively Spartan except for a bookcase crowded with pictures, plaques, a signature football and, of all things, an Alf doll.
Alf, a television and cartoon character, serves as a personal mascot, Burt says, because he is “crass and crude and obnoxious, but funny.”
Anything like you, coach? “No.”
This much about Burt is public knowledge: In five years of bucking the odds at Northridge, his teams have won 34 games, more than those under any other football coach in the school’s not-so fabled history.
Otherwise, Burt has chosen to remain a difficult read. With the blitz on, he does a duck-and-cover. “Some people, when they know too much about you, they can use it against you,” he says.
But one day after practice Burt grants a request, popping a cassette into a video player and sliding himself into a chair. There are dozens of tapes in the room that show either Northridge or an upcoming opponent playing football.
Not this one. It features a couple of Northridge assistants lampooning Burt for his rather demonstrative actions when agitated.
Linebackers coach Rick Gamboa, dressed in medical garb and affecting a foreign accent, comes on screen to announce the discovery of a condition called “Burt-itis.”
The symptoms, Gamboa explains, include bulging eyes, pruning lips, trembling cheeks, a constricting gluteus maximus (it all but disappears, the doctor says), and spread knees that are locked into a slightly bent position.
Publicly Burt has appeared this way on several occasions--usually after a questionable call by a game official.
Burt first saw the tape in June when it was played on a big screen at his 50th birthday party. He laughed hard then and he laughs hard now, wiping away tears.
He prefers we not know him, but the walls eventually come tumbling down.
Some people have mood swings, riding emotional roller coasters.
Burt straddles Colossus.
He has spent more than half of his life coaching at various levels and in a variety of locales. There have been dozens of inspiring victories, but one loss from which he will never fully recover.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, March 28, 1987, Burt’s 21-year-old daughter, Erin, ingested a lethal combination of prescription drugs and alcohol at her apartment in Costa Mesa.
Recollections from past games fade away. The memory of an only daughter does not. Emotions that once remained welled deep within burst forth with little coaxing.
“For a pretty tough guy on the surface, Bob comes to tears faster than anyone I know,” says Andrea, his wife.
The competitive spirit remains, but it is tinged with melancholy.
A song playing on the radio might bring pause as Burt reflects.
“I realize now how fragile life is,” he says. “Not a day goes by that I don’t hurt. I miss my daughter. I can be having a great day and all of a sudden feel like crying. It just never goes completely away.”
Nor does it seem that it must. Even grief, he has learned, should be shared. Burt belongs to an organization called Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents whose children have died.
Not long after Erin’s death, Burt witnessed a car crash in which two teen-agers were hurt and another was killed. Instead of leaving the scene, Burt stayed to console the survivors and learn the identity of the dead boy’s parents. Later, he made contact with them and offered information about Compassionate Friends.
“I have responsibilities outside my job and family now that I participate in, if for no other reason than to validate my daughter,” Burt says. “When you lose a child you adjust the best you can, but you don’t get over it.”
So he mourns as privately as possible and tries to be there for others to lean on. This is the way he steadies himself.
One evening, a youth selling candy knocks on the door of the family’s home in Upland. It is dark and cold outside. The boy is shivering.
Burt retreats into the house in search of his wallet and returns with dollar bills in one hand and a jacket in the other. He buys some candy, then wraps the jacket around the boy’s shoulders. “Stay warm,” he says. “Take care of yourself.”
He watches the boy leave, closes the door, finds a chair and weeps.
A year or so goes by and a Northridge player whose scholarship was revoked accuses Burt of being racist in an appeal filed with the school.
There is an investigation and Burt is cleared. Still, the charge troubles him.
Somewhere, Burt knows, a boy with black skin and a jacket many sizes too big knows better.
It is minutes before 3 on an oven-baked afternoon and Burt is high-tailing it toward the practice field when a man approaches him in a way that has become all too familiar.
“Coach,” the man says, “we have a problem.”
Stopping in his tracks, Burt’s eyes narrow and the color from his face flushes to his ears. “Problem?” he replies, raising an eyebrow. “What’s the problem?”
A street sweeper, he is told, has been abandoned by the school’s maintenance crew somewhere around the five-yard line.
After pausing for a long sigh of relief, Burt requests that a few players be gathered to push the vehicle out of harm’s way.
“Whenever somebody says we have a problem, I hold my breath and fear the worst,” he says. “We need to be nice to those maintenance people. They’ve been doing a good job cutting our grass for us.”
That would seem a small favor, but Burt is plainly serious. At Northridge, where coaching responsibilities are quintupled by duties as gardener, surrogate father, academic counselor and financial-aid specialist, nothing is taken for granted.
Andrea, Burt’s second wife, recalls a vacation in Hawaii that was interrupted at least once a day by her husband’s telephone calls to school. He had to make sure players were making proper progress in summer school.
“The on-field coaching is the easy part,” Burt says. “You can see the rewards there. It’s getting to that first practice or first game that’s the hard part.”
He can’t say he wasn’t warned. Friends told Burt that Northridge had little scholarship money and no football tradition.
“People told me not to take this job, that I was nuts,” he says. “I disagreed.”
There were six Matador football coaches who preceded Burt, one of whom escaped with a winning record. In 1984, Northridge had a record of 4-7 with a defense that was known for approaching opposing runners and receivers as if they were onrushing bulls.
In 1985, Burt’s first team was 8-3 and had three shutouts. “The only people who believed we could do what we did that first season were the coaches and players,” Burt says.
Last season, the Matadors made the Division II playoffs for the first time and shared the Western Football Conference title with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Before Burt’s arrival, the school’s longest stretch without a losing season came during Jack Elway’s tenure. Elway was 8-3, 7-3-1 and 5-5 at Northridge from 1976-78 before moving on to San Jose State, then Stanford.
Under Burt, Northridge has five consecutive winning seasons.
“You look around the country and you’ll find that there aren’t too many teams with 10 or 11 wins that don’t have just about everything going for them,” Burt says. “Any time you have a program that consistently wins more than it loses you can hold your head up.”
Northridge is ranked 15th in a preseason poll of Division II coaches as it opens the 1991 campaign Saturday at Eastern Washington. Finally, the program has a measure of stability and credibility.
So now the NCAA pops up and says that if Northridge would like to retain Division I status in its other sports, the football team also must play a Division I schedule by 1993.
“All we need are more scholarships, more coaches and a facility to be competitive,” Burt says with a laugh. He knows he may well go 0 for 3 with that request.
Truth be told, Burt is uniquely qualified to struggle.
Years ago, during a transition between high school jobs, Burt’s family incurred a large medical expense. Burt was under the impression that the hospital bills would be covered by insurance. They were not.
He was thousands of dollars short of being able to pay out of pocket, so Burt approached hospital administrators with an alternative plan. He would work it off.
For three years Burt taught during the day, coached in the afternoon then moonlighted as a nurse’s assistant at night. He started washing bedpans and ended up a mainstay in the hospital’s emergency room.
He zipped body bags, helped deliver babies. And he gained a perspective.
Burt and staff approach Northridge’s financial shortfall in similar fashion. They work to make up the difference.
There was an additional silver lining to his hospital experience. It brought him and Andrea together.
After working off the debt, Burt took on a part-time job with a school district teaching a nurses-aide training course. One evening he was instructing at an Orange County hospital when he spotted Andrea parked in a corridor awaiting her turn in the X-ray room.
Burt asked the X-ray technician who the patient was, took a look over her chart (“to make sure I had nothing deadly,” Andrea says) and immediately began courting her. Burt checked on her, then sent in an aide-in-training every few minutes to make sure she was comfortable.
They have been married 13 years.
Bill Clausen was perusing his newspaper a few years ago when the telephone rang. It was his buddy, Burt.
Clausen, then a volunteer assistant at Northridge, told Burt he was reading about a man who had been big-game fishing for black marlin and sailfish in Australia.
“I’ve always wanted to do something like that,” Clausen said. “Well, let’s do it,” Burt replied.
Three weeks later they were in Australia.
“The next thing I know,” Clausen says, “is we’re out on this boat and Bob is telling me this skipper we have is the guy in Australia and I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah. . . .’ Well, we’re out about a half an hour and we’ve got four poles in the water and marlin on all four poles.
“It was amazing, but that’s Bob. He says he wants to do something and he goes out and masters it.”
Burt has used the same Midas touch on television and on the football field.
Andrea says the first home she and Burt shared “was decorated in early game show” with the $21,000 in cash and prizes he won in a 1980 appearance on “High Rollers.”
That would be the same home they purchased with a down payment that came from his share of money won on a 1978 segment of “Family Feud.”
Mark Banker, Northridge’s defensive coordinator, says Burt possesses “a sixth sense, a kind of feel” that usually results in success.
Burt says the first two offensive plays he requested as Northridge coach went for touchdowns.
He also admits that it was his idea to call an ill-fated, tailback throw-back pass against UC Davis later in the same season. The attempt was intercepted and probably cost the Matadors a win that would have secured a playoff berth.
Burt considers that particular Davis loss among the few low points of his tenure at Northridge.
But he has survived greater setbacks.
“When things get real bad I just remember that I’ve experienced the worst thing that I will ever experience,” he says. “In a competitive situation I will battle with every fiber I have.
“But when it’s over, it’s over.”