Burman’s legacy

When I heard about Tom Burman’s decision to leave his job as athletic director at Portland State I wasn’t surprised. The timing seems slightly odd, but Burman says there is no easy time to leave, especially when one is as attached to the job as Burman is to his position.

“It’s just as busy during summer, when everyone says you should leave,” Burman said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Burman is a sharp guy. He took over a terrible Division I program with virtually no funding and turned it into something that has a chance to be sustainable. In 2005 Portland State had its best year ever as a Big Sky school, finishing third overall in the conference, including championships in soccer, men’s basketball and golf.

Burman’s stamp is all over those championships. The AD hired all of those head coaches, who fans have started to refer to as “Burman hires.” “Burman hires” reflect the man. They are intense and they want to win. They are what Burman calls “aggressive salespeople.” They have to be, because Portland State and the Big Sky Conference are tough sells in the world of sports, where every high school kid thinks he or she will be (or at least should be) playing in the Pac-10 or another premier league.

For example, Burman hired women’s basketball head coach Charity Elliott last year. Elliott is a typical “Burman hire” who has led the team from a three-win season last year to an 8-10 year so far in 2006. “Burman hires” win games and improve year after year, which is why PSU has seen surprisingly few “Burman fires,” an oddity in the instant-gratification world of college athletics.

How do you judge someone’s time as an athletic director? If the deciding factor is winning, Burman has brought a culture of winning to Portland State. Programs now expect to win, or at least be competitive. Coaches produce solid students along with talented competitors. Championships are no longer something to be envied – the Vikings have plenty of their own now. Despite what looks like a down year for PSU in 2006, winning is now the norm.

It might be another two or three years until the true impact of Burman’s time at PSU is known, but it’s clear that the university is better off now than it was in 2000. Burman has infused his personality into the program he led for six years, refusing to let Portland State fester in a pool of losses and unentertaining programs. He truly loves the programs and believes the direction that Portland State is going in is the right one.

An example of the barebones department Burman inherited and largely still runs in 2006, Burman has no secretary and there are only part-time front desk receptionists. Burman believes the money is better spent on the athletic scholarships that give more students an opportunity to compete.

Perhaps it was the pull of working for his alma mater that was the final dealmaker for Burman. Whatever it was, Portland State must now go about replacing him with someone who will continue to grow the program. For now, 29-year Portland State veteran Teri Mariani will take over as interim athletic director, providing much needed stability.

Mariani was a softball player and coach at PSU, retiring from coaching just last year. Her experience in the PSU system will undoubtedly make the transition much easier for the athletic department. However, finding someone with Burman’s energy and commitment will be a challenge.