The Nigel You Don’t Know

The words come out soft, but powerful. His voice rarely rises above a whisper, baritone in nature, surely belonging to a football coach. It’s not for show. This is Nigel Burton: no frills, low-key in nature, a man with a plan.

Sitting in his office, high atop the SHAC building in downtown Portland, Burton,
entering his fifth season as Portland State’s football coach, laughs when asked about his football upbringing—a simple question to get the ball rolling.
The answer is surprising, his start in the sport a bit uncommon.

“My Grandma…” his voice trails, “she used to wake up, and on Sunday mornings we would watch NFL from nine until four. That’s all we did.”

He smiles as he pulls the memory out, a rare trip down memory lane for a man who must live his life in the now.

“My grandma was hard. She wasn’t the typical doting grandma. That was a time we could spend together and she wouldn’t be yelling at me,” he said, a deep laugh slipping out.

“We lived with her when I was younger, and that’s where I learned the game.”
After failed attempts at other sports, he settled
for football.

“[Football] ended up being the only thing I was good at.”

It’s been four seasons since Burton returned to the Park Blocks of PSU. His career has spanned the entire country, from South Beach, Florida to Corvallis, Oregon He’s been here and gone, Nevada and back again.

Now he’s found a comfortable spot to impart his principles, a place to teach more than football.

“This is one of the few places where it didn’t matter where kids came from. We saw that a lot of our former players were successful when they left here, and that’s what I got into coaching for.”

Born in Sacramento, California, Burton found success on the football field first at University of the Pacific. When the school dropped its football program he headed north to Seattle, where he joined the Huskies of Washington.
After his playing days, Burton jumped immediately into coaching, joining South Florida as a defensive assistant. After one year, he found his way west again for the first of two stops: PSU.

“I loved the city. The vibe, the openness—lots of things to do.”

After two years bigger schools came calling, namely Oregon State. As a secondary coach he helped Oregon State to a 39–24 record and solidified them as a player in
the conference.

In 2008 Burton was offered the defensive coordinator position at Nevada, a decision that would ultimately lead to his first head-coaching
job—back to PSU.

Burton’s wife hails from the West Coast as well, providing a blanket of family and friends that are a welcome comfort as the stresses of the job mount. His two kids keep him busy—his homebody mentality mixed with their youthful desire to play with dad.

“My son plays lacrosse, football, basketball—I enjoy that. It keeps me busy,” he said. “We’ll go play catch in the rain. It doesn’t matter to him.”

As for his daughter? “Luckily I’ve been able to avoid dress-up so far…but most dads would do anything for their daughter, so who knows.”

Torre Chisholm, the man responsible for hiring Burton away from Nevada, said there was never a hesitation when it came to Burton, a man known for his strong dedication and commitment to his players.

“He presented [in the hiring] a well-defined vision and philosophy for being the head coach at PSU,” said Chisholm, who currently sits as PSU’s athletic director. “His approach was very student-athlete centered, and this was verified in reference calls with players he had coached; he demonstrated infectious energy and enthusiasm.”

Those would be necessary qualities, as PSU has notoriously lacked support from students and alumni. A downtown setting along with playing in an MLS stadium creates an awareness issue, not to mention the two PAC-12 schools they share the state with. Selling the program has been a big part of Burton’s role since he came, a task that never slows down.

“We need the students,” he said matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t start with the alumni, it starts with the student body. That’s what college football is all about. If we can get them, then we can start to get everyone back around.”
He hesitates for a moment. “We need to turn the environment around.”
Andrew Pompei, PSU’s strength and conditioning coach for football, has been with Burton for years, following him from South Florida to Nevada, and finally back to Portland. All that time together has given him an appreciation for who Burton is as a man as much as a coach.

“He’s taught me how to be consistent in managing a team and the players as a whole. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned,” said Pompei.

A friendship has been built between the two that’s unique in the cutthroat world of college football.

“You definitely develop a friendship working with someone for a few years. I think if you don’t, then the professional relationship won’t be as strong. There needs to be a certain amount of trust between coaches, and that comes with developing a degree of friendship.”

Burton has seen mixed successes in his four years. Replacing Jerry Glanville—the “man in black” who was more of a sideshow than a coach—was not an easy task, as he had to restock the talent pool that was left decidedly empty.

The upcoming 2014 season has some holes to fill, but overall Burton likes the direction of his team.

“We have a big-time running back to replace, which we think we have in place,” Burton said.

Entering his fifth season at the helm of the state’s largest school, Burton knows the task at hand. An 18–27 record, while not shiny, is less an example of his coaching as it is the state of the program when he arrived. Developing a successful culture takes time, and with a bricklayer like Burton on board, PSU would be wise to let him keep building.

While the wins have been slow coming, one thing’s been evident from day one. “We always play an exciting brand. That’s what our program is built for.”