Tom Burman jumps ship in 2006

A month into 2006, Portland State athletic director Tom Burman took a job at his alma mater, the University of Wyoming. Burman was named vice president of the UW Foundation and is responsible for fundraising and development. He was quickly replaced on an interim basis by Teri Mariani, who served as head softball coach for 29 years before assuming her new position.

Burman came to Portland State in September 2000, four years after the university transitioned from NCAA Division II to Division I and the Big Sky Conference. During Burman’s nearly six-year tenure as athletic director, Portland State passed its NCAA Certification as certified with no conditions in 2002, signifying the final transition to NCAA Division I.

For Burman, the urge to return home had a significant appeal.

“It’s the right thing to do. It’s the right fit on multiple levels,” Burman said at the time. “I love development and university advancement. It’s an opportunity to do things more globally and will allow me to expand my career and support my alma mater.”

Burman certainly had a great impact on the university in his time at the South Park Blocks. He helped secure funding to give the Peter W. Stott Center over $1.3 million in renovations in the last five years and has had a hand in generating more private funding for athletic programs. He also fostered good will between PSU’s top administrators and athletics.

Perhaps what Burman will be best remembered for is his hirings. Burman left the school after its best year as a Big Sky school. In 2005 the Vikings won Big Sky championships in golf, soccer and men’s basketball. Both the soccer and men’s basketball teams hosted the Big Sky tournament in 2005.

The athletic director hired all of those head coaches, hirings fans 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 arena of college athletics, where every high school kid thinks they are entitled to a chance to play for a high-profile program.

Burman hired women’s basketball head coach Charity Elliott last year before the start of the 2004-05 season. Elliott is a typical “Burman hire” who has led the team from a three-win season in her first year to a 12-16 year that featured a tourney game in 2006.

Burman also hired head softball coach Amy Hayes, who guided her club to a 38-20 record that featured an appearance in the NCAA Softball Regional tourney. Hayes was named the Pacific Coast Softball Conference Coach of the Year.

“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.

It is extremely difficult to judge an athletic director’s effectiveness. If the deciding factor is winning, Burman succeeded in bringing a culture of winning to lowly Portland State. Most programs now expect to win games or at least be competitive. Coaches produce solid students along with talented competitors. Championships are no longer something to be envied – the Vikings are winning their own these days.

Burman infused his personality into the program he led for six years, refusing to let Portland State wallow in sports purgatory. It may be two or three years until the true impact of Burman’s time at the helm is known, but it’s clear that the university and the Vikings are better off now than in 2000.