His Washington Huskies teammates back in the last century used to call Nigel Burton “Mighty Mouse.”
He was listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds (the consensus holds that both figures were inflated), but he managed to play strong safety on a pair of Washington bowl teams.
Any mouse has to be pretty mighty to pull that off. But Burton did not just play, he led – being named captain as a senior in 1998.
His charismatic personality and leadership skills were such, in fact, that teammates speculated that he’d become a politician, or a high-level administrator.
They were right to the extent that being head coach of a college football team is a mixture of those things, and fans of the Huskies will get another look at Burton on Saturday when he leads Portland State into CenturyLink Field for a non-conference game against his alma mater.
Burton took over the Vikings in 2010, and last season rallied them to a 7-4 record and a tie for third place in the Big Sky Conference.
Asked if he could see the young Burton as a potential college coach, former teammate and fellow UW captain Brock Huard said it was an absolute possibility. “Either that or head of the NCAA,” Huard said. “It was in the way he always carried himself; he was very bright and very mature – he was absolutely wired to be in a leadership role.”
Burton went to UW after University of Pacific, in his hometown of Stockton, Calif., dropped its program. And his impact was felt immediately.
“In his first practice, he intercepted more passes than anybody in a year,” head coach Jim Lambright said in a story written about Burton at the time. “He has the ability to create big plays on defense; he is a talker, he wants to be a leader and he’s an excellent politician. He wants his opinion heard, and he does that.”
Burton earned respect with his smart and aggressive play. Huard called him “a classic overachiever who got every bit possible out of his 165 pounds.”
Those kind of players sometimes make the best coaches, because they have to learn the angles and techniques that will maximize their gifts. As Burton told an interviewer back then: “When you are this size, you can’t be passive.”
Burton got his degree from UW and tried to suffer through a job as an accountant.
“I never thought of being a football coach,” he said. “I thought those guys were nuts because they stayed in the office so long.”
But who can picture Mighty Mouse in a cubicle sweating over accounts receivable?
“(I) just missed being with the fellas missed the mentoring aspect that I did as a player. It took a year or two, and when I finally worked my way into coaching, (I) just fell in love with the profession and all the ways you can use the game to affect a young man’s life.”
He worked his way through assistantships at South Florida, Portland State, Oregon State and then Nevada before taking over the PSU program when Jerry Glanville resigned.
Burton made a pair of hires that brought more Huskies influence to his staff, adding former UW roommate Lester Towns as linebackers coach, and Ikaika Malloe as special teams and defensive tackles coach.
His time at UW, Burton said, shaped him as a coach but “probably more as a person.” Lambright “ has been a huge influence in my life; and he changed my life just allowing me to be there and to play there.”
As a UW alum, he praised the rebuilding job coach Steve Sarkisian has fashioned, and said they became friends as both rose as assistant coaches.
Burton’s message to his players this week has been merely to prepare as they do every week. And he has reminded them that his ties to UW have nothing to do with what happens on the field Saturday.
“This game is about them,” Burton said. “It’s not about me; I’m not planning on suiting up on Saturday. And if I do, I might give them one good play before blowing a hamstring.”
But he would no doubt give it a mighty effort before the muscle gave firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8440 @DaveBoling