Jeff Burkhamer and ‘Kind Words’


UWF men’s basketball defeated Shorter 79-63 during “White Out Night” in the UWF Field House on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. / Front: Jeff Burkhamer / UWF Smugmug

Edward Bunch III, Staff Writer

Sports have become a pillar of American social life and entertainment throughout its growth in the past several decades. Accompanying this development has been an influx of coaches who arguably have the most influence on athletes barring their parents and other family.

The core lessons of cooperation, teamwork and humility that are taught while learning a sport are some of the most important values a child can be raised upon.

Unlike youth sports leagues, where the goal is primarily collective player joy/development, with winning comes second, sports organizations as low as the high school level have increasingly focused on prioritizing the team’s needs, casting individual athletes to the backburner.

For the average athlete who knows they won’t ever enter the top 1% of their respective sport, the character of a coach is even more crucial.

Even though an athlete may not become a professional player, their time spent in a program should still be well-spent and leave them equipped to handle the hurdles life throws at them.

Both high school and college athletics programs have only recently begun to tackle the issue of prioritizing individual player development and team success simultaneously, with many still scrambling on where to look for organizational cancers.

The answer, although uncomfortable, is simple: the coaching staff.

Whereas most universities have attempted to subtly ignore this disconnect between an athlete’s usefulness and their personal development, the University of West Florida’s athletic team has tackled the issue head on.

“Building champions for life” has been the Argo Athletics’ motto for years, signaling a concerted effort in regard to player development and preparing student athletes for the next walks of life.

Jeff Burkhamer, head coach of the Argo’s men’s basketball team, has been an advocate of this motto since the day he took the job.

“It’s more important that we build these guys and give them a chance to be successful once they get out of here,” he said. “Really push them to get their degree so they’ll have a chance that opens up doors for them, because at some point the ball’s gonna stop bouncing. You gotta be ready to take on the game of life.”

Burkhamer took time out to speak with me about his personal upbringing, coaching philosophy and mindset while trying to reinforce Argo culture every season.

“It was great being the coach’s son … I knew by the time I was in seventh grade that I wanted to coach basketball,” he said.

Burkhamer has two daughters, one being a basketball/softball player and the other being a volleyball player.

He and his wife, Diane, are also in the hall of fame at their alma mater, Alderson-Broaddus College.

He described his home life as “competitive” and noted that his family understands athletics as they’ve all been heavily involved in sports.

“It meets my needs; I love sports; I love athletics; I love competing,” he said.

Burkhamer has been coaching for nearly four decades, purposefully choosing programs that needed a culture shift to get back on the right track.

He prides himself on his proven track record of setting high standards for the programs he’s been a part of.

“My niche has been going in places where they haven’t been very good and making ‘em good,” he said.

Prior to coming to UWF, he had been a head coach for four other universities and an assistant coach at five different programs. At every program he’s been a head coach, Burkhamer sports the highest winning percentage.

Burkhamers’ resumé spoke for itself at the time of his hiring, and he has yet to leave a mass number of UWF basketball players disappointed in the results.

When Burkhamer first arrived at UWF in 2015, the university’s men’s basketball program was a wreck, finishing towards the bottom of their conference every season. The season Burkhamer took over, the Argos improved their win total by 13, the most in Gulf Southern Conference history at the time.

Burkhamer has continued to build upon this progress during his time here at UWF, never settling for the amount of individual or team awards granted to the men’s basketball program year after year.

Burkhamer credits the men’s basketball coaches who preceded him for setting the tone in the culture and making it a great environment for both players and coaches.

“Coach Hogan I know real well; he did a terrific job while he was here. Coach Stennet is a good friend of mine; he did a great job while he was here,” he said.  “It’s really nice to take over at a place where they’re having good coaches and good players, and we continue to try and build upon that.”

When further asked about the camaraderie between the athletic department, Coach Burkhamer described an environment of cooperation, understanding and endless learning and heaped praise for his predecessors.

“I eat lunch with Coach Stennet about once a month and let him know he’s always welcome to be here. Coach Hogan and I have been on each other for years and years,” he said.

“You talk with those guys that have been around and you trust and have been successful. You try to learn from those guys what can help our program and help us move forward. Those are guys that you always try to lean on and learn different thoughts from,” Burkhamer said.

Burkhamer’s response when asked about what’s changed in his 30+ years of coaching may shock many readers, but he also noted that less has changed than many may think.

The three-point line was originally introduced in his senior year, 1979, and kept being moved back throughout the years. The physical improvements of athletes by generation also changed the manner in which basketball was played.

“Overall you still gotta pass, still gotta shoot, still gotta defend,” he said.

Even as someone who has dedicated his life and career to basketball, Burkhamer acknowledges that there are more important things to worry about.

“You gotta be able to provide food for your family,” he said. “It’s why I have a basketball on my desk that has no air in it; At some point, the air comes out of that ball.”

Burkhamer described the number of events and programs that are implemented in order to ensure that Argo student athletes are cared for beyond their basic needs.

“It’s why some of the things we do with our student athletes program, like speakers and guidance in different areas off of the court, are so important,” he said.

When speaking about past student athletes and a coach’s responsibilities to his players, Burkhamer spoke with a conviction that both shocked and left me hopeful for the future of coaching.

“Some guys really embrace that, take it and use it. Other guys don’t do as good a job with it. Our biggest thing is we want guys to have successful lives. We want ‘em to be good students, good kids and have a great basketball experience here,” Burkhamer said. “But we also want them to go on and be successful and call us a few years from now talking about their wedding, a baby, or a first house. Things we can be really proud of those guys once they move on from us.”

On the Argonauts’ athletic program as a whole, Burkhamer spoke nothing but praise.

“The program has consistently improved. Overall UWF athletics is really, really good. We’re the best in the GSC and have some of the best teams in the country,” he said. “It’s a great challenge year-by-year to try and keep up with the other teams on campus. There is a lot of winning culture with our coaches.”

Burkhamer’s style of coaching has proven to be successful for both individual players and the team overall, but when asked to describe his philosophy for coaching he spoke little praise.

“I’m probably not the easiest guy to play for because I expect complete effort,” he said.

He continued by discussing the importance of playing hard, thinking constantly and improving yourself every day.

“Growing up, playing hard was one of the things I learned and prided myself most on,” Burkhamer said. “Getting guys to understand that sometimes playing hard doesn’t mean anything but thinking … sometimes it’s thinking a play ahead.

As seen with former Division I football coach and current GOP senator Tommy Tuberville, there is a historical disconnect between student athletes and the men hired to coach and develop them as people.

Recently, Tuberville has been receiving well-deserved criticism over his comments at a Nevada Trump rally, where he broadly painted Black Americans as criminals.

“They want reparations because they believe they are owed that! Bullsh–! They are not owed that,” Tuberville said.

The GOP’s connections between Black Americans, reparations and crime have historically been used to depict them in a negative manner, where Black people are essentially lazy and lying criminals.

The saddest part of this sequence comes afterwards, when one realizes that Tuberville has essentially spent no effort trying to understand players he had been coaching in the NCAA for 21 years while making a total of $25 million.

Tuberville’s case of outright racist remarks may be a rarity among fellow head coaches at the college level, but it shows an underlying issue of modern sports coaches refusing to try and understand their players and their backgrounds.

Burkhamer doesn’t see long-term goals as the end all be all; he places a distinct emphasis on the necessity for kind words in everyday life, understanding the impact we can have on others and consciously trying to leave others feeling good about themselves.

“Well I think you have to be as positive as you can, because some kids can misunderstand coaching for getting on them,” he said. “Correction is different than yelling at them or being upset with them… Make sure you’re telling guys what you think they’re doing good and then you correct them when they don’t do something right.”

Jejuan Weatherspoon, a junior on the team who Burkhamer says has helped the newer players transition, credits him for pushing Weatherspoon to be a leader and encouraging cohesiveness among the team.

“Coming from JUCO, where it’s more intense and everybody has the same mindset of trying to get to a university…it was kind of hard being a leader my first year,” Weatherspoon said.

Weatherspoon attributed his improvements as a leader to a mindset change and the atmosphere Burkhamer created as “encouraging,” even trying to emulate it in his daily interactions with his teammates.

“This year it’s like, I understand what happened last year, and I’m trying to stay in tune with the young guys,” he said. “I got a new roommate; he’s always asking questions, and we talk about coach all the time.”

Outside factors can still play a big role in the development of a student athlete, even if the program and coaches are supportive. Social media has become a major influence on the minds of many, and athletes aren’t excluded.

The recruitment process, a vital part of a student athlete’s path to professionalism, is almost entirely conducted through respective players’ social media accounts. This normalized accessibility opens the window for players to seek out input from social media in the future.

Athletes typically—and sadly—find themselves on the receiving end of media and fan scrutiny scattered throughout social media. Unlike their professional counterparts who have PR teams solely for this purpose, student athletes are often forced to deal with angry fans lashing out when the team or individual is struggling.

Most of this issue lies in the widespread dehumanization of many student athletes once they put on their respective jersey, but some fault can be attributed to coaching staffs with little interest in monitoring or protecting their students.

When asked about his personal perspective on the effects of social media, Burkhamer spoke about fan criticism and higher expectations for bigger programs.

“If they’re not playing well, fans are bashing them,” Burkhamer said.

“I think it’s an important part of trying to be positive about your team, program and getting people out to games. But you also have to be careful with it, whether guys are getting on social media you want them to be positive,” Burkhamer said.

Even with the accolades that his nearly four decades long career has collected, Burkhamer finds that the coolest thing about coaching at UWF is his ability to help others find or better their path in life.

“Helping guys move on if they want a chance to play professionally overseas, or help them get a job, or help them graduate has been really fun for our coaching staff,” he said. “We’ve had a bunch of guys go on and do very well.”

Considering his substantial success at UWF in his seven years with the program, I was curious as to what is keeping Burkhamer here with us in Pensacola. Not only has he revamped the men’s basketball program and students’ interest in their success, but his upstanding character traits have also permeated the staff and players he has interacted with.

Burkhamer had a surprising but sensible answer: “We have a good culture within our athlete department. It’s a great school, good place to recruit to. [Ultimately] we’ve got a good program… good culture for our players to be in and go to school,” he said.

Coaches like Tuberville have set fear in the minds of athletes and parents alike, a fear that they’ll end up a cog in a program or coach’s system.

The recent pushes in player empowerment have helped athletes understand that they are more than the sport they’re talented at. They have, at the very least, a right to be heard and understood as people before players.

Jeff Burkhamer exudes the characteristics of a coach who not only pushes you to win on the court but also motivates you to be your best self at all times. One that can see past the jersey number and come to understand every person who walks through his doors.

UWF men’s basketball will be in good hands for the foreseeable future, as the work of Burkhamer and his colleagues will continue to positively impact the culture.