Former star QB Burke now rising star as coach

More news about: Case Western Reserve | Mount Union
Kevin Burke in the background behind Case players
Kevin Burke is no longer front and center, or behind center, but is teaching and learning as running backs coach at Case.
Case Western Reserve athletics photo

By Joe Sager

As a player, Kevin Burke was a shining star at Mount Union.

The quarterback became the first junior winner, then the first two-time winner of the Gagliardi Trophy.

His future appears pretty bright as a coach, too.

Once his playing days were done with the Purple Raiders in 2014, he joined the Mount Union coaching staff the past two seasons. This fall, he’s an assistant at Case Western Reserve in his hometown of Cleveland.

“It’s a great fit for me and Case Western as well. They are on the verge of being continually great,” Burke said. “That’s thanks to Coach (Greg) Debeljak and what he’s done throughout his time there. It’s a great place to be and I am really excited.”

Burke’s journey home was an interesting one. After coaching for two years at his alma mater, he wanted to continue his playing career and received an opportunity overseas. He wound up in Austria this spring with the Vienna Vikings in the Austrian Football League. Naturally, he led the squad to a win in in the Austrian Bowl and was named the game’s MVP.

“It was different, but one of the nicest things was the passion and commitment of the people I played with and was surrounded by,” he said. “They were all passionate about the game like the people at Mount Union and Case Western Reserve. That was one of my biggest things. I wanted to go over there, play and travel around the world, but I am a competitor through and through. That’s what I needed. I loved every bit of it. It was very good from start to finish.”

With that season complete, Burke wanted to come back to the United States and continue coaching. He learned about an opening on the Spartans’ staff, contacted Debeljak and was able to join the program this fall.

“Being able to be with the Mount Union coaching staff to start off my coaching career was a huge blessing. They know what they are doing and do things the right way. I can definitely look back at that as a strong foundation,” Burke said. “I have learned a lot.

“The past three months at Case Western have been so different – not better or worse, but different. I have learned to control some of my coaching habits and help and work with guys from different programs. Being able to work with a team is different than being a player. There’s a lot more communication involved. At times, that’s a struggle and that’s part of the nature of it. Being in this business, you have a lot of time to find out what really matters, in terms of working on a daily basis with these kids. Seeing these kids be successful because of something you’ve coached them to do – not many things compare to that.”

Debeljak was thrilled to bring Burke aboard.

“I had a late opening – an intern position opened up in late May and I posted something. Kevin was one of the first guys to respond. I instantly knew the name and what he did at Mount Union. We really didn’t finalize things until late July and I think we met five days before camp. It was kind of last-minute, but I wanted him on our staff because of his background,” he said. “When I was a young coach at John Carroll, I learned a lot about football from watching Mount Union on tape and watching Larry Kehres and his offense. I wanted that dynamic on our staff. I wanted someone who knew what it took to win at the highest level at D-III. I think our kids understand the commitment they have to make in the classroom; I wanted them to understand the commitment that needs to be made on the field. I thought Kevin was a perfect example to be around these kids.”

The open spot on the CWRU staff was for a running backs coach, though. However, that was exactly what Burke wanted – something new.

“I love it. If I just stayed the same and got comfortable coaching quarterbacks the rest of my life, I wouldn’t grow, in terms of knowledge. I love to compete and challenge myself and this position is one way to do that. It’s been great so far,” Burke said. “Being a QB for so many years, I know what to say to those guys and how to coach them. I am not close to being perfect or knowing everything in the book. Seeing how everything works on daily a basis has expanded my horizons greatly. It’s exciting for me and I have a great group of running backs. They’ve been great to work with.”

That doesn’t mean Burke isn’t called upon for advice with the quarterbacks and passing game. Quarterbacks coach Jake Schaefer, also new to the staff, was a standout quarterback at John Carroll and coached at his alma mater, too. Like Burke, he has experience playing overseas with the Munich Cowboys of the German Football League. Burke and Schaefer actually attended grade school together as well, with Burke being one year ahead.

“I had no idea he was even on the staff or talking to be on the staff,” Burke said. “I knew I was getting in a running back coaching position, but I showed up the first day and had nothing but a smile on my face when I heard he was in the quarterback position. He’s doing a great job this year.”

“I lean heavily on Kevin for input on the spread offense, with QB reads for the run game – all the things that made him a great player, I wanted to tap into,” Debeljak said. “There is a dynamic there. That doesn’t always work well, but they do a good job working together.”

Another new CWRU coaching new hire is wide receivers coach Micah Johnson. He played in the NFL and CFL as a wide receiver and coached at various levels before joining the Spartans.

“It’s cool because being from Mount Union and playing in a spread offense, I have that type of experience. Coach Schaefer has pocket-passing, smash-mouth offensive experience. Micah has CFL and NFL experience. He knows some things none of us know,” Burke said. “Having us three guys on staff has been amazing. We all bring something little to the table. We’re all pitching in where we can. Coach Debs is not an egomaniac; he just wants to win. Taking a little bit from each of us has been the success of us this year. Everybody is pretty responsive to ideas on winning football games. It is interesting to be around them and throw out some ideas I might have that I’ve gathered from Mount Union and wherever. We don’t care who is right or wrong. We just want to win.”

It’s worked well for Case Western Reserve. The Spartans are 7-0 and are essentially tied with Washington & Jefferson atop the PAC standings at 6-0. It’s no surprise they have the conference’s top offense (44 points per game), too.

“How lucky are we to have Kevin and the other two guys all coaching on offense? They’ve brought in some change and different ideas and youthful enthusiasm,” Debeljak said. “It’s been great. I’ve not only enjoyed this year because of our success, but the dynamic they bring to our staff and program.”

So, what will Burke do after the season? Head overseas again to continue playing? Focus on his promising coaching career?

“(Playing overseas) is something I’d consider doing again. It would need to be the right situation. The Vienna Vikings were a first-class organization. Once you go over there, you kind of delay your career, in terms of coaching here. But, it’s something I would consider and I have some time to think about it,” Burke said. “I want to keep my doors open. I really don’t have a set course of what I want to do. More or less, that was behind my decision to take a part-time job (coaching at CWRU) and get some relative experience all the while keeping my doors open.”

Does Burke want to work his way to a larger institution at a higher level or become a head coach one day?

“It’s a lot of fun to be at this level of football. I just love the sport. I don’t necessarily need to climb the ladder and make big-time money. On a daily basis, I will enjoy what I am doing because it’s very rewarding,” he said. “Becoming a head coach is something that’s tempting. I definitely think that could be a goal of mine. But, I love coaching guys and being one-on-one with them and not having to worry about other things.”

Debeljak has no doubt Burke can become a head coach.

“If he wants to, the sky is the limit. Besides his knowledge, he has tremendous leadership. That’s not something you can teach a coach. Most young guys stay in the background and keep their mouth shut. If he sees something, he says it. He is not afraid to give his opinion. He is head coaching material if he wants to go that route,” he said.

“I think Kevin is a great person. He is an awesome coach and he is going to keep developing, but he is so far ahead of the curve. When I think about how I was at 24 or 25, I can’t even compare. He is so far ahead, whereas, I was still trying to just figure it all out. He cares about kids, too. The first time we went on the road, there he was helping to unload the bus. He’s just a very, very nice kid. I am so happy he is around our kids. The football knowledge is there.”

Could Burke wind up back with Case Western Reserve next year?

“This is what I wanted to be exposed to. Coach Debeljak has been a great coach who has helped me take my coaching career up a notch. I’ve learned some different things and been able to become a better coach. We do some things differently here, but, overall, it’s been a great experience to expand my knowledge,” he said. “I am a go-with-the-flow type of guy. I don’t have any set plans right now. I could end up halfway across the world or I could stay in Cleveland. Who knows?”

Stay tuned.

Upset alert

After falling behind, 7-0, Marietta scored the next 37 points to stun No. 24 Heidelberg, 44-21, in OAC action.

The Pioneers racked up 563 yards of total offense in the win. Senior running back Roger Walker had 189 yards and four touchdowns. It was Marietta’s first win over a ranked opponent since it beat No. 7 Otterbein, 25-22, in 2009.

Almost an upset

Washington & Jefferson needed overtime to defeat Westminster, 34-33, in a PAC showdown.

The No. 16-ranked Presidents trailed throughout, but tied the game in the fourth quarter. They scored on their first OT possession. Westminster followed with a touchdown on its possession and elected to try a game-winning two-point conversion, but the pass was broken up in the end zone.

The win keeps W&J (7-0) undefeated. Westminster’s two losses are to ranked opponents. Wittenberg topped the Titans, 20-14, in the season opener. 

In the polls

No. 2 Mount Union (7-0) cruised past Wilmington, 66-7. The Purple Raiders welcome Otterbein in OAC action.

No. 13 Wittenberg (7-0) defeated DePauw, 52-6. The Tigers visit Wabash in a key NCAC showdown.

No. 16 Washington & Jefferson (7-0) edged Westminster, 34-33, in OT. The Presidents head to St. Vincent in PAC play.

No. 17 Case Western Reserve (7-0) rolled past Geneva, 45-7. The Spartans welcome Washington University for a non-conference game.

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Joe Sager

Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.

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