Interview with Phil Burnett, DL Coach for Brady Hoke at Ball State

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Phil Burnett 2Phil Burnett was Defensive Line Coach for Brady Hoke at Ball State for all six seasons in which Hoke was the Head Coach for the Cardinals. Burnett played college football at Northern Illinois, and has had coaching stints with Oregon State, California University (Pa.), and Defiance College. He is currently the Defensive Coordinator at Morehead State University, an FCS school located in Morehead, Kentucky.

How did you get your start in coaching and who were the coaches that helped mold you?
Bill Mallory, at that time (1983) was the Head Coach at Northern Illinois and he recruited me to play at NIU. Lee Corso came in for 10 months in 1984, then he left for the USFL. Jerry Pettibone came to Northern Illinois at that time, and I played for him for him my last three years. After I graduated I stayed at NIU as a Graduate Assistant for three years (1988-90). Coach Pettibone then got the Oregon State job and took me with him. I was Brady’s Graduate Assistant for the defensive line at Oregon State (1991-1993).

I was at California University of Pennsylvania when Brady got the Ball State job in 2003. He called me and said, “Pack your stuff, let’s go.” When Hoke left Ball State after six seasons for San Diego State, Stan Parrish was named Ball State’s Head Coach. Stan wanted me to stay at Ball State, so I stayed. I’m at Morehead State now, where Rob Tenyer is the Head Coach. I knew Rob from my days at California University of Pennsylvania.

I’ve learned from all the Head Coaches that I’ve worked or played for – Bill Mallory, Lee Corso, Jerry Pettibone, Greg Pscodna, Mike Kolakowski, John Luckhardt, Brady Hoke, and Stan Parrish. You take bits and pieces of what each has taught you and add that knowledge to your own coaching philosophy. If I ever have the opportunity to be a Head Coach, I’ll have developed my philosophy from all of them.

When Rob was elevated to the Head Coaching position at Morehead State (in December 2012), he knew we had to change the culture. It was a shock to a lot of kids. Everything you do on a daily basis – you mold the kids to do the right things for the program. Everything from how to go to class, how to act in the academic center, how to attack the weight room, what kind of teammate are you in the locker room and what kind of person you are on campus. You get them to believe in one another, to invest in something bigger than themselves. You cannot deviate from the plan. You have to keep hammering home the right things to do. When they fall off the path, we use the “strike” program, where the first three strikes, you are running at 5:30am on Tuesday morning. The fourth strike, your position group runs with you, and for the fifth strike, your entire side of the ball runs with you. This helps to get the kids to self-monitor. But you can’t bend, and you know it will take awhile to get our philosophy ingrained.

The assistant coaches need to carry out the plan. Sometimes it takes awhile, sometimes it doesn’t. You try to motivate the kids to do the right things. Winning does cure a lot. When you struggle to win, it usually takes a little longer.

At Morehead State, we have a great nucleus of young kids, and we are playing a lot of young kids. On defense, we had only four seniors in 2013. But as long as your seniors are working hard, you have a chance. If you treat your players with respect, if they understand you care for them as a human being and they believe in one another; then you have a chance.

The biggest key in any program is the strength coach – he is one of the most important coaches on your staff. One of the best strength coaches in America is at Michigan, Aaron Wellman, who was with us at Ball State. He makes the kids work hard and respect each other as football players. Aaron is great at developing leaders. He has the ability to teach the importance of being a great teammate and leader.

It took awhile at Ball State. As a staff we recruited hard. All the coaches were great recruiters (current UM coaches with Hoke at Ball State include Linebackers Coach Mark Smith, Wide Receivers Coach Jeff Hecklinski, and Offensive Line Coach Darrell Funk). The staff really sold the family atmosphere at Ball State. We were able to sign a lot of kids that could have played in the Big Ten.

Brady thinks and expects a lot from the senior group. He expects the seniors to play their best football. He makes that known to them, and they respond. There are other little things that he did for the seniors at Ball State. For instance, the seniors always ate first. He would always meet with the seniors and he had a Leadership Council made up of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen. He believes it’s their team and wants input. If you have a good senior group, chances are you’ll have a solid team.

Sometimes you can get a freshman playing at the Division 1 level. It takes a special guy to do that. There’s just so much on their plate the first semester – they have to get up, eat, go to class, study and practice. Some kids physically and mentally are there and ready to play from the start. It’s ironic, usually the kid you don’t think is going to play right away is the kid that does. In August, we get four weeks of just football. Then class starts. It gets hectic. Most kids need time to settle in and adjust.

What was it like to be the Defensive Line Coach for a man who was the Defensive Line Coach on a National Championship team?

You listen to him. You strongly take his advice. When I was a GA at Oregon State, I learned a lot from Brady. As a coach in that situation, you get coached a little bit, too. At Ball State, one year he coached the linebackers, another year the safeties. His hand was always on the defensive line. We had a great working relationship. He’s a passionate guy. He loves the defensive line.

Did Brady Hoke wear a headset at Ball State?
He was Defensive Coordinator a few of those years at Ball State, so yes he did wear a headset. (In 2007-08 Mark Smith had the title of Defensive Coordinator but Hoke called the defense). Brady has all the confidence in the world in his assistant coaches.

Dividends will come and will pay off. Brady has a knack of getting the best out of his players. Sometimes it takes two to three years to develop kids. Kids love Brady and he loves them. Brady has won over the kids there. He’s a hands-on coach, and he will be successful at Michigan.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
I’ve enjoyed it.

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