Those ol’ blue eyes have seen a lot.
He played for legendary coaches and taught alongside them. He’s been a National Champion. He’s coached players that will be Hall of Famers in the NFL.
All the while, South Florida defensive coordinator Wally Burnham has maintained a successful career — one that has spanned more than four decades.
“For me, it’s not necessarily anything I’ve done as much as it’s been the people I’ve had to work with,” Burnham said. “I’ve been very blessed with the people in my life, and the coaches who have taught me how to coach. That’s very important, in anything, when you’re first starting out.”
Burnham — a native of Pell City, Ala. — learned from some of the best coaches in college football history.
During the 1960 and 1961 seasons, Burnham played football under legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
It was under Bryant that Burnham learned some of the ideals that have influenced his career.
“Communication is the key in any situation,” Burnham said. “When a kid can go into your office and talk about personal problems or girlfriend problems or financial problems, whatever it may be. If a kid knows that you’re his friend, not just his coach, you’ll be able to get through to them on a more personal level, and that’s something I saw coach Bryant do a lot of — talking to kids in his office.”
Burnham used the lessons learned from Bryant to begin a coaching career of his own.
After working as an offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator at North Alabama (1971-1976), he coached defense for the first time at East Tennessee State (1977-1978). Burnham used what he saw from both an offensive and defensive perspective to study the game.
He went on to become the defensive coordinator for the United States Football League’s Arizona Wranglers for two seasons before taking a job as linebackers coach for the Florida State Seminoles.
“Wally is one of the guys everybody likes,” FSU coach Bobby Bowden said in an e-mail interview. “He’s just a likable guy.”
While at Florida State, Burnham accomplished the highest honor possible — a National Championship, which FSU won in 1993.
“Wally is an amazing coach,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “He loves his players a lot. Some of the greatest linebackers in the country have played for Wally, and that’s no surprise. People want to play for him.”
Bowden said in his time with Burnham (1985-1993) he saw a man turn into a great coach whose ability to connect with players is unparalleled.
“He’s knowledgeable of what’s going on and he is a very good communicator,” Bowden said. “He can explain things about as good as anybody I have been around.”
Burnham’s skills as a communicator have led to some players having successful careers in the NFL.
Future NFL Hall of Famer and Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks — who Burnham coached at FSU — has more than 1,600 tackles, 25 interceptions and six touchdowns in 14 seasons.
And Buffalo Bills’ linebacker Kawika Mitchell, a USF grad from 2002, had eight tackles and a sack in the New York Giants’ Super Bowl XLII win against the New England Patriots.
Seeing players succeed off the field — in any profession — is what Burnham said he lives for.
“I had a young man e-mail me that I haven’t coached since I was a high school coach in 1968,” he said. “He is the president of a major corporate company, and had to give a speech about the five most influential people in his life. He chose me. When I saw that, my eyes lit up. It’s things like that that I hope all of my players feel when they leave school.”
Senior linebacker Brouce Mompremier — who has been with Burnham the last five years — said his coach has had an amazing impact on his life.
“Coach Burnham is such a great coach, and I’ve been through a lot with him,” Mompremier said. “He’s just always been there, on the field and off.”
Pat Burnham, Wally’s son, is the director of player personnel for USF. He said working with his father is a great experience.
“He’s been doing this a long time, and he’s seen a lot,” Pat Burnham said. “You can tell when he’s on the sidelines or in the locker room or even at home that he truly loves what he’s doing.”
Pat Burnham also said it is nice to share his father’s love for football, though he didn’t get into coaching like his brother Shane, an assistant at Elon.
“I’ve never really had the urge to coach like my brother, but I get to come to work and do something with my dad that he loves.”
Wally Burnham said working with his son is a nice bonus to coaching at USF.
“I get to come to work and see my son every day,” he said. “There’s a lot of parents that don’t, and I’m lucky to have that opportunity.”
Burnham, who has wrinkles surrounding his bright blue eyes — which have seen USF grow from a Division-IAA school to the No. 2-ranked team in the nation — said positive feedback from coaches, both current and former, mean a lot to him.
“That’s the highest compliment you can get,” he said. “I do take that with great pride, and I’m humbled by it. This is what I love to do. I have a great passion for it, and when I hit the practice field, I have the same enthusiasm for it as I did on my very first day.”
When Burnham is done coaching, however, he said there is one thing for which he wants people to remember him.
“I just hope people will say I was fair,” he said. “I want people to say I taught them not only football, but discipline, maturity, and he raised me like I was one of his own kids.”
As he took a second to think about his career ending one day, Burnham’s eyebrows furrowed, as if it were the worst thing in the world.
Those ol’ blue eyes have more to see.