Burton Burns is the hidden force behind Alabama's dominant ground game

ESPNAPI_IMG_NO_ALTEXT_ValuePhoto by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

When Alabama's offense takes the field against USC on Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas, everyone knows what to expect. After 10 years of this, who dots the "I" in the I-formation is almost beside the point. What matters is that Nick Saban's team is expected to continue to produce one of the best running games in college football, to yield yet another star running back.

Think about it: when the Doak Walker Watch List was released in July, both Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris were on it. Combined starts: zero. And what's more bizarre is that Scarbrough, a redshirt sophomore with fewer than 20 career carries, is considered by some to be a Heisman Trophy contender. According to a release from the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook this spring, Scarbrough is listed at 25-to-1 odds to win the trophy, ahead of the likes of Oregon's Royce Freeman and Oklahoma's Samaje Perine.

It's a product of the system, people say. Saban and the recruiting juggernaut he has built ultimately get the bulk of the credit.

But those discussions are flawed. Most analysis of Alabama's success at running back involve a name that usually goes unsaid, a common denominator that is too often overlooked.?

He's a former Nebraska fullback and lifelong assistant coach. He's hard-nosed on the field and deeply caring off it. He's set to turn 64 in October, a native of New Orleans and the son of a Marine who fought in World War II and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He's the only assistant remaining from Saban's first staff at Alabama in 2007 and the teacher to the school's only two Heisman Trophy winners.

When Mark Ingram won the award, he thanked him by name. So did Derrick Henry.

"Coach Burns," Henry said in front of the Heisman Trust in New York last December, "I could go on and on, but these past few years have been a blessing, just to be coached by you. And just as much as you're proud as me, every day I wake up and I'm so proud to call you my coach."

Keep in mind that Henry is a man of few words. But on that day, in maybe the biggest moment of his life, he went on for nearly a minute recognizing Burton Burns, who was seated in the crowd next to Saban. In writing the history of this Alabama dynasty, those two are forever intertwined.

If one is truly the best coach of his generation, then the other is certainly in the conversation for the best position coach of his.

* * *

As a kid, they called him Big Stony after the former Baltimore Colts and New Orleans Saints linebacker Steve Stonebreaker.

Burns, then a promising young athlete at St. Augustine High in New Orleans in the late 1960s, was a stocky, bruising fullback/linebacker with several scholarship offers from Division-I programs.

Ronnie Burns remembers those days well, back when his brother was wooed personally by the governor to go to LSU, whom he said was looking for more African-American players to play for the state college. (As per Alabama's media policy, Burton Burns was unavailable to speak for this story.)

But, according to Ronnie, his brother "wanted to play with the best" and spurned the hometown Tigers, opting instead to go to what was then a powerhouse program in Nebraska.

You see, Burns had what his brother describes as an "inner fight" or an "inner competitiveness." From the sandlot to high school to college, he was always the one people gravitated to -- a leader, Ronnie said. That came from their father, Winston Burns Sr., a prominent local high school football coach who served in a segregated Marine Corps during WWII.

"You always go back to the first Coach Burns, my dad," Ronnie said. "He coached at an inner-city school in a tough situation. His teams won championships every year and, to this day, guys come back to see him. My brother saw that, he learned from that."

In their household, Ronnie said, "There was no bending the rules."

At Nebraska, Burns got more of the same stern upbringing from coach Tom Osborne. Burns would injure his knee and never become a star, but he picked up his signature hard-nosed coaching style along the way in Lincoln.

After four years coaching in New Orleans high schools, Burns broke into the college ranks as an assistant at Southern University. A decade later, he was hired on the staff at Tulane where he'd mentor Jerald Sowell, the first of his backs who would go on to play in the NFL. Sowell played for nearly a decade with the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The same year Sowell went pro, Tulane hired a new coach, Tommy Bowden.

Tommy said that his father, Florida State legend Bobby Bowden, told him, "There's one guy you better hire." It was Burns, who had made an impression on Bobby during his recruiting trips to New Orleans.

"He's a hard-nosed guy and a great personality," Tommy said. "He has a great relationship with players. He works their tails off. Again, he's one of those guys that yells at them, gets after them and then hugs them after practice. Guys appreciate that. They can feel the hard coaching is constructive criticism. Some coaches have the ability to convey that, some don't. As I watched him, he was very demanding, which is what you want at a place like Tulane because there isn't much margin for error."

He added: "When he walks on the field he cuts his motor on 10. It runs on 10 for the whole two-and-a-half to three hours."

That first season at Tulane, Burns coached a running back who would break school records for rushing yards by a freshman. The next season they'd go undefeated and Tommy would take Burns with him to his new job at Clemson.

Eight years later, Alabama came calling. Tommy said he couldn't match the money. Ronnie said his brother was guided by the same principal that took him from New Orleans to Nebraska: "He wanted to play for the best."

Under Saban, Burns would not only be teamed with the best coach in college football, he'd help recruit him some of the best players in the country, including many in his own backyard. In what has become a yearly headache for LSU coach Les Miles, Burns has maintained a steady grip on the state of Louisiana, hauling in blue-chip prospects such as Landon Collins and Tim Williams.

When Leonard Fournette had to choose where he'd play his college ball, it came down to LSU and Alabama.

"Still to this day I love Coach Burns," said Fournette, who chose to stay close to home at LSU. "At the end of the day it was one of the hardest choices I had to make. ? The love I have for Coach Burns will never stop, no matter what.

* * *

J.W.M.F.

If you've played for Burns, then you know what those four letters means. You will have read it on white board or in a text message. While you were in school, you'd see it pop up on your phone the Friday night before a big game. And when you moved on to the pros, the messages wouldn't stop, they'd just come a day later.

"It's kind of explicit the first meaning," Ingram explained. "But for commercial purposes and interview purposes, it's Just Win Monday through Friday. And on Saturday we go kick ass and handle our business."

The less-family-friendly version starts the same way and, well, you can probably guess what the last two letters stand for.

Speaking with a handful of former players, they all agreed that there are two sides to Burns. There's the father figure who wants to get to know you personally, and there's the coach who is demanding and isn't afraid to call you out in public.

Ingram remembers rushing for 246 yards against South Carolina in 2009 and Burns coaching him hard the very next day. He, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy would get annoyed by Burns' attention to detail, how he'd harp on sticking a foot in the ground and getting north and south. Burns would tell them how when he was a kid he'd practice by sprinting down the sidewalk in his neighborhood before making a hard cut up the driveway and into his house. "Man this dude is trippin'," Ingram recalls telling his teammates.

"But finally when the season hit and we were running that outside zone and you'd get your read and put your foot in the ground, you were breaking arm tackles and breaking off big runs," Ingram said. "So all that teaching, all that emphasis, all those drills, all the film study on guys running the zone the right way paid off for us because he stayed on us about getting our foot in the ground, making a violent cut and getting north and south. That's just one thing of many that he taught us."

Before Lacy could unleash his patented spin move on the world, he first had to show Burns it was fundamentally sound. It wasn't something Alabama was used to doing -- "it wasn't in their repertoire," Lacy said -- but when proved in the film room that he was controlling the football and his pad level was correct, he was given the green light.

Nothing was easy, Lacy said. During one practice his sophomore year, Lacy drew the ire of his coach after was caught running down the sideline a little too nonchalantly and a smaller DB knocked him hard out of bounds. The next day, Burns cued up the hit in the film room and played it over and over in front of everyone.

"He figured out I practiced better when he made me mad," Lacy said. "So he would try to find different ways to make me mad. It was crazy because it worked, but it was weird because he was doing it on purpose. But it was tough love. He did what he had to do to get the best out of his players."

Said Ingram: "You can't be thin-skinned, you can't be soft when you're taking his coaching. He's going to push you to the limit. ? He sees stuff in you that can't even see."

But just as Tommy Bowden pointed out, as soon as Burns was done teaching, he was there throwing an arm over his players' shoulders. If you were hungry, there was an open invitation to stop by the house for dinner. If you couldn't make it home for Thanksgiving, you'd come over for Miss Connie's gumbo and dressing. After eating, everyone would head up to Burns' man cave to watch football or a movie.

To this day, C.J. Spiller thinks of the Burns like family. Connie, he said, was like a mother to him.

After starring at Clemson as a freshman, Spiller would go on to become a first-round pick while Burns left to begin his career at Alabama. Still the two maintained a close relationship. Last year after he was signed by the New Orleans Saints, Burns had Spiller over to his parents' home in New Orleans for a bite to eat. Thirty minutes earlier, Lacy had arrived. Burns, as it turns out, saw a post Lacy made on social media saying he was at the lakefront and decided to invite him over, too.

"That just speaks volumes about the kind of character he has," Spiller said. "Even though he was only my coach for one season it felt like he coached me all four years because of what he taught me and the kind of person he was. He cared. He cared about the individual."

When Clemson and Alabama met in the national championship, Spiller ran into Burns again. He and Ingram were honorary captains, and during the pregame warmups, Spiller found Burns and gave him a big hug. Afterward, he and the Burns family took photos on the field.

"He ended up hitting the double dip on me -- he won the game and his guy did well," Spiller said. "At the same time I was happy to see him win another national championship. And to have coached two Heisman trophy winners, I don't think he gets the credit he deserves."

* * *

Why then has Burns never been a coordinator or head coach?

There's no getting around the question, and due to Alabama's media policies, Burns could not be made available to give an answer himself.

But in speaking with those around him, there's a sense that moving up the ladder was never part of the equation. According to Ronnie, his brother actually turned down Saban the first time he called while at LSU.

There were other opportunities, Ronnie explained.

To be a head coach?

"At smaller universities, yes," Ronnie said.

Now that Burns is approaching 64 years old, the time may have passed to move on.

But to this day, Tommy Bowden believes that Burns would be a great fit at Tulane. He said he twice recommended him for the job.

While acknowledging that race can sometimes be a factor, Bowden didn't think that was the case for Burns and Tulane, pointing out that the previous coach was African-American, as well.

Regardless, Bowden said, "I think his goal has always been to be the best running backs coach in America."

And has he done that? Has he become the best position coach in the country?

"Oh, yeah," Bowden said. "If you can find one with better results ?"

Bowden didn't finish his sentence. He didn't need to.

You can look all you want, for as long as you want, but no one has done it better than Burns. When you think of Alabama's long line of star running backs, it's him that you really need to be thinking of.

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