COLUMBIA — In 1988 when the Arena at Southwell Complex opened as the home for Columbia College basketball, something was missing from the front entrance.
The steps leading up to the ticket office and front door form a right angle, leaving a niche.
Bob Burchard, who had recently been hired as athletic director and basketball coach, said he and his staff often discussed what would be fitting to put in the area but never decided on anything specific.
The answer turned out to be easy. On his way to Lake of the Ozarks, a frequent vacation destination, Burchard passed a bronze-and-copper collectible store. On a whim one day he decided to check out the store.
"I stopped into the store on impulse and asked if they had any cougar statues." Burchard said.
Sure enough, they had one cougar among a number of casts. About three feet tall, the bronze animal is in a crouch ready to pounce, it's fangs exposed in a snarl.
Burchard purchased the statue on the spot with money out of his own pocket. Later, movers transported the cougar to Columbia and put into the spot it still occupies, now garnished by stone and landscaping.
"We were looking for something, and if you look out there it's really an ideal spot. It was really just good luck," Burchard said of his purchase with a grin.
The alumni association later reimbursed Burchard for the statue, but he still polishes every month by hand with WD-40, and it stands as a testament to his dedication to the success of Cougar student-athletes.
Last month, Burchard was named the 2008-2009 American Midwest Conference Athletic Director of the Year, the third time he has won the award. As a coach he has more wins than all the other Columbia College men's basketball coaches combined, and last season, he lead his team to the championship game of the NAIA Tournament.
Sean Dooley, a former player who now works with Burchard as an assistant men's basketball coach, said Burchard has a knack for leading.
"He gives us the freedom to work at different things," Dooley said. "He establishes trust and gets the best out of his teams."
Burchard beams with affection when talking about seeing many of each year's crop of students posing with the cougar statue on graduation day and how often children play on it. It's clear how much he cares about the young men and women that walk past the cougar every day.
"It's not just the athletic facilities, it's the improvements to the entire campus that have allowed a steady incline of improvement," Burchard said of his school. "Our focus has always been centered on our students. Developing players into mature young adults is the goal."
Wendy Spratt has been the women's softball coach at Columbia for 16 years, but her association with Burchard goes back to when she played for Columbia College softball. In 1990, two years after Burchard became AD, Spratt was setting records and earning a nod as team MVP. Now a veteran coach with numerous regular season and tournament championships, Spratt thinks Burchard's success is tied to his ability to anticipate the future of Columbia athletics.
"His greatest asset is his forward vision," she said. "He's good at seeing things as they can be, not as they are." In the upcoming years, Spratt feels confident that she and Burchard will successfully erect a new softball field after the current diamond is taken over by a new sciences building.
Burchard's track record at Columbia suggests that the program has nowhere to go but up, and if the past is any indicator for the remainder of his career, his legacy will be as solid as his bronze cougar.