COLUMBIA — Hickman boys basketball coach John Burns knows a thing or two about coaching his sport.
He had the unique opportunity to travel around the country to observe some of the most well-respected coaches in the game, and now he hopes the experience will translate into a winning season for the Kewpies.
Before coming back to Columbia, where he played four seasons under former Missouri coach Norm Stewart, Burns had been the coach at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas from 2004-2008. Although he enjoyed success there, Burns said he felt the school no longer provided the opportunity he was looking for, citing numerous administrative changes as the reason for his departure.
It wasn't exactly an easy decision.
"(Leaving Fort Scott) was a life-changing experience. I didn't have a plan. No money, no nothing. But it was one of the greatest moves I've ever made in my life," Burns said.
"I told myself that coaching basketball was never going to feel like a job for me, and I knew (coaching at Fort Scott) was going to feel like a job."
With just enough money to get by, Burns embarked on a journey that some coaches only dream about. Between Oct. 14, 2008 and Feb. 24, 2009, Burns got a first-hand look at the coaching that goes on at some of the nation's premier basketball programs.
His 62 stops included visits to both college and pro teams. Phil Jackson, Tom Izzo, and Mike Krzyzewski are just a few of the names on the list of coaches Burns met with. You can see a picture of Burns at each stop along the way on his Web site.
Burns, a self-proclaimed basketball nut, said he got to see how each program was run.
"I wasn't looking for X's and O's necessarily. I was looking for how they manage and how the program was run from a head coaching perspective," Burns said. "How they deal with their assistants, managers, and players. One of the things I learned on my trip is that I admire people that have been at the same place for a long time."
The impetus for the trip was a conversation Burns had with Larry Brown, the coach of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. The two were chatting at a basketball clinic when Brown suggested the idea of watching coaches at practice, something Brown himself had done before.
"For a couple weeks there, while I was exploring opportunities, I thought, 'You know what? I'm going to do this,'" Burns said.
Initially, Burns only planned to visit six teams, but as he started plotting his course on a map, his list began to grow. Wake Forest is just over an hour by car from Duke University, which is only 20 minutes from the University of North Carolina, so why not make a stop at all three? With a limited budget, Burns couldn't afford to zig-zag across the country in planes and rental cars.
Each stop usually entailed a day or two of observation, giving Burns at least a page of notes on each coach. Most of the coaches were friendly and didn't have a problem letting him learn from their success, though a few extra phone calls were needed to gain access from some of the reluctant ones.
When he was done, Burns had about 40 to 50 pages of notes that he hopes to one day turn into a book, a sort of how-to guide for coaches at any level.
"I think every coach would want it because it's from the perspective of a guy who has seen almost everybody of the best," Burns said, though he admitted he will probably need some help with the writing process.
"I'm not an English guy," Burns said.
Burns, a master organizer and planner, said the trip strengthened his belief in the coaching techniques he had been using all along.
"It gave me a lot of confidence and self-assurance in what I've always done," Burns said. "It's not what we do, it's how we do it."
Burns' trip impressed Hickman athletic director Doug Mirts, but it wasn't what ultimately convinced the hiring committee to give Burns the job.
Mirts said Burns' experience as a player and coach has given him a deep understanding of basketball. That, along with Burns' networking ability, were the major factors that led to his hiring last May.
"Obviously that it was a unique opportunity for him," Mirts said. "He had a chance to reflect on his own coaching."
Burns' work at Hickman began this summer with offseason gym sessions and training programs. After three weeks of practice and Tuesday night's Purple and Gold scrimmage, the Kewpies will open the season on Dec. 1 against Sacred Heart.
Hickman went 15-10 last season under former coach Kenny Ash and reached the district finals before falling to rival Rock Bridge. The Bruins also won both regular season matchups.
Back in a familiar town, Burns said his goal is will always be to reach the final four of the state playoffs.
"If there's a bigger challenge that presents itself, I would take that," Burns said. "But right now, I'm very happy here. I love Columbia, and I think this job has a lot of potential."