COLUMBIA — Pay a visit to the gym at Southwell Complex during a Columbia College men’s basketball practice, and you’ll quickly realize there is something missing.
Sneakers squeak on the floor, players shout for the ball, and the scoreboard buzzes when drills run their course.
Ottawa University Braves
at Columbia College Cougars
WHEN: 7 p.m. Nov. 16
WHERE: The Arena of Southwell Complex
One signature sound is absent, however: the shrill screech of a coach’s whistle.
Bob Burchard doesn’t even wear one.
“They don’t let you use it on the sideline,” Burchard said. “Guys have to be trained to my voice.”
It’s just one of the wrinkles that has the coach two wins away from 600 career victories, all of which have come at Columbia College.
Burchard, who doubles as athletics director and basketball head coach, took over in 1988. He inherited a team that had been 98-224 in its previous 14 seasons, according to the school’s website.
He quickly transformed the losing culture.
“The first team was amazing because it kind of put us on the map,” Burchard said. “We had the first winning season, and we put together back-to-back 30-win seasons with the same group of kids.”
Burchard said his primary motivation for turning around the program was to keep Donald Ruthenberg, the former president of Columbia College, happy.
According to Burchard, Ruthenberg was fond of saying, “Bob, we want bang for our buck. I’ll support you 100 percent, win or draw,” before laughing heartily and telling Burchard he was joking.
“I was never really sure,” Burchard said.
There is plenty of laughter around the athletics facilities these days but for a different reason. The Cougars dominate nearly every sport they compete in.
Burchard has overseen either the expansion or major development of all 10 sports programs at Columbia College, including five new sports in the past calendar year.
The five older programs — volleyball, men’s soccer, softball, men’s basketball and women’s basketball — have combined for 62 conference titles and hundreds of All-American athletes.
Burchard, though, is proudest of a classroom-related statistic: 15 student athletes were selected as academic All-Americans last year. The coach believes intelligence is the key to any great team.
“Smart beats dumb the majority of the time,” Burchard said. “Guys that aren’t as smart are used to finding ways to screw it up.”
That philosophy has made the Cougars basketball team a perennial contender. They are three seasons removed from a national title game appearance and gunning for a third straight American Midwest Conference title. The players are smart enough to know Burchard has them pointed in the right direction.
“If he’s won all these games, how is what he’s saying not right?” sophomore guard Tanner Sutton asked. “We’ll be able to talk because we played for a Hall of Fame coach.”
Yes, Burchard is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame, but his legacy extends much further. He's impacted many lives among the current 74,000-plus Columbia College alumni, and is remembered fondly for his off-the-court decisions.
Last month, the school created a scholarship in Burchard’s name, funded in part by Greg Johnston, a member of the class of 1991.
Johnston was Burchard’s first college basketball recruit, but he experienced major setbacks his freshman year, including a severe knee injury and the death of his mother.
“(Burchard) encouraged me to stay in school, and he worked to find replacement scholarships to make that possible,” Johnston wrote in a Nov. 2 letter to the Missourian. “Bob’s commitment to me is characteristic of his dedication to Columbia College.”
It’s a shame that Burchard will probably reach the 600-win milestone Tuesday against Central Methodist University in Fayette, and not in the gym he’s turned into a basketball haven.
Don’t expect him to care about petty things such as that, though.
“We won’t ever be judged by one event,” Burchard said. “You can win a lot of games, but if people don’t like what you do, you won’t survive.”
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.