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Burcham#039;s retirement brings end of an era

Mike Burcham began to drive away in his car Friday morning, heading for the end-of-the-year athletic director's meeting.

"After this, I'm a done deal," Burcham said to Mark Lewis, Ironton's head baseball and assistant football coach.

After 37 years -- 31 as the school's athletic director -- Mike Burcham drove away as if he were John Wayne riding off into the sunset. While the Duke was the most dominant cowboy in movie history, "Boomer" was the most dominant athletic director not only in this area but throughout the state of Ohio.

But it's not just Burcham's leadership that helped bring so many championships and so much success to the athletic program at Ironton High School.

And it's not just his ability to manage money and unflinching turn of the head and following phrase, "We don't need it."

Nor was it his unyielding confidence, his ability to stand up for what was right and never back down no matter what the circumstances or repercussions.

Mike Burcham was a great athletic director because he was a man of principle.

He was a man's man, a man of morals, conviction, character. He demanded those qualities of himself and those around him. If he made a decision, it was because he believed that it was the right thing to do for everyone involved, not just one or a few.

If you didn't like the decisions, he understood, but he didn't apologize. That, too, made people upset, some even angry or bitter.

He was confident to a point people may have thought he was cocky. But he was always positive and he did have great compasion although he tried to hide it.

I remember him telling me that he demanded three things from his coaches: work hard, be fair, and be loyal.

Although all three were important, I think the overriding characteristic had to be loyalty. It was what Woody Hayes taught, as did his proteges Bo Schembechler and Lou Holtz.

Burcham said, "I can make you a good coach." And he could. But even the best coach wasn't always right for him when he made a hire. Burcham wanted someone who was in a certain mold. Call him "an Ironton man."

Being a good coach didn't make you Ironton material. Burcham believed that teamwork didn't just relate to the playing field. He wanted his coaches to work together for a single purpose: the players.

Burcham ran the athletic department like any other business. If there were people on staff who were capable, he preferred to hire them. Someone who has worked and given much of their life to a business would feel slighted if the boss overlooked them for a promotion and went outside to fill the vacancy.

"You take care of your people," he would say.

Burcham was inducted into the Rio Grande Athletic Hall of Fame and the Ohio High School Athletic Directors Hall of Fame. And there were other awards.

But that wasn't important to Burcham. To him, coaching is about the players. That's one reason why he and head football coach Bob Lutz always worked so well. Lutz lives by the same code.

I, for one, will miss him in the field of athletics. But I can take solace in knowing he is still a friend. I value his opinion and that of Bob Lutz more than anyone I know and I plan to keep asking their advice.

Yes, it is a very sad moment for me to see Mike Burcham step aside. Like anything in life, it was inevitable. I know all things must end, but it still doesn't soften the blow.

So as Mike Burcham rides off into sunset, the town of Ironton can be thankful that he was the sheriff of the athletic program for such a long time.

So long, Pardner, and may God be your sidekick. Jim Walker/The Ironton Tribune