Taking A Look Back: Burcham reflects on career at Ironton

Published 8:41 pm Friday, July 21, 2023

Former Ironton Fighting Tigers’ head football coach Bob Lutz (left) and assistant coach Mike Burcham (right) led the program together for 40 years. (The Ironton Tribune File Photo)

By Jim Walker


It has been said that if you cut Mike Burcham, he would bleed orange and black.

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No one has had the impact overall in the Ironton athletic department than Burcham who is now 20 years removed from his job as athletic director, a position he held for 30 years.

During his career at Ironton that began as an English teacher in 1965, Burcham was also an assistant football, basketball and baseball coach.

Former Ironton Hall of Fame athletic director and assistant football coach Mike Burcham had an impressive reign. He retired 20 years ago. (The Ironton Tribune File Photo)

He became the head baseball coach in 1967 and he led Ironton to its only state title in 1972 when the Fighting Tigers beat Solon 3-2 in the Class AA championship game.

Burcham posted a 323-129 record in 18 seasons as his teams won seven league titles, 10 sectionals, four district and one regional titles.

A member of the University of Rio Grande Hall of Fame when he was a standout catcher and still holds the career home run record, Burcham was named athletic director in 1972 and was a long-time assistant football coach who helped Ironton win state football titles in 1979 and 1989.

Burcham now spends his time relaxing and watching his grandchildren play high school and youth league sports. He continues to follow the Fighting Tigers no matter what the sport is.

“I still follow them and cheer for them. I want them to be good at everything and win at everything,” Burcham said.

For 40 years, Burcham coached along side of Bob Lutz, the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association and National High School Football Coaches Hall of Fames. The two grew up playing sports with or against each other in Ironton and carried the same philosophies regarding coaching and operating the athletic department.

“Lutz liked his players to play as many sports as they wanted. He wanted the better athletes to play and help the other sports win. All our coaches wanted to help each other,” said Burcham.

Another philosophy they shared was about competition. Ironton was a member of the Southeastern Ohio Athletic League  dating back to 1967 and until the mid-1980s when they were part of the newly formed Ohio-Kentucky Athletic Conference that included Ironton, Portsmouth, Ashland, Russell, Greenup County and Boyd County.

“At that time, we beat Jackson something like 15 times in a row. But that was the league we were in. We tried to get Belfry and some of these other good teams. Belfry has won the state something like seven times out of the last 10 years and we played them 13 times and won 12 of them. They had a great coach (Philip Haywood) and he’s still there,” said Burcham.

“Our philosophy was you want to play in a league where you don’t have to travel so far. Number two, they’ll bring more people if they’re within 50 miles of here and you make more money. And number three, you want some competition. With the SEOAL, we got to where we were winning it every year. We tried to jump up with the OKAC and tried to do some tings there by getting bigger teams and play them and it made us better for the playoffs.

“People say you made the finals eight times and you only won two of them. Yeah, but we could have won three more and didn’t. Two or three of them the other team was just better than us.”

Burcham felt Ironton could easily have won state titles in 1978, 1988, 1993 and 1999. If the playoffs had instant replay then like the OHSAA has now, Ironton would have won the title in 1999 and probably the other three years.

“There were some we could have won, but there were some we could have lost. It balances out. Lutz just had such a great record. Any time you win almost 400 games in 40 years you’re doing more than anybody else. When we started, there were only three classes: Class A, Double-A and Triple-A. They didn’t have playoffs until ’72 and the second year we made it. Truly, if someone was telling the truth, we won the state in ’79 and ’89, and really ’78 and ’88 were better years.”

Ironton ran into Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s three times in the finals and won 7-6 in 1979 but lost 21-14 in 1982 and 14-12 in 1988. Always along the tournament path was Columbus St. Francis DeSales and there was the 1992 title game that saw Ironton close 31-7 to Mentor Lake Catholic, probably the best team Ironton has ever played. Mentor Lake Catholic had five Division 1 recruits including future Penn State All-American wide receiver Joe Jurevicius who was selected in the second round of the NFL draft by the New York Giants.

Competitive balance didn’t begin until 2018 and there are many who wonder how many titles Ironton could have won in those previous years. Burcham said there are no guarantees.

“If you go back through the years and looked at all the teams that beat us, some of them were real good teams year after year, but some of them were one-year  or two-year wonders. We were always there,” said Burcham. “People say things about Ironton losing in the finals three times in the last four years, but they were there and they played some good teams.

“You have to play some good teams. You can’t just win against teams that aren’t very good. Every time you win against a good team you’re going to get a lot of (computer playoff) points. If you go 6-4 and beat some good teams, you can still make the playoffs. And playing good teams makes you better and makes you ready for the teams you’re going to play in the playoffs.”

While the Ohio High School Athletic Association has increased the price of playoff tickets and reduced the amount of payout money to the schools, Burcham was always conscious of the fans when setting ticket prices for home games. Having grown up in Ironton, living in the town and having taught and coached 38 years, he understood what it was like for the residents.

“We always kept our ticket prices cheap. A lot of people can’t afford to go to the game and pay for a babysitter. We were their babysitter. And we were a cheap babysitter. Mom and dad could watch the game while their kids ran around or sat together,” said Burcham.

“We charged students one dollar and if they didn’t have the money, we let them in but we told them they had to help pick up trash after the game or do some kind of chore. We felt if you made it affordable to the people, they would come to the game. It was cheap entertainment and we were the only entertainment in town on Friday night. The state charges way too much for playoff games, especially the first and second round. Make it affordable and you’ll get a lot more fans and make a lot more money overall.

Burcham prefers the high school sports programs as a better entertainment than the college and professional games because it gives the community its identity.

“High school sports is a great thing. All these little towns like Ironton and the rest of them around, it’s a big deal. It’s good for the school and the town that you have good teams and bring in good teams. That’s a great Friday night, I don’t care what they say.”

As The Godfather of Ironton, Mike Burcham is a very wise man regardless of what color blood he bleeds.