Double-Goal Coach Award Winner: Mike Burzawa>>
In December of 2007, Mike Burzawa had just completed his third season as head football coach for his alma mater, Driscoll Catholic High School. He had also just led Driscoll to its seventh straight state title, a feat that only nine schools in the entire country have accomplished.
And after compiling a 41-1 record over his three years as head coach (he served as offensive coordinator for the team from 1998-2004), Burzawa left the dynasty he had helped to create.
He left the only high school he’d known, and headed east to Evanston Township High School (ETHS), where the Wildkits had just wrapped up 1-8 campaign on the football field.
“He had Illinois’ best active winning percentage (.976), and traded that in for a sure-fire losing season at a program in turmoil,” explained ETHS Athletic Director Chris Livatino.
“Why did he do this? Because he wanted to rebuild a legendary program, and most importantly he wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids who truly needed his help on and off the field.”
It was this rebuilding project, which extended far beyond the turf football field at ETHS into its hallways and classrooms that earned Coach Burzawa the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) Double-Goal Coach® Award presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance.
PCA is a national nonprofit organization, which includes a local chapter in Chicago, with the mission to transform the culture of youth and high school sports so that all student-athletes have a positive, character building experience. Each year, PCA honors 20 coaches from around the country through its Double-Goal Coach Awards program, recognizing coaches who strive to not only win, but more importantly to teach life lessons and character education through sports.
“For all the success that he has had winning football games,” Livatino said, “it’s focusing on that second goal of developing the complete student-athlete that makes Coach Burzawa stand out.”
Call him Coach Buzz
In the hallways and athletic offices of ETHS, the Double-Goal Coach Award winner is best known as "Coach Buzz."
“It’s a name I’ve always had,” he said. “They used to call my dad Buzz, and then that just got passed on to me. It’s something everyone has called me, mostly because they can’t pronounce Burzawa.”
No matter what you call him, he’s a great football coach and a better role model.
Coach Buzz played running back and defensive back at Driscoll Catholic, before going on to play for legendary coach Gordie Gillespie at the University of St. Francis, a Division II school in Joliet.
After graduating from college, Buzz returned to Driscoll where he was a physical education teacher and football coach. He worked his way up from assistant coach, to offensive coordinator, to the eventual head-coaching role in 2005.
In 2007, Burzawa’s final season at Driscoll, his mentor and one of the architects of the Driscoll football dynasty, Mike Loconsole, lost a two-year battle with mantle cell lymphoma.
“He was my coach and he was the first guy I called to help me with the offense when I took over as coordinator," said Burzawa. "We dedicated that 2007 championship season to ‘Coach Loci.’ At the end of that season, I just felt in my heart it was time to move on.”
After 16 years as both a player and coach at Driscoll, Burzawa left behind a 41-1 record in his three seasons as a head coach and headed to Evanston, where the Wildkits had won a total of eight games in that same time period, including just one victory in 2007.
Changing the Culture
As the Evanston football team finished its summer camp in 2008 after Coach Buzz’s first few months on the job, he learned they would be losing 24 players because they did not pass summer school.
ETHS has high standards for their student-athletes, requiring all to have at least a 2.0 GPA, a full point higher than the state requirement (1.0).
The Wildkits would go onto a 2-7 season during Burzawa’s first campaign. It was a humbling experience for the former state championship coach.
“I remember sitting in our postseason meeting with the coaches planning out our offseason schedule, lifting and workouts,” Burzawa explained, “and then one of our assistant coaches, Denny Hall (former New Trier football coach and a 2007 inductee into the Illinois High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame) said none of this is really going to matter if we don’t take care of the grades in the classroom.”
With that, the mantra of “Academics before Athletics” was born within the ETHS football program. T-shirts were made, study groups were formed, and kids were held accountable for their academics year-round. Three days a week during the season, football players would start school 30 minutes early to take part in study tables or extra support sessions with teachers.
Even in the weight room, where in most schools records hang on the wall for bench press and dead lifts, the Wildkits have a chart that tracks team GPA. In his office, Burzawa’s walls are decorated with certificates of players who were named to the All-State Academic Team.
The high standards haven’t come without some tough decisions, though. During one of Burzawa’s first seasons at Evanston, he was prepared to bring up a sophomore to start in one of the biggest games of the year against rival New Trier.
“The night before the game, I checked over the student-athlete’s grades, and he wasn’t where he needed to be. He was really struggling. We basically ended his football season so that he could focus on his school work and get things back on track.”
That decision changed the student-athlete’s life. Not only did he go on to become an All-State running back his senior year, but school became his top priority, as he earned mostly A’s and B’s the rest of his high school career.
“Prior to Buzz, our program averaged 20-25 academically ineligible players a year,” said Livatino. “After just one year, that number dropped and has remained at 1-2 players each season.”
“The team as a whole really started to buy in to what Coach Buzz was trying to do with this program,” said Leonard Garron, a senior linebacker and defensive lineman who played varsity for three years. “He really wanted us to be successful outside of football, as well. Those guys that didn’t buy in to that idea aren’t around anymore.”
Garron, who served as one of the captains of the football team and also starred on the school’s basketball team, will head to Southern Illinois University next year, where he’ll play football and study mechanical engineering.
Senior lineman and fellow team captain Max Anderson echoes Garron’s sentiments, and recalls what the focus was at practice during the week leading up to this year’s tilt with New Trier.
“Midterms,” Anderson said. “It was midterm week and every day he was making sure we were doing OK with our tests, and let us know if we were having any problems to come see him. Obviously he wanted to win that game, but just as important if not more important was making sure that we had another year of a team GPA over 3.0.”
Anderson was recently accepted and will attend Indiana University’s School of Business after graduating from Evanston this spring.
Malcolm Gladwell called it the Tipping Point; Burzawa called it “The Moment”. It was the moment when everything clicked for his team, when all of his positive energy, all of his talk about "effort equaling excellence,’" and all the ideas of learning something from each loss and getting better each day, came together.
“We needed a win to clinch a playoff berth, against a team (Glenbrook South) we had not beaten in over a decade,” remembered Livatino. “Playing on the road, with three minutes to go in the third quarter, our team was down 31-0. Buzz never stopped believing.”
Thirty-four unanswered points later, Coach Buzz and the Wildkits had a victory and a playoff berth.
“It was crazy. Half of the crowd had already left the stadium,” said Burzawa, as he sat in his office this past February remembering the game. “That was really the moment when I realized we changed things at Evanston. The kids knew it, the coaches knew it. That was the moment we had officially changed the culture. Everything we had done the previous two years enabled us to do what we did that night.”
That night not only marked a playoff berth, but it marked the turnaround of an historic football program. In 2008, Burzawa’s first season as head coach at Evanston, the Wildkits went 2-7. Two seasons later, they were playoff bound.
The success on the field would continue to the 2011 season. With a 5-4 record, the school qualified for the state playoffs for the second straight season. This marked the first time the team had consecutive playoff berths since the 1990s. Coach Buzz expects the Wildkits to continue their winning ways in 2012.
“We return a lot on both lines, which is important. We lose some of our skill players, but we’ll be good up front.”
Senior running back and team captain Aaron Potts doesn’t think it will be too difficult to replace some of those graduating athletes.
“Each year under Coach Buzz, we’ve gotten better. One of the things Coach Buzz is great at is cultivating athletes. He pushes everyone on the team to get better each day, to improve as a team and individually. When we’ve lost people in the past, others have stepped up.”
In his spare time, he coaches
For a high school football coach and assistant athletic director (a position Burzawa took over this year), there isn’t really such a thing as spare time. During the season, there is practice, film session and game planning to be done after the school day is over. In the off season, his duties in the athletic department keep him at school long past normal operating hours as a site supervisor for other events, among other responsibilities. Throw in the hour commute each way to his home in Bartlett, and Burzawa has to carefully carve out time for his family, including his daughter Alexa, who is in second grade.
“Last spring, I volunteered to be the head coach of her softball team,” Burzawa said with a smile. "You can get a whole football program to listen to you, and then you can go out there with 12 six, seven and eight-year old girls, who don’t listen to you at all! But I really enjoyed that, and I know I’m going to have guaranteed time to spend with my daughter. It’s been really special.”
Family has always been something important to Burzawa. His parents owned and operated the family business, a catering company, for over 30 years. His father was a head chef for 57 years, with gigs including the Drake Hotel in downtown Chicago. After graduating from college, Burzawa worked in the family business, while teaching and coaching at Driscoll.
“That’s really where I learned my work ethic and my values, from my mother and father,” Burzawa explained.
“It was great to see the passion from my Mom and Dad and what they did in their life. I’m just really blessed that I get to do something that I love and that’s coach football, and hopefully make a difference in student-athletes’ lives.”
It’s safe to say that the Evanston Township High School community loves having Coach Buzz around not only as their football coach, but more importantly as an individual who is truly making his student-athletes better people.
“I want to be remembered as a coach that really cared for the kids, and did everything I could for them in football and in life.”