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Missouri State’s most successful coach remembered not for athletic accomplishments, but for his heart

Published: Jul. 26, 2021 at 7:31 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - If life can be measured by the impact you have on other people, then Dr. Tommy Burnett’s accomplishments as a mentor far outweigh his accomplishments in the world of athletics, which is saying quite a lot.

Born in Smackover, Arkansas Tommy Burnett was a multi-sport high school stand-out who then went on to play football for the University of Arkansas. He and his brothers, Bobby and Bill, all made their mark on the Razorbacks at different times with Tommy earning All-Southwest Conference honors as a wide receiver and playing for the 1964 national championship team that famously included Jerry Jones, the future Dallas Cowboys owner, and Jimmy Johnson, who became the first coach to win both a Super Bowl (with the Cowboys) and a college national championship (with Miami).

Burnett would also get a Super Bowl championship as he was a receiver for the New York Jets in 1969 when Joe Namath led the heavy underdogs to an upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

After returning to school to get his PhD, Burnett would then settle down in Springfield and spend over four-and-a-half decades at Missouri State as a professor in the Physical Education, Recreation and Leisure Studies department and as the coach of the school’s club handball team which he started in 1987.

Burnett’s new venture would turn into a juggernaut, becoming one of the most successful sports programs of any kind in the country. His teams won 15 national team championships, 16 national women’s titles, eight national men’s championships and produced dozens of individual national champion and All-American players.

Burnett and both his men’s and women’s teams were inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and Burnett also served as the National Collegiate Handball Commissioner for several years.

That is an unbelievable list of athletic accomplishments, yet when Tommy Burnett passed away this last week at age 76 after a 12-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, it wasn’t his coaching that his former students remembered about him.

Why was coach Burnett so cherished?

“Because of his heart,” answered former player Bri Still. “When I walked into practice I knew he was going to be like, ‘Hey, pup!’ He always called us little pups. ‘Hey pup! How ‘ya doin? How was your day? Tell me something new.’ If I needed a hug he was always there. If it hadn’t been for him I would have never made it this far and gone to graduate school.”

“He was really like a grandpa to me,” said former player Katherine Lucas. “He made everybody feel like a somebody. He made everybody feel special in their own way. He would take the time to get to know you and show you that he cared. That’s how everybody feels about him.”

“He was larger than life,” added former player Jack Morris. “I think I speak not only for myself but for decades worth of MSU handball players who we were absolutely privileged to have somebody like Coach Burnett at our side on-and-off the court.”

“He was always thinking, ‘How is this student, now my handball player, how am I going to help them become successful in life?’” said assistant coach Brian Watson. “His coaching methods were not antagonistic. From beginners to pro level players he got the best out of them and made sure nobody ever felt excluded. Everyone was a part of the team.”

Jeni Hopkins was well aware of Burnett’s all-inclusive nature.

“We had to share him growing up,” said Hopkins, who is Burnett’s daughter. Hopkins has also achieved a great deal of success on the local sports scene as a girls basketball coach at Greenwood and Hillcrest and now as a sports radio broadcaster and TV analyst.

She and her two brothers (Burnett later adopted another daughter) knew that their dad’s family was an extended one that included thousands of students and athletes not just at Missouri State but as part of the handball community all over the world.

“Of course one of our answers was to play on the team to continue spending time with him,” Hopkins said. “But after we saw the impact we didn’t mind sharing him because that was one of his missions, to use handball as a platform to try and help these young adults navigate their way in the world.”

When Burnett got his Parkinson’s diagnosis, friends and family said he maintained his positive outlook and great sense of humor.

Katherine Lucas, a three-time national champion, took it upon herself to help her coach in any way she could and spend time with him away from the handball courts.

“I just wanted to make sure that he knew that somebody cared and wanted to make sure he was doing O.K,” she said through tears.

And even though he’s gone now, Tommy Burnett’s legacy is still alive and well in all those hearts he’s mentored.

Lucas is about to start her first post-college job as a fourth grade teacher in Conway.

As to what she’ll take from Burnett as she enters her new profession?

“Just make sure you care about everybody because that’s how Tommy did it,” she replied.

“He wanted us to be good people and he was such a good role model for that,” Still added. “He created a family here at Missouri State and we’ll take it with us forever.”

“I’ve never known anyone who’s lived like he has....as a whole and just day-to-day,” Hopkins said. “He was the hardest working man I’ve ever known. And the way he treated people and cared about them is something we all admired and would like to continue. It was really about all the relationships he had with all these people.”

“He is one of the best ‘people’ persons I’ve ever met,” Morris said. “Just the way he interacts with people and draws people to him, those kinds of examples and life skills will stick with me for the rest of my life.”

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