Contact: C. Scott Shasteen
April 5, 2017
On March 27, 2015, the University of Tennessee informed head men's basketball coach Donnie Tyndall and his staff that their services would no longer be needed. Included in those who instantly joined the ranks of the unemployed was Motlow Bucks men's basketball head coach J.T. Burton.
Those days were dark for Burton, who recently vaulted into the national spotlight by leading the Bucks to 30 wins and a quarterfinal appearance in the NJCCAA Men's National Basketball Championship Tournament, along with being named the Tennessee Community College Athletic Association (TCCAA)/Region VII Coach of the Year.
The 2016-17 Bucks won 30 games, more than any team in Motlow's 47-year men's basketball history, and became the first team to reach the quarterfinals of the national tournament. The Bucks also featured the TCCAA freshman of the year and three all-conference selections. Without question, this year's Bucks had the greatest season in school history. For Burton, the journey has not been easy, but he insists he is in a better place now.
THE DARK DAYS
"I was devastated when we got the news at Tennessee that the staff had been fired," said Burton. "One day I was an assistant coach at an SEC school with an outstanding basketball history and tradition, and the next day I was out of work and certain that no school would have an opportunity for me because of the way things ended at Tennessee. It was a really dark time for me and my family. I honestly thought I would never get another chance to do the one thing I love to do; coach basketball. Add to that what Coach Tyndall, who I had played for and coached under, had to go through. It all crashed down pretty fast and I almost crashed along with it."
Living in Springfield, Kentucky, with his wife Carla and two daughters Alexis and Jada, Burton did what he had to do to help support his family; he went to work. Through the assistance of a friend and former player, Chad Newby, Burton got a job working at Recovery Care in Louisville, a facility that treats patients with traumatic brain injuries. He says the experience humbled him in a way that few things could have and helped lead to the opportunity at Motlow.
"I had to drive an hour to work and home each day," he continued, "so I got a lot of time to think. It was really eye opening to see these people, some of them younger than me, whose lives had been devastated by brain injuries. It gave me a whole new appreciation for how blessed I was to be healthy and to have a family that was healthy. It strengthened my resolve to help people that I knew to get opportunities to do what they love to do. I might not get another chance to coach, but I could sure help others get their chance."
It was that mindset that led Burton to Motlow State. The Bucks were searching for a new coach after Matt Sligh had resigned to become an assistant coach at Missouri State University. Sligh had helped Motlow continue its winning tradition in men's basketball, and as is usually the case in most professions, success led to an opportunity that he accepted, leaving Motlow searching for its third head coach in four years.
"I was familiar with Motlow State, having played and coached at St. Catharine in Kentucky when they were part of the TCCAA," Burton added. "I always felt like Motlow was a unique situation and they had enjoyed a nice run of success under former coaches Steinburg, Nichols and Sligh. I had a friend who had applied for the job so I called then-athletic director Tori Gentry to recommend my friend.
"Tori asked me why was I not applying for the job myself, and to be honest I never even thought I would have a chance to get it, or any coaching job for that matter. I mean, nobody was calling me offering me a chance to get back into coaching. I thought my coaching career was over."
A BRIDGE TO MOTLOW
Gentry convinced Burton to apply for the job, and after an extensive search process the College called Burton and made an official offer. Burton says it was one of the most surprising and happy days of his life.
"I'll never forget it was June 2 because that is my wedding anniversary," Burton recalls. "The athletic director barely got the words out of her mouth in offering me the job before I blurted out 'I'll take it!'. When I hung up that phone I danced around my house like I had just won the lottery. My wife and kids looked at me like I was crazy, but when I told them I had gotten a job coaching they were thrilled. They had seen the pain I had been in and they knew that daddy was getting another chance. It was a tremendous moment in our lives."
Burton stepped into an enviable situation at Motlow, inheriting a team that had posted a 23-6 record in 2014-15 and returned the No. 1 junior college player in the nation in Jaylen Barford, who now suits up for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Although coming to Motlow extremely late in the recruiting season, Burton scrambled and assembled a group that compiled a 25-7 record and played in the championship game of the TCCAA tournament.
"I feel very fortunate to have been able to bring a former player of mine and assistant coach, Arthur Latham, in to be my top assistant," continued Burton. "Then to be able to add a quality volunteer assistant in Zach Holt was a tremendous bonus. Having Jaylen here for that first year was a blessing, and the guys who filled roles around him, like Reid Pierce and Darius Joell, were a big part of the reason we had such success last year."
But most of the role players were sophomore transfers and a couple more returning players, leaving Burton with the decision of whether to bring back the few freshmen he had recruited for their sophomore years. He chose not to, meaning this year's team consisted of a full roster of young men who had not previously worn the green and gold of the Bucks.
"It wasn't that the freshmen on last year's team were bad players or bad people or anything like that," added Burton. "It was just a feeling that we as a staff had. We wanted to build this second year's team from the ground up. We knew we needed a couple of sophomore transfers to provide some junior college experience, but we also knew that there were great freshmen players that we could attract to Motlow State. Coach Latham and Coach Holt did a wonderful job of finding those players and convincing them that Motlow was the place for them."
The majority of the 2016-17 Bucks were in-state players, including all-conference selections Javion Hamlet from Memphis and Isaiah Hart from Murfreesboro, along with Ross Plunkett from White Bluff, Dillon Smith from Lexington and Kevonte Corley from Antioch. Rashawn Fredericks came from Tampa and developed into the TCCAA Freshman of the Year, and Aleksandar Zecevic found his way to Moore County all the way from Serbia.
"This has been the most fun, hardest working, committed group of players I have ever had the privilege of working with," added Burton. "I don't say that because we won the conference tournament and did well in the national tournament. I've been saying that all year and anybody who has heard me talk about this team knows that.
"These young men are the reason I love what I do and am so thankful for the opportunity that Motlow State has provided to me and my staff," he concluded. "We want to give guys the opportunity to compete at a high level on the basketball court, to graduate, and to become productive in the community. This group of players have done and are doing those things, and that is very satisfying for me as their head coach."
Burton and his staff have already began the process of assembling next year's team. But only two years removed from one of the darkest times of his life, and now with a bright coaching future in front of him, Burton has learned some things during his climb back to the spotlight.
"I'll never take my opportunities for granted again because every day I get to do this is a blessing." Burton adds. "Ultimately, what we do as a coaching staff, as a team and as a college, is not about me. I used to think it was about me, but it's not. It is about those around me, especially my assistant coaches and our players. I am just so proud of those guys and happy for them and what they achieved this season."
Motlow State men's basketball head coach J.T. Burton celebrates with his wife Carla and daughters Alexis and Jada after the Bucks won the TCCAA/Region VII Tournament championship in mid-March in Morristown. Burton has compiled a remarkable 55-13 record in two seasons at Motlow, the best winning percentage of any coach in school history. Photo by Luther Simmons.