Men's Basketball

The one Kentucky coach who finished the job in 2017 March Madness

Kevin Burton coached Union College (35-3) to a 33-game winning streak to end the 2016-17 season and the NAIA Division II national championship, the first team national title in Union history.
Kevin Burton coached Union College (35-3) to a 33-game winning streak to end the 2016-17 season and the NAIA Division II national championship, the first team national title in Union history. Creative Images Photography

It’s the little things, Kevin Burton reports, that put the thrill in being a national championship-winning coach.

Fresh off leading Union College to the NAIA Division II men’s basketball national title this spring, Burton was among a number of college hoops coaches flying out of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport to the NCAA Final Four in Phoenix.

To Burton’s surprise, other coaches in the airport — including Division I head men like Northern Kentucky’s John Brannen and Xavier’s Chris Mack — came up to him to offer a congratulatory handshake.

“I don’t even know Chris Mack. I think he just saw the other coaches shaking my hand and thought he should, too,” Burton said with a laugh.

For Burton, a starting forward on Jessamine County’s 1990 Sweet Sixteen quarterfinals team, Union’s national championship is the capstone on a notable career bounce-back.

After starting his head coaching career in 2000 at St. Catharine, Burton, now 44, became head man at Lambuth in 2004-05. He loved coaching at the NAIA Division I school in Jackson, Tenn., and he led the Methodist-affiliated college to three straight trips to the NAIA national tournament, including a 30-4 record and a berth in the round of 16 in 2007-08.

However, in summer 2008, Lambuth officials revealed that the school had severe financial problems. Planned staff raises were scrapped. Three vice presidents resigned. The following year, the school’s head football coach, Hugh Freeze (yes, the current head man at Mississippi), departed.

Even as he saw his program’s funding slashed, Burton stuck it out at Lambuth for three more years.

“It’s very emotional for me, even now,” Burton said, his voice cracking. “Hugh Freeze was our football coach, and he got out. But my goal was to be the Don Lane of Lambuth. I kept thinking the school would get its situation stabilized, and I was trying to be loyal through the tough times.”

In 2011, Lambuth shut down entirely. Having gone down with the ship, Burton found himself out of the college coaching ranks.

The Union head coaching job opened in 2012. The Barbourville school turned to one of its more prominent alumni — Don Lane, the former longtime Transylvania University men’s hoops coach — to lead its search.

Lane remembered Burton from the latter’s playing days at Jessamine County, when Burton started on a team that also featured standouts Keith Peel and Paul Bingham, as well as guard Chris Holtmann, the current Butler head coach.

But it was recommendations from current Transy coach Brian Lane, Don’s son, and University of the Cumberlands baseball coach Brad Shelton, with whom Burton had worked at St. Catharine, that put the ex-Lambuth coach front and center on Don Lane’s radar.

“Brad and Brian both spoke as highly of Kevin as they could,” Don Lane said. “The thing I really liked, I thought Kevin would be able to do the job as a recruiter. He had the pedigree in the NAIA and knew the lay of the land.”

At Union, Burton went 15-14 in his first season (2012-13), but he won 28, 30 and 28 games respectively the next three years.

This season, the Bulldogs started 2-3, then won their final 33 games in a row en route to the national championship.

Two Lexington products played a substantial role in helping Union to its first team national title in any sport.

In Union’s tense 72-69 win over Cornerstone in the national championship game, former Lafayette forward Lance Blakely (7.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg as a Union sophomore) hit a jumper in the lane with 2:08 left that put the Bulldogs up five and was the game’s pivotal play.

Gerrard Newby, a 6-foot-5, 181-pound senior from Henry Clay, led the Bulldogs in scoring (20.4) and rebounding (9.7). For his career, he finished with 1,744 points and 1,043 rebounds while playing on teams that went 121-20.

“It was one of those deals, I had actually gone to look at a different player, but saw and liked Gerrard,” Burton says. “He was a part-time player at Henry Clay. ... But he came here, and worked and worked and became a self-made ballplayer. We’re retiring his jersey. And the neat thing about Gerrard Newby, he’s a better person than he is a basketball player.”

This spring, Burton is relishing all those little things that come with being a national championship-winning coach.

“I’ve heard from everybody I’ve ever known,” the Union coach says, laughing. “I’m not a social media guy, but texts, phone calls, emails, I can’t tell you how many (I’ve gotten), hundreds and hundreds. I’m just blown away by it all.”