CEDAR RAPIDS — Tim Burke is a long way from home.
The head coach of the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers isn’t around his hometown these days, as he’s off pursuing that professional coaching career of his.
But once upon a time, Burke was part of a Cedar Rapids Jefferson football team that “through the years from about ’64 through ’72 seasons, I think, no Jefferson team had lost more than two games in a season.”
It was at Jefferson where the groundwork was laid for what would become a successful career on the sidelines.
“We were schematically ahead of a lot of people. Technique wise, what our coaches were coaching were the most modern techniques at the time,” Burke said. “We were kind of ahead of a lot of schools as far as weight training and off-season training. I gained a lot from them. Probably the core beliefs in coaching come from my time at Jefferson.”
Burke, a 1972 graduate from Jefferson, has had many coaching stops in the 41 years since he left the program that won the first Class 4A state championship the year after he left, in the fall of 1972.
From his first assistant coach job at the University of Minnesota in 1977, through stops as an assistant at Purdue University and the University of Kansas, a pair of Grey Cup wins as the defensive coordinator of the Montreal Alouettes, and on to his first head coaching job in Winnipeg, Burke’s message has stayed the same.
“I really believe, obviously I believe in a disciplined program,” Burke said. “Every player is accountable for his performance and his actions. And the coach is accountable for what he coaches.”
That accountability is something Burke said he learned playing under Jack Fisk at Jefferson, where his “core beliefs in coaching” came from. Burke said he had “very disciplined coaches, very technique-oriented coaches,” that studied the game hard and expected a lot out of their players.
His old-school style of coaching has shown through in Winnipeg. Burke took over the Blue Bombers midseason last year, after then-head coach Paul LaPolice was fired, and despite the continued struggles of the team — Winnipeg is 1-5 so far this season and just fired general manager Joe Mack and president and CEO Garth Buchko — Burke still holds to a notion he heard legendary Alabama Coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant say, that ‘Nobody has ever won the Kentucky Derby with a mule.’
“You have to have talent to make your dreams come true,” Burke said. “I think coaching, good coaching, can affect the team and bring them up a few notches from where their talent is. And bad coaching can take them the other way. If you’ve got top-flight talent, no matter how bad of a coach you are, you’re probably not going to be at the bottom. If you’ve got the worst talent in the world, as a coach, you might be able to elevate them a couple of notches from the bottom, but that’s going to be about it.”
While Burke rides out the waves on the sea of change in Winnipeg, old friends and family keep a close eye on him from afar.
Former teammate and close friend Lonnie Louvar said though the two have lost touch over the years, he keeps track of Burke. The disciplined, hardworking attitude that carried the former J-Hawk through a successful coaching career, Louvar said, was evident even when the two were hanging out around Cedar Rapids as teens.
“Tim was one of those people that was very dedicated, with his personality and his ambitions,” said Louvar, who stuck around the Cedar Rapids area after the two graduated together in ’72. “Knowing Tim when I knew him when we were close, and where he’s gone in life, (his success is) not really a big surprise. Because that’s a quality person I knew, and grew up in my earlier days with.
“That’s hard-wired, the core of Tim, (his integrity). You could just see how it carried on through his life, that I knew and growing up with him, that it was there.”
Louvar was actually part of Burke’s first foray into coaching just after high school, as the two coached sixth and seventh-graders in Cedar Rapids while Burke was at Luther College playing football. He joked that Burke was “his assistant” way back when, and some of his fondest memories were of he and Burke “coaching those kids and seeing them start to learn those basics and start to excel.”
And though Burke would probably prefer the lack of stress that comes with coaching youth football — as opposed to the rebuilding process of a professional team — he’s not about to give up yet.
The integrity friends and teammates like Louvar saw in him at Jefferson, and the accountability he brings to the job guides him as he moves into the next phase of his career in the CFL.
“Fortunately for me, there’s been a lot more winning than losing (over the years),” Burke said. “I just want to be the best I can be in the CFL, and you know, just try to be the best year-in and year-out.”