Tirrel Burton wasn't rich or famous - just loyal, respected, and good hearted - John U. Bacon Tirrel Burton wasn't rich or famous - just loyal, respected, and good hearted - John U. Bacon
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Tirrel Burton wasn’t rich or famous — just loyal, respected, and good hearted

Today, big time college football coaches are media stars, with thousands of followers on Twitter. They’re rich and famous, whether they should be or not. Even assistant coaches are millionaires. But it wasn’t always that way.

This week in Ann Arbor a few hundred people gathered to remember a college football coach who wasn’t rich or famous. But he’d earned the respect of everyone there.

His name was Tirrel Burton, but don’t feel bad if you don’t know him. He seemed to go out of his way to avoid the spotlight.

Burton was born in 1929, and grew up in Oxford, Ohio, home of Miami University. He was a serious student and a great athlete, but 70 years ago, those skills didn’t automatically get you into college. So, Burton joined the Army instead, then used the G-I Bill to enroll at Miami as a 22-year old freshman.

As a senior, Burton led the football team in kick-off returns, punt-returns, rushing, scoring, and interceptions. Bo Schembechler said Burton was the best tailback Miami of Ohio ever hadand Bo knew that because he was coaching at Bowling Green when Burton was running through his defense.

When Bo told Tirrell’s wife, Sue, that nobody could catch her husband, she said, “I did!”

“Unfortunately,” Bo said, “we didn’t have Sue Burton on scholarship at Bowling Green.”

Miami went undefeated that season, but received no bowl invitations. In 1955, Southern teams wouldn’t play against black players like Burton. I can only imagine what he had to deal with over the decades, but I never heard him say a word about it. He just kept going.

The next spring, NFL teams showed some interest, but he signed up with the Ottawa Roughriders in the Canadian Football League. In his first year, he led his team in running, receiving, and kick-returning, and led the league with eight interceptions. But he returned the next year to Ohio to teach and coach at a junior high school, and raise his two children with Sue.

After earning his master’s degree in 1962, Burton rose through the coaching ranks. In 1970, Schembecher hired him at Michigan for a whopping $11,000 – about five percent of what they make now. Burton coached the wide receivers, then the tailbacks, many of them All-Americans.

Coach Burton was not a man you wanted to disappoint, but if you did what he asked, he would defend you – even against the famously demanding Schembechler. If Schembechler caught one of Coach Burton’s players missing a block, he’d ask Burton, “Now, what the hell happened there?”

On a staff prone to yelling and screaming, Burton was the quiet one. “That’s my fault,” he’d say. “I’ll fix it.” And that’s all Schembechler needed to hear.

Over the years, other teams offered Burton higher pay and a higher profile. But he always turned them down to stay at Michigan.

Burton earned 12 Big Ten title rings under Schembechler, and three more after Bo retired. When Burton finally stepped down after the 1994 season, he turned his competitive drive to golf, where he shot in the seventies.

He was one of the few men I know who could give Schembechler a hard time, and get away with it. I was sitting in Schembechler’s office one day when Burton strolled in. Schembechler immediately challenged him. “Burton! If you had a back-bone in your body — which you don’t! — if you weren’t gutless, yellow and just plain scared, Burton — you’d be MAN enough to do battle with Bo Schembechler on the golf course.”

“So long as I give you 14 strokes?” Burton asked, with a grin.

“Yeah, that too,” Schembechler mumbled.

Burton always carried himself with a quiet dignity, fully confident without an ounce of cockiness. He had an honest face, and no agenda. He never resorted to gossip, and no one can recall him saying a bad word about anyone. Being around Coach Burton made you want to be a better person.

Last week, Tirrel Burton died of a heart attack, at age 87. His funeral included big names like Jim Harbaugh, and eulogies by Jack Harbaugh, Jerry Hanlon, and three of his former players. He was surrounded by his wife, his kids, and hundreds of people who had known him for years, and loved him for who he was.

Tirrel Burton was not rich, or famous, but he never cared about those things. What he cared about were loyalty, respect, and the people around him. I like to think those things still matter more.

Coach Burton’s funeral suggested they do.

* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their FULL name. 

My latest book, “ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” debuted at #6 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, and is still going very strong. The paperback version,with 57 pages of new interviews with Harbaugh and others, is out. Literati and Nicola’s have signed copies

Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.

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8 comments Leave a comment  

  • Woody Stover January 27, 2017 at 8:00 am

    I knew Terrel through recruiting; we met in the summer of 1976. A true gentlemen … and the consummate Michigan Man. Just a quick story: A while back, Terrel and I both parked in the area surrounding Michigan stadium for Michigan basketball games. At that time you would exit through the north gate. We both arrived at essentially the same time but from different directions. As we approached the gate we both sort of tried to go first … it was a little slippery … and ultimately our bumpers gently hit one another. We both got out of our cars … I said “sorry” … when he recognized me he said: “Oh, no problem, it was nice to run into ya!” A good man.

  • Jim Peters January 27, 2017 at 9:28 am

    Great blog today. I happen to live right next door to the Zion Lutheran church and I’ve never seen a longer funeral procession than the one for Tirrel Burton last weekend. He was a great man.


    Jim Peters
    1421 W Liberty St
    Ann Arbor

  • Robert Martens January 27, 2017 at 11:28 am

    Thanks (again), Bakes!

  • Jamie Buhr January 27, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    Hi John,
    Happy New Year!
    Thanks for another inspiring article on an exemplary man and a life well lived! A perfect reminder to make my annual contribution to your blog and to look forward to another year of information and provocative opinions. Thanks for all of the past entertainment! Best! Jamie Buhr

  • JACK HAMMYour name (Required) January 27, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Message (Required)




  • johnubacon January 27, 2017 at 2:49 pm

    Great thanks, Jamie, for the kind words, support, and generosity. Keeps the blog going!

  • Ross ChildsYour name (Required) January 28, 2017 at 2:21 am

    John, GREAT ARTICLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Tirrel had all the qualities of a GREAT MICHIGAN MAN.
    Thank you for telling his life story so well.Message (Required)

  • Dwight Tillery March 8, 2018 at 8:06 pm

    I just sat down to watch television and coach Burton came to my mind. I googled his bio and just found out that he had passed. Seven years ago, I googled his name and got his phone number. I called his house and asked Mrs. Burton if I could speak with him. She said he was playing golf. I left my number but I didn’t receive a return call. I met Coach Burton at my high school—Withrow. He was a track and football coach. While I didn’t play sports in high school, many of my friends did and I knew him as well. He was a great coach and the description of him in this article about him is exactly how I knew him. As a young black teenager in the sixties, there were few black coaches but he had a presence of all the qualities described so well.

    But there was a special reason why I called Coach Burton. I came to Michigan to attend law school. Doing my first year, I drove to Bowling Green to see my girlfriend who was visiting her sister. On my way back, I was pulled over for speeding and taken to jail to pay the ticket. I had no money on me and the officer said if I couldn’t pay the ticket, I would be locked up until the next day and appear before the judge. I called a couple classmates but couldn’t reach them so I decided to call Coach Burton although he had no idea that I was attending school at Michigan. He answered the phone and I shared my predicament. He arrived at the police station within forty minutes and paid the ticket. I offered to pay him back but he smile and said just study hard. This was nineteen seventy and we never spoke since then.

    I called to tell him how much I appreciated him for keeping me from being locked up and what I’ve down with my life. I’ve been a lawyer more than forty years and was the first elected African American Mayor of Cincinnnati. I knew he wanted especially black kids to do something positive with their lives. I’m deeply saddened that we didn’t get to talk but happy that he was a role model for me. I know I made him proud.


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