RCW: Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk: Cheryl Burnett
Timing. Trust it.
For Cheryl Burnett, it’s evident from the onset that timing played a critical role in her beautiful story.
Being a small-town girl from Centralia, Missouri, Burnett wasn’t on most college coaches’ radar.
In fact, at the time, few coaches invested any time or money into recruiting at all.
“Players simply went to college and then chose to play,” Burnett said. “It wasn’t until 1976 that coaches started to recruit because colleges were first getting scholarships.”
Burnett’s story of becoming a Jayhawk starts with how Kansas recruited her.
“I was a little country kid from a very small town in the middle of Missouri, and the only way Kansas ever saw me was because one of the assistant coaches by the name of Shelia Moorman was working a camp,” Burnett recalled. “So, later in my playing career at Centralia High School, this assistant coach, Moorman—who went on to become a great coach herself—was the reason I was recruited to Kansas.”
Despite the early adversity associated with being from a small town during a period where recruiting hardly happened in the first place, Burnett still found her way to Lawrence, Kansas, where she helped galvanize the women’s basketball program.
Not only did Burnett become an instrumental piece to the Kansas women’s basketball team, she also broke a transformational barrier in becoming the first KU female granted a full-ride athletic scholarship.
In doing so, Burnett opened the door for thousands more female student-athletes to follow in her footsteps as a scholarship athlete at the University of Kansas. Burnett is adamant it was all about good timing though.
“I’ve been blessed to be the age that I am due to Title IX,” she said. “I wasn’t the best player and that’s where I go to someone like Adrian Mitchell-Newell, who was much more talented in every way than I was, but I was just at the time where Title IX created the opportunity for the coaches to offer it to me rather than somebody like Adrian who had already been in the program.”
There’s “irony” to the story that many people have never heard.
Initially, the scholarship was intended for another young basketball phenom.
“Here’s the irony,” Burnett explained. “LeAnn Wilcox was from KC and we went to basketball camp together and we would have loved to have played together. Sure enough, Kansas was offering her the scholarship and I was next in line. LeAnn turned Kansas down to go to Kansas State. So, the irony is, the first (KU women’s athletic) scholarship could have been (to) LeAnn Wilcox, but she became the first at Kansas State. So, I could very well have not been that very first full-ride scholarship.”
Fortuitous timing provided Burnett an opportunity of a lifetime, which the humble guard made the most of and then some.
Under the leadership of Marian Washington, the Jayhawks were coming off two-consecutive losing seasons.
Burnett’s first year at KU (1976) certainly was not short on obstacles. The Jayhawks finished 11-15, which appeared to be a step backward from their 13-14 campaign a year prior.
Despite the sub-par record, Burnett made an immediate impact, averaging a career-high 10 points per game as well as playing stifling defense for the Jayhawks.
Expectations for the women’s team entering 1977-78 were certainly much higher than they had been in prior years. Not only did Kansas have Burnett returning, but they also added a player who would become major college basketball’s career women’s scoring leader in Lynette Woodard (3,649 points from 1977-81).
“I had the tremendous honor of having a teammate by the name of Lynette Woodard,” Burnett reflected. “I also had the pleasure of playing with Adrian Mitchell.”
Adrian Mitchell—whose jersey will officially be retired on Sunday, January 28 when the Jayhawks take on rival Kansas State—ranks second in Kansas history for points scored with 2,124, behind Woodard, whose jersey already hangs in the Allen Fieldhouse rafters.
Clearly, this collection of young talent had the potential to put Kansas women’s basketball on the national radar and they certainly did not disappoint.
Burnett’s second year on the team featured the biggest two-year turnaround in program history. With legendary coach Washington still leading the way, the Jayhawks finished the season 22-11 and participated in postseason play for the first time since Marlene Mawson was Kansas’ head coach in 1970.
While Woodard and Mitchell brought the scoring punch, Burnett found her niche elsewhere.
“My impact was first defensively, then my ability to pass and certainly my ability to foul, as I was the all-time foul leader for quite some time at KU; I didn’t want to waste any of those fouls,” Burnett joked. “Lastly, leadership.”
The same leadership that Burnett brought to the Jayhawks every day for four seasons is the same that helped her later on in life, when she achieved tremendous success in the coaching ranks.
On one road trip, the Jayhawks were set to take on Old Dominion and Nancy Lieberman, also known as “Lady Magic” (a nod to Earvin “Magic” Johnson).
It was a privilege for a relatively unknown Kansas program to venture to Virginia for a tilt with such a well-respected program which contained one of the nation’s top talents in Lieberman.
Sure enough, Washington and her staff called upon Burnett to take on the tall task of covering “Lady Magic.”
Naturally, the Centralia, Missouri native welcomed the challenge.
Burnett hopes that her teammates, coaches, and fans remember her for both the defensive intensity and hard work that she brought with her to the hardwood.
According to Burnett, it was “The blue-collar part of the game, not the flash part of the game,” that allowed her to succeed at such a high level. While defense was her primary focus on the court, she was enough of a scoring threat that opponents had to respect her offensive skill set as well.
This versatility and dependability gave Burnett the “it” factor that coaches and experts often refer to when discussing athletes.
Between Woodard, Mitchell and Burnett’s combined talents on the floor and the vision of Washington, the Jayhawks finished the 1978-79 season with a 30-8 record, good for the most single-season victories in program history.
More than anything else, Burnett believes that historical season and program turnaround was the culmination of Kansas’ coaching staff’s great recruiting efforts. Over the years, Washington had become well-known as a pioneer of recruiting nationally and it paid clear dividends for the Jayhawks that season.
Burnett capped off her iconic Jayhawk career with a 29-8 senior season, which featured a third-consecutive postseason appearance for the team.
From Dr. James Naismith to Dr. Phog Allen to John McLendon to Marlene Mawson and beyond, basketball’s influence on the University of Kansas and conversely, KU’s influence on the game basketball is powerful beyond measure.
Burnett embraced this history in a unique way during her time as a Jayhawk.
“I used to go up into Allen Fieldhouse and sit in one of the top corners,” she recalled. “Of course, I’d sit on a #10 seat because that was my number, and I would sit up there and think about the history of basketball at the University of Kansas and how I wanted to represent that incredible history as a player and as a person.”
It’s tough to think of someone who represents what it means to be a Kansas Jayhawk more so than Burnett. The grit and tenacity she displayed on the court as a player carried over into her post-playing days career: coaching.
“I had known from a very young age (that) I wanted to coach,” Burnett explained. “One of the greatest influences of my life was my high school coach, Jim Enlow.”
Enlow coached both the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams at Centralia High School for over 30 years. He was known to take the boys on the road to scout, but never took the girls along. That was until one of his prodigies, Burnett, questioned his tactics during her freshman year at CHS and things changed quickly after that.
“By golly, he put me in the car with all the guys and him and we went to scout tournaments,” Burnett remembered. “I wanted to be like Coach Enlow; not only just to coach, but because I could see the impact he had on others’ lives and that’s what I love about sports.”
Burnett continued that sentiment when she said, “Basketball has been my passion my entire life and I knew I was going to coach from that moment forward. I just didn’t know where.”
Many believe it was at Lawrence High School that Burnett’s basketball coaching career began, but she says that’s a common misconception.
Instead, to complete her education degree at KU, Burnett spent a semester at LHS assisting with the volleyball team, a sport which she knew nothing about.
It was during her stint at Lawrence High that Cheryl met future Kansas Athletic Director, Dr. Bob Frederick. Frederick wound up at Illinois State, a school which Burnett would compete against annually later in her coaching years.
“Again, (it was the) right time, right place,” Burnett said. “Back to Leanne Wilcox, we played Kansas State five times a year. I played against one of my best friends five times a year! Their assistant coach, Jane Schroeder, got the head coaching job at the University of Illinois and ironically I ended up working for them.”
Despite being long-time rivals, Schroeder and her staff recognized and respected the way Burnett played the game enough to offer her a graduate assistant position at Illinois.
Similar to the opportunity to become the first female scholarship athlete at Kansas, Burnett once again prospered from what she deems “lucky timing.”
It did not take long for Burnett to display her potential in Champaign on the sidelines for the Illini. Schroeder offered Burnett a full-time role after just a semester and from that point, Burnett never looked back.
While her time at Illinois was short—just three years—Burnett and the rest of the staff led Illinois to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 1981-82.
As exciting as that accomplishment was for the Illini coaching staff, that’s when an opportunity to return home arose for Burnett.
“Of course, with Missouri being my home state, I chose to come back to Southwest Missouri State as an assistant,” she explained.
After working as an assistant coach for three more years, this time under Valerie Goodwin, Burnett could once again sense a new opportunity on the horizon.
Goodwin departed for the University of Oklahoma in 1987, which wound up being immaculate timing for Burnett.
“It opened the door for an assistant coach, who was there for three years, to interview for the job. Why Dr. Mary Jo Wynn ever hired an assistant coach, I’ll never know,” Burnett said.
Clearly, Wynn saw in Burnett what many others have throughout her life.
The blue-collar work ethic that made Burnett such a valuable player on the court herself was having the same impact on her coaching career.
It wasn’t sunshine and rainbows right away for her at Southwest Missouri State, however.
“It took a while to get the program established because at the time, not too long before I was there, it was a DII (program) moving to DI,” Burnett explained.
Despite the tremendous challenge of transitioning from the Division II ranks to Division I, the school’s administrative support staff did everything they could to set Burnett up to succeed.
And succeed she did.
“I always say that the stars aligned,” said Burnett regarding her 15 years at the helm of the Bears in Springfield.
Not only did the program lead the nation in attendance—due in large part to a support group called the Fast Break Club—Southwest Missouri State was also the first women’s basketball program to be featured live on ESPN.
“I can still remember the day our administrator walked into my office and asked, ‘Hey how would you like to be the first women’s program on live ESPN?’ Of course, I said, ‘Awesome!’ Then they said, starting time: midnight. So, we played a live game at midnight in Springfield, Missouri, and sold out,” Burnett recalled.
Another barrier broken for the legend.
Coaches from across the country would reach out to Burnett and ask what her secret to success was.
“People wanted to know how we built the club,” Burnett recalled. “How we got the fans, how we got the players in such great shape and then how we got our players to play so hard.”
For Southwest Missouri State women’s basketball, it all began with the type of student-athlete the coaches recruited.
Burnett and her staff prided themselves in their pursuit of A-students, overachievers in the classroom, socially as well as individuals with a spiritual base of some type that, “Created an infinite ability to believe and of course they had to be team oriented. They had to make sacrifices for their team.”
This approach was a fundamental reason Burnett’s teams thrived during her 15 years at the helm of the program for Southwest Missouri State.
Burnett’s teams won nine Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) championships during her time in Springfield. Additionally, they received invitations to the NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Tournament 10 times and advanced to the Final Four in 1992 and 2001.
In those 15 seasons, she compiled a sensational record of 319-136 (.701 winning percentage).
Burnett also played a pivotal role in developing Jackie Stiles at Southwest Missouri State from 1998-2001. Stiles set the NCAA career scoring record with 3,393 points, a record that held up until February of 2017.
Despite offers from top tier women’s basketball programs across the country, Stiles ultimately chose to take her talents to Springfield, Missouri. This is due in large part to the recruiting efforts Burnett and her staff employed. While everyone else was recruiting eighth graders and high schoolers, SMSU assistant coach Lynette Robinson—a former player at Illinois—entered a small Kansas gym filled with fifth graders in the middle of the summer. Sure enough, that’s where Stiles was playing.
“Jackie was a coach’s dream,” Burnett said. “I’m not sure she didn’t teach us more than we taught her.”
Burnett eloquently stated, “What an honor to have played with Lynette Woodard, who would probably be one of the all-time scoring leaders and then being able to coach Jackie Stiles, who was the all-time leader for years…right place, right time.”
From receiving the first full female athletic scholarship at KU to the GA position at Illinois to the opportunity to return home to Missouri to do what she loved: developing strong, successful women, timing was clearly the common denominator in Cheryl Burnett’s story.
Burnett retired from the game she dedicated her life to in March of 2007.
While deep down her ultimate dream was always to return to the University of Kansas in a coaching role, she says her coaching days are done.
“I can’t work that hard. (I) Did it for 30 years and it’s somebody else’s turn. I’m just enjoying living vicariously through (past players and assistants), I call them my kids,” Burnett explained.
What Cheryl Burnett did not only for women’s college basketball, but all of women’s athletics at the University of Kansas and beyond cannot be understated. The circuitous nature of life led her on a ride that impacted hundreds of young women’s lives.
While Burnett may never be seen on a bench again, her legacy will continue to live on through the careers of her “kids.”
All thanks to timing.
Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk.