From red to blue to red: Chris Burgess’ journey back to his alma mater from its biggest rival
Former Runnin’ Utes star goes in-depth on his reasons for leaving BYU for Utah, and what the reaction has been like from Cougar fans
A few years ago, Chris Burgess and his family adopted a Great Dane that its previous owners had named “Blue.”
That moniker was entirely appropriate for the family’s second dog, because Burgess was an assistant coach on Mark Pope’s staff at BYU.
Now that Burgess has returned to the University of Utah, where he played under Rick Majerus from 2000-02 and is now an assistant on second-year head coach Craig Smith’s staff, the question is naturally being asked: Will Blue get a new name? Something like Red, perhaps?
The answer is no, but not because Burgess is hesitant to sever ties with his employer the past three years.
“I am actually a really big diehard Los Angeles Dodgers fan,” he said. “So, Dodger Blue. It is still a fitting name for our household.”
“Whether it has been from my ward, or in the grocery store, or even like at my kids’ club team events — volleyball, baseball, basketball — people have just been super appreciative, and well-wishing.” — Chris Burgess on move from BYU to Utah
The Burgess’ other dog is a Weimaraner named after the Batman villain, Bane.
But while Burgess has made the headline-grabbing move to the U., a move finalized on April 19 but in the works for several weeks prior to that, Blue and Bane are staying put.
Burgess said his family plans to remain living in the northern Utah County town of Alpine, where they have lived the past two years, and he will make the 45-minute commute to Salt Lake City. Part of the reason is that Lesa and Chris’ second daughter, Zoey, is going to be a junior at Lone Peak High this fall and is a valued member of the Knights’ two-time 6A state champion volleyball team.
“They are going to be really, really good, and I don’t want to take her out of that,” Burgess said. “She loves the area we are in and so I just figure I could do an extra 10-minute drive to Salt Lake so my kid can have some consistency with her schooling and (volleyball) career.”
Besides, the coach figures, now is not the best time to be house-hunting, given the current state of the Utah real estate market. Coincidentally, BYU football offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, who once coached at Utah, still lives near the U. and makes the daily hour drive to Provo.
“You do what you have to do,” Burgess said. “I am comfortable with where I am at. I am just going to make the commute.”
Of course, the Burgess’ oldest volleyball-playing daughter, Kelli Jo “KJ” Burgess, signed with Utah last fall and has been living in the dorms at the U. since January.
“It is fun having her next door,” Burgess said. “She can come and say hi and I can drop in on her. I can do class checks for the volleyball team, one particular player. It is a lot of fun.”
Chris and Lesa Burgess (who played soccer for the University of Utah) have three other kids: daughter Ava and sons Beckham and Zachary.
Smith said he first met Burgess after he was hired in 2018 to be Utah State’s head coach and developed “an instant connection” with the former Ute who had returned to Utah in 2013-14 to finish out his undergraduate degree and serve as a student assistant under former Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak.
Smith and Burgess often crossed paths on the recruiting trail, watching a lot of the same teams on the AAU circuit, and competing against each other when Burgess was at UVU and then BYU.
“You just build relationships with people,” Smith said. “I have always been a relationship guy. … Everywhere you go — and I have been in this state for four years — Chris Burgess’ name gets brought up. He is not a transactional guy. He is a relationship person, and that matters.”
The bottom line, Smith said in May, is that Burgess is the “total package” and was everything he was looking for when top assistant Eric Peterson left to become the new head coach at the University of South Dakota.
“At the end of the day, he is a very good coach, a very good recruiter, and a phenomenal person,” Smith said.
Immediately after getting hired, Burgess was able to get in three days of workouts with Utah’s returning players, most notably center Branden Carlson, before finals week in late April. Since then, he’s been on the road recruiting and watching a lot of film of last year’s games to become more familiar with the Utes’ personnel.
He will be on campus this week for high school team camps, then begin workouts with both the returning players and newcomers next week.
He’s been on the job for about six weeks now after signing a two-year contract that will pay him $265,000 annually, according to documents obtained by the Deseret News.
Burgess recently spoke to the news outlet about what the transition has been like, the talent level he found at Utah, the reaction to his move from folks on both sides of the rivalry, and a variety of other topics.
‘Positive feedback all the way around’
Burgess’ unique role in the Utah-BYU basketball rivalry, and the state’s college basketball lore, is well-documented. From the time he spurned then-BYU coach Roger Reid and signed with Duke in 1997 to the time he spurned the Cougars a second time in 2000 and transferred from Duke to rival Utah, he has been a central figure in the storyline.
The intrigue deepened in 2019 when Burgess followed Pope from Utah Valley University to BYU, and coached and recruited against his alma mater in 2019, 2020 and 2021, going 2-1 against the Utes from the Cougars sidelines.
This year’s game is at the Marriott Center in Provo on Dec. 17. Burgess said he has received nothing but “positive feedback all the way around” regarding his move and BYU fans have been “amazing to me” the last three years.
“Whether it has been from my ward, or in the grocery store, or even like at my kids’ club team events — volleyball, baseball, basketball — people have just been super appreciative, and well-wishing,” he said. “And of course, all my former teammates that I got to play with during those three years at Utah have reached out. They are excited. It has been more positive than I could have asked for.”
Burgess said he tried to do things the right way at UVU and BYU, and figures the goodwill he generated by helping the Wolverines and Cougars post multiple successful seasons has helped. He penned a letter to “Cougar Nation” via Twitter in the days following his move and thanked fans for the experience.
“BYU holds a special place in my heart as one of the great experiences of my career,” he wrote. “I am forever grateful for the opportunity afforded to me to be part of such a great university, culture and basketball program.”
Former teammates and Ute alums such as Alex Jensen, Hanno Mottola, Jeff Johnsen, Britton Johnsen, Lance Allred, Nick Jacobson and Josh Grant are among those who have reached out, Burgess said.
Former coaches such as Dick Hunsaker and Jeff Strohm have told him how excited they are to see him back on the Hill.
“It has been overwhelmingly positive, and it has made me feel like it is my responsibility to the alumni and to the former players to help build this place back to where it belongs,” he said. “That’s been weighing on me. I feel a ton of responsibility to those guys.”
Secrets to his success
Burgess played for one of the most polarizing figures in the Utah-BYU rivalry, Majerus, but somehow he has managed to be as well-liked on both sides as any coach in the state. What’s his secret?
He’s not sure, but thinks it might have something to do with his relatability. Burgess has been known to do his homework on what makes recruits and players tick off the court, and uses that in his recruiting and relationship building. For instance, he once told Britton Johnsen that he landed a recruit despite never talking about basketball, instead focusing on topics such as “Star Wars” and science fiction movies, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
“First of all, I think that one of my strengths is building harmony. I am really comfortable when everyone is getting along, and there is no contention,” Burgess said. “I try to go about my business, whether it is professional, family, friends, where I am relatable.
“One of my strengths is relating to people, and getting along with people, and listening to people, and trying to relate to them in terms of any story I can bring to the table. At the end of the day, I am around a lot of basketball people, and I have been around the game my whole life. I think when you take time out to really listen to people, and really ask questions and get to know them, you build a sense of trust and a solid connection.”
Although Majerus played a big role in his development as a player, Burgess credits former Utah Valley head coach Dick Hunsaker with teaching him about how to be a coach. Hunsaker was an assistant under Majerus at Utah from 1998-00, then became the interim head coach in 2000-01 when Majerus took the second half of the season off to help his mother get through cancer surgery and recover from his own heart surgery.
“The last three years, (Hunsaker) has come down to BYU practices and has been a huge mentor to me. … To be able to sit with him over the last three years, and talk basketball and talk about certain things — we have been really close,” Burgess said. “He is a huge father figure to me.”
Burgess says when he was playing overseas he contacted Hunsaker for advice about getting into coaching and Hunsaker told him to play as long as he could, then worry about that later.
“He was really good to me my three years there (at Utah) and he has been really good to me my three years at BYU. So it has been fun,” Burgess said.
Why leave BYU for Utah?
Burgess said he “definitely wasn’t looking” to leave BYU, and for sure wasn’t out searching for another job before the opening came at Utah. And he especially didn’t take the job because it pays more than $100,000 more than he was making at BYU.
“I loved where I was at. BYU was in a transition for almost a year, when we found out we were going to the Big 12, and I was super excited to make that transition,” he said. “It is almost like you get to move up, as an assistant coach, from a mid-major university to a high-major university without changing jobs, without changing locations. And that is hard to do. So I was not looking. I loved the people I worked with. I loved the people that were coming back on our roster.”
Burgess said he was excited about the recruits BYU had coming in, guys he helped recruit to Provo who are there now, or on church missions. But shortly after Peterson departed, he was contacted by Smith, and “all of a sudden” the process began.
“It was a long process, as people probably know, just because of how hard and difficult of a decision it was at the time, right?” Burgess said. “With where I was at, and the love I had for BYU and coach (Mark) Pope, it was really hard. And change is really hard.”
Burgess said moves from Indian Hills Junior College to Utah Valley and Utah Valley to BYU were relatively easy decisions, but this one “was probably the hardest of all, because of the people I was leaving.”
However, the more he chatted with Smith, and the more he realized he could expand his resume and “learning reservoir,” the more he caught Smith’s vision of what his alma mater could become in the Pac-12, the more the move made sense.
“The fact that it was my alma mater and the fact that I don’t have to move, and am in the same state, that all was just stuff that was an added bonus,” he said. “I have been a fan of coach Smith for a long time, having gone against his teams at Utah State and the University of Utah. So, sitting with him at gyms, and sitting near him, I developed that. … Everything kinda lined up and once the dust had all settled, I was like, ‘I am excited, let’s do this.’”
Burgess makes no bones about it: His goal is to one day become a head college basketball coach.
There is considerable debate whether the move gets him closer to that goal, but Burgess believes having Pac-12 coaching experience on his resume’ can’t hurt.
Burgess will work with the bigs at Utah, just as he did at BYU. Back in April, he spent a lot of time working with Carlson, the 7-footer who was the 11th leading scorer in the Pac-12 in 2021-22 at 13.6 points per game. He is excited to work with incoming players Ben Carlson of Wisconsin and Keba Keita of Wasatch Academy.
𝗪𝗘𝗟𝗖𝗢𝗠𝗘 𝗛𝗢𝗠𝗘, @chrisburgess34!!— Utah Basketball (@UtahMBB) April 19, 2022
» https://t.co/zSkUvrD82L#GoUtes | #Pac12MBB pic.twitter.com/Ac8mY4ixXA
“That’s another thing that worked perfectly,” Burgess said. “Coach Peterson worked with the bigs. I can step into the role that he had and was doing for coach Smith for a long time. I am comfortable working with everyone. But obviously I played at that spot, and I have been well-mentored and taught at that spot as a coach, from coach Pope and the coaches I got to play with for a long time. The game has changed, but that’s what I do best.”
It has been a whirlwind for the coach since Smith offered him the job. He tells a story about how within the space of two weeks in April he was wearing “Cougar Blue” and recruiting for BYU at an Under Armor event in Indianapolis, then wearing the black and red of the University of Utah and recruiting in Atlanta for the Runnin’ Utes.
“My wardrobe has kinda changed,” he said.
But his beloved dog’s name hasn’t. Not yet, anyway.