Editor’s note: Second in a two-part series.
PROVO— Chris Burgess is a smooth, articulate, passionate basketball coach. He could recruit for Timpview High, Michigan State or the Flying Leopards of Liaoning, China, if asked.
But today, Burgess recruits for BYU, a school he rejected for Duke out of high school, and again after leaving the Blue Devils for the University of Utah as a frustrated collegian in Durham.
It makes you want to be a receptor in his brain. What’s he thinking?
Today, Burgess dons the blue and white with that oval Y logo, and like BYU women’s coach Jeff Judkins, a former Ute All-American, he accepts the ribbing from the Crimson world. But when it comes to selling BYU basketball, he’s a corporate man with a job to do, evidenced by his work recruiting Purdue senior transfer Matt Haarms, signing the 7-foot-3 Dutch shot-blocker away from the likes of Kentucky, Texas Tech and Gonzaga.
“It’s all about fit,” claimed Burgess.
BYU head coach Mark Pope, Burgess and the rest of BYU’s staff are finding their share of “fits” the past 12 months, including getting Yoeli Childs and Jake Toolson to the fold. BYU is in the mix with Texas Tech, Auburn, USC and Memphis for Georgetown combo guard and Youtube sensation Mac McClung.
Late efforts brought Eamonn Brennan, college columnist for The Athletic to write: “That (BYU) is a program (like Gonzaga) in a mid-major conference that isn’t all that much of a mid-major in any structural sense, and no: there’s no real reason BYU couldn’t become a powerhouse. It’s starting to feel like it’s on its way already.”
Burgess, you may recall, was one of the top high school recruits in the country at Woodbridge High in Orange County, California, in the mid-1990s and was pursued heavily by all the big programs. Because of his faith as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU was in the mix throughout the process. Until it lost to Duke.
Now, as a BYU assistant coach and recruiter, Burgess has a litany of whiteboard pitches he employs. They all fit like a puzzle, are easily communicated, and can be easily deployed to make sense in a millennial world.
Burgess said regardless if he were working for Duke, Utah or BYU, he’d sell “The Fit.”
“I still sell what we really do well as a staff. I sell what this university represents. I talk about the success we’ve had in player stories at both Utah Valley and this past season at BYU. I sell player stories and at the same time we try and get to know these kids.
“We’re trying to sell these guys to come to play for BYU. We’re also trying to make sure it’s the right fit. It’s pretty common knowledge we landed a big-time recruit in Matt Haarms and we missed out on some others because it didn’t fit for them,” said Burgess.
BYU has to recruit right now, due to COVID-19 restrictions, through virtual reality campus tours, online contact (Zoom or Internet chat), analytics, film study and style of play.
“We sell what we have. I look at coach Pope and he’s as good as it comes when he talks about our staff in what we’ve done and accomplished in terms of being former players,” he said. “Nick Robinson, being a No. 1 seed, hitting inarguably the greatest shot in Stanford history against Arizona.
“He sells that I played at Duke for Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) and Rick Majerus, both Hall of Fame coaches who played in a national championship game, that I have many contacts throughout the NBA who are close friends and former roommates of mine and what it means to have a connection there and feedback from them.
“We talk about and sell things like that, things we’ve done,” he continued. “Obviously, as an assistant, I can sell coach Pope in terms of his career, winning a national championship, Pac-10 freshman of the year, playing in the NBA. It’s been pretty fun to tell them, ‘Hey, when you’re watching “The Last Dance” make sure you watch closely on that Indiana Pacers team in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals and you might see coach (Pope) with a shaved head.’”
Burgess said the fact he, Pope and Robinson went to these schools and had experiences and also had professional experience sell, regardless of where they went to college.
Burgess believes he’s especially effective at talking to recruits who are transferring. He’s done that extensively at UVU and BYU.
“I tell kids and parents I can relate. I’m like, ‘I’ve stood in your son’s shoes,’ or ‘I’ve been in your shoes. For whatever reason, you’re leaving and it didn’t work out the way you’d hoped. There’s obviously no bitterness and you’re looking for a fresh start.’ Or, ‘You’re looking to be fixed; you are a little broken.’”
Burgess can speak from his heart to a transfer when he describes how he was broken at Duke, promised things that didn’t happen, and was trying to find himself.
“I was broken as much as a student-athlete could have been at Duke. I was looking for a new spot. I didn’t realize it until 20 years later, but I was looking to be fixed. — Chris Burgess
“I was broken as much as a student-athlete could have been at Duke,” said Burgess. “I was looking for a new spot. I didn’t realize it until 20 years later, but I was looking to be fixed. I think player stories like Isaac Nelson’s story when he transferred, Jake Toolson, when he transferred (both from BYU to UVU). Toolson did transfer back, but I’ve been in their shoes trying to find a new spot, a new place, a new coach who believes in them and can help them reach their goals.”
Burgess said he gets into a mindset with transfers that he’s not really selling at all, he’s simply trying to help them right themselves and their careers because he knows how they feel.
That can be a powerful elixir. Ask Haarms.
“I’m just talking. I’m just relating to them, genuinely talking to them about potentially having to sit out a year and hopefully turn their career around.”
The transfer portal has blown up in college basketball. Players are transient, many of them very good prospects, others looking for what Pope calls “to be fixed.”
This has proven a key strategy for Pope and his staff heading into their second year. Conference rival Gonzaga is replete with transfers from other programs — many of them elite high school talent back in the day.
“Grad transfers have one year left. I remember being a senior,” Burgess told Jeff Call of the Deseret News.
“You have a personal agenda because it’s your last year so it’s human nature to have a personal agenda,” Burgess said. “It’s OK to have a personal agenda but does it fit with the team? Can they fit with the honor code and what we stand for? One of the first things we talk about to recruits is what the university represents. We think we’re going to win and get the right kids, like Alex Barcello and Jake Toolson, because of what the honor code represents.
“We want those kids. That’s what we’re looking for. We want to get the best players. We want to add depth at certain positions and get someone that’s going to come in and play. There’s no reason to get a grad transfer that’s going to sit on the bench. We want players that are good enough to come in, help us, and be in the rotation.”
Pope, Burgess and Robinson. Outsiders chasing recruits for BYU.
Especially when there’s passion, energy and relentless chasing of targets.