Staying in house

White's decision to retain Burke paying dividends to women's soccer

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I snuck into a women’s soccer practice two Saturdays ago.

No, I wasn’t there to get a quote from head coach Shawn Burke or catch a secret glimpse of the Bulls. I pushed open the locked gate to the North entrance of the stadium and slipped under the chain to talk about the football team.

As the women’s soccer team – which is currently in first place in the Mid-American conference – dribbled around cones, I was standing on the opposite of the field talking on camera about the football team – which had just lost to an opponent that it was a favorite to beat by 14 points.

After finishing filming a postgame video, I headed out of the stadium at the same time the Bulls were leaving practice.

They, too, had to slip under chain in order to get of UB Stadium. The Bulls dragged their heavy equipment through the narrow channel. One player even threw her bag over her head and above the fence to get it through.

I couldn’t help but smirk. The Bulls are 10-2-3, undefeated in Mid-American Conference play and are on their longest unbeaten streak since 1998. They are the best team on campus right now, and they were locked inside their own stadium.

Would the football team ever face such an obstacle to leave the stadium after practice? Do you think the men’s basketball team was ever locked inside Alumni Arena? But then again, this year’s women soccer team is different from those two teams in terms of recognition, revenue and success on the field.

Even the method in which the women’s soccer team has been constructed is a far different approach than almost every other team on campus.

Athletic Director Danny White has fired eight coaches, including football head coach Jeff Quinn last Monday, since arriving in Buffalo about two and half years ago. He’s brought in a completely new coaching staff almost every time. It’s a common practice in sports for management to ‘clean house’ after a disappointing season.

A team under performs, so the entire coaching staff is fired and the program starts from scratch. It’s the appropriate thing to do when a team consistently under performs. But for all the changes White has made, one of his best moves as Buffalo’s AD thus far is deciding to stay in house when he hired Burke as head coach of the women’s soccer team.

Burke served as an assistant coach under pervious head coach Michael Thomas for five seasons. When White told Thomas he was fired on Nov. 7, 2013, he made the smart decision to not say the same to Burke, allowing the assistant coach to interview for the job.

“I really made a very aggressive pitch to both [Senior Associate Athletic Director] Kathy Twist and Danny White that I wanted to be considered,” Burke said. “Right from the get-go, I stood firm that this wasn’t a rebuilding process, that this current roster had the ability … we had the ability to compete for a MAC Championship right now.”

White is all about winning right now, and he must have recognized Burke, who had knowledge of the roster and an already established relationship with the players, gave Buffalo the best chance to do that in 2014. Burke was announced as head coach of the Bulls Jan. 10, 2014, and so far he has come through on his “aggressive pitch.”

Buffalo is currently ranked No. 65 in the country – its highest ranking in program history. The team is at the top of the conference and has allowed just 10 goals in 15 games this season.

Burke’s success in his first year should not be a surprise. The Bulls thrived the past few seasons in every aspect Burke oversaw as assistant coach.

Buffalo’s goals against average was 0.88 in 2013 with Burke playing a large role in coaching the defense. The Bulls had a GPA of 3.2 the past five seasons with Burke serving as their liaison to academic services. Burke brought in several of Buffalo’s current stars, including freshman goalkeeper Laura Dougall, as the team’s recruiting coordinator.

White recognized Burke was doing his part on his end the past few seasons, and only needed an opportunity. Burke’s success this season is not a matter of him inheriting an already talented team; he has had a major part in developing the Bulls and deserves credit for the current construction of the roster.

He’s also made several key roster decisions that have directly led to the Bulls’ success on the field this season.

It was Burke’s decision to move junior Jackie Hall from the midfield to the center back – a position at which he considers her the best in the MAC. Burke decided to start a true freshman in Dougall in goal this season. Dougall tied the program record for shutouts in a season (10) this weekend.

“I’m very grateful because I know, especially at this level, it was a risky move by Kathy and Danny to put their trust in me in turning this program around,” Burke said.

The “risky” move has paid off. For all the sweeping coaching changes White has made in Buffalo, his best hire so far might be deciding to hire Burke from within.

The Bulls have three games left in the regular season – all at home. It might be your last chance to see a winning team in UB Stadium this season.

Maybe one day I’ll sneak into UB Stadium to film a post game video recapping a women’s soccer team’s game. If there's one team on campus that deserves the recognition right now, it’s them.

email: tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com