GRIDIRON: Wally’s World — Burnham builds ISU defense


Photo: Huiling Wu/Iowa State Daily

Defensive coach Wally Burnham sits down for an interview Thursday, Oct. 4, at his office. 

Jake Calhoun

With a hunched back and eyes asymmetrical on his face, one would think 48 years of coaching have taken too much of a toll on Wally Burnham.

Now in his fourth year at Iowa State, however, Burnham is still going strong as the team’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Through five games this season, Burnham’s defense has given up one less yard per play and almost 80 less yards per game than the past three seasons combined.

In some respects, Wally Burnham is a mad man. That’s why his players love him.

“Coach Wally, he’s an old school coach — one of those tough-love coaches — but he’s willing to help you if you’re willing to get better,” said junior linebacker Jeremiah George. “When you have a coach like that who’s passionate, you’ll do anything for him.”

Despite his modest demeanor and appearance — very rarely will he be seen not wearing shorts — Burnham’s resume contains some eye-popping bullet points.

Burnham served as an assistant to Bobby Bowden, college football’s all-time winningest coach, at Florida State from 1985 to 1993. It was there that Burnham helped the Seminoles win a national championship in 1993.

Burnham has coached numerous players that have gone on to successful careers in the NFL, including Hall-of-Fame defensive back Deion Sanders and perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks, among others.

In Burnham’s time as a defensive coordinator before arriving at Iowa State, his installation of the 4-3 defense at South Carolina and South Florida paid dividends. Burnham’s defense at South Carolina saw massive improvements in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference, while his defense at South Florida ranked in the top 30 in six of his seven years there.

All those accolades were thanks to Burnham’s defensive philosophy that paralleled that of coach Paul Rhoads, who served as a defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and Auburn, of making the offense work for everything and not conceding easy gains.

This similarity, among others, compelled Rhoads to give Burnham a call when he became the ISU football coach prior to the 2009 season.

“I’d coached against him for a number of years,” Rhoads said. “In doing that, I’d seen the way his defense has played: That’s with energy, that’s with passion, that’s with speed and that’s with effectiveness — namely against spread offenses that I knew we were going to have to defend in this league.”

Upon arriving to Ames, Burnham said the talent level on defense at Iowa State was thin after the departure for former coach Gene Chizik.

Serving as the third defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for some of those players was tough at first, but not impossible for Burnham.

“You had to settle the team down and you had to win their confidence that you were going to be here, you were going to stay with them,” Burnham said.

Burnham made the most with the unit he had in 2009 — which ranked 99th nationally in total defense. Recruiting players with speed, Burnham said, was the first objective of building the defense, which now ranks 28th overall nationally.

“In the Big 12, you play in open space all day,” Burnham said. “You’ve got to have players that can make plays in open space, so that means you’ve got to have speed, you’ve got to have athletic ability — all those kind of things that go into those kind of players.”

One of the speedier players Burnham and Rhoads hooked was Jake Knott, a defensive back-turned-linebacker who has become one of the standout defensive players in the nation thanks to Burnham’s coaching.

Coming out of Waukee high school as Rhoads’ first recruit in 2009, however, Knott was not very highly touted.

“You could probably ask anybody when I first came in here if I was a good linebacker or not,” Knott said with a chuckle. “I think anybody would have probably told you there’s no chance.”

Knott recently amassed 300 career tackles in Iowa State’s 37-23 win against TCU on Oct. 6, becoming the first Cyclone to do so since Matt Word in 2002 and the 14th overall in school history.

Knott’s counterpart and fellow three-year starter A.J. Klein is another player who Burnham sculpted into a dominant force.

Key among Klein’s achievements was his reception of the Co-Defensive Player of the Year award last season. Klein currently has 283 career tackles and tied the NCAA record for most interceptions returned for a touchdown by a linebacker this season with four.

The formula for player development concocted by Burnham has become a blueprint with the development of players like Knott and Klein, but has been applied to everyone he coaches.

“He creates a consistency and love and passion for the game that kind of spills over onto everybody else,” Knott said. “When he does that, you come in to work.

“He’s a guy that you’re trying to impress every single day — doesn’t matter if you’re a true freshman, a fifth-year senior — you want to impress him or else he’s going to make sure you know about it and that you weren’t impressive.”

The development of Knott and Klein was easy to facilitate, Burnham said, because they were coachable and took the initiative to learn every day since they arrived on campus.

One player who struggled at the beginning was George. However, Burnham said George’s development started with making him coachable and thus making him a run-stopping force.

“A guy like Jeremiah had to realize that we’re here to help him,” Burnham said. “That’s when you start taking coaching is when you realize when we correct a kid, we’re giving constructive criticism and not getting onto him, not downgrading him. You have to win that confidence that, ‘Hey, if you listen to me long enough and keep working, things will work out.’”

George’s proverbial light bulb turned on this past spring, spurring him to make 23 tackles in five games played — three as a starter — this season.

While 48 years of coaching may seem like enough to many, Burnham said he does not foresee himself calling it quits any time soon.

“I have no idea,” Burnham said when asked how many years he thinks he has left in him. “As long as the good lord blesses me and keeps me healthy and Paul doesn’t fire me, I might be around for a while.

“Who knows.”