For the last 13 seasons, the Alabama Crimson Tide produced some of the greatest running backs the collegiate game has seen, and subsequently, the best ball carriers in the NFL. The list of draft picks who played in Tuscaloosa is truly remarkable — Kenneth Darby, Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris. You can add Najee Harris to that list when he enters the 2021 draft.
Head coach Nick Saban gets most of the credit for Alabama’s success. After all, he’s the ring leader of college football’s greatest dynasty. But while coordinators came and went year after year, there’s one man who had been on the staff since 2007, and he’s the man responsible for Alabama becoming a well-oiled running back factory.
Burton Burns played fullback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 1970s under Tom Osborne. Burns coached high school football in Louisiana, then a four-year run at Tulane, before joining Tommy Bowden’s staff at Clemson, where he tutored backs like C.J. Spiller. But after making the move to the Crimson Tide, Burns’ prowess as a running back whisper blossomed.
He coached multiple All-SEC and All-American selections, as well as the only two Heisman Trophy winners since 2006 — Mark Ingram (2009) and Derrick Henry (2015) — who didn’t play quarterback. Burns’ prodigies regularly landed on the Doak Walker Award Watch List as the best running back in the country. His ability to coach at an elite level earned him the associate head coach role alongside Saban, and he has five National Championship rings to prove it, too.
After a long road, the 67-year-old coach was hired to join Joe Judge’s coaching staff as running backs coach of the New York Giants for the 2020 season, where he’ll work with Saquon Barkley to craft a player who could be this generation’s greatest at his position.
Alabama’s Burton Burns Joins New York Giants
During a recent live Q&A session on the Crimson Tide Cruise, former Alabama running back Josh Jacobs shared some of his memories of Burns as he transitions in this next stage of his career.
“I would say Coach Burns is definitely like a father figure. He literally taught me everything I know about the game. I remember coming in from high school and was teaching me certain things, and I remember telling him, ‘Man, I feel cheated.’ When I came in, I feel like I didn’t know anything and he just brought that light… Him and his wife, Miss Connie, they always opened their arms and opened their doors to me, regardless of what it was. Whether it was for my son who needed anything, or I needed advice, or anything like that.”
— Josh Jacobs
Jacobs went on to say how he texted Saquon Barkley to tell him, “Man, you got a good one.” Jacobs added that Burns and his former Alabama running back disciples are all in a group chat with each other so that Burns can offer encouragement and advice, both on and off the field.
Kenyan Drake, who was traded from the Miami Dolphins to Arizona Cardinals last season, talked about what Burns taught him, as well an anecdote that explains all you need to know about this man.
“It’s really the mentality of a running back. Everybody can attest that’s been in that room and knows him, he’s a real fiery dude. He’ll tell you, he’ll put a helmet and he’ll hit somebody if you won’t. But at the same time, he’s always telling people to be the hammer not the nail. And me at my size, people think that being barely over 200 pounds, kind of tall for my position as well, think that I might not have the ability to put my nose down and get tough yards. But I just go back to what he kind of taught me, and that’s just to be a physical force at the running back position.”
“I remember one little scrimmage we had probably in camp, and I ran a long little run. I’m hype in the room, in the back smiling like, ‘Yeah I did that.’ And he’s up there mad as all get out, and he’s like, ‘What you didn’t do?!’ I’m like, ‘What’re you talking about? I ran 50 yards, I juked somebody out, and showed my speed, like what’re you talking about?’Advertisement
“He’s like, ‘No you didn’t give the ball back to the damn ref! That ball’s still sitting on the ground!’ That’s just the kind of person he is. He’s a perfectionist. He wants things to be done the right way.”
— Kenyan Drake
Burns’ time in Tuscaloosa may be over, but the legacy he’s left on that school and the Alabama football program will last much longer than his 13-year tenure could ever truly measure.
This article was originally published February 19, 2020. It was updated to reflect editorial corrections that Joe Judge is the new head coach of the New York Giants.