In Memory of Jack Burmaster
Nov. 11, 2005
The Illinois basketball family lost one of its valued members recently when former Illinois guard, Jack Burmaster, passed away at the age of 78. The Illinois basketball program and the athletic department send their deepest condolences to the Burmaster family and the following is a tribute written by fightingillini.com's, Jared Gelfond, on the life and career of Jack Burmaster.
I had the honor of interviewing Jack Burmaster in March of 2004 while I was writing the `Century of Orange and Blue' book. It was a very informative interview and he helped a great deal in shedding some light on Harry Combes, Dike Eddleman and Illinois basketball during the War Years. What I remember most about our 25 minute interview that day is that all Jack wanted to talk about was the upcoming Sweet 16 game against Duke. You could tell that he was as much an Illini then as he was back in the 40's. Like all of us, he couldn't wait for the game and all he wanted to do was talk about it.
Those who knew him always had good things to say about him and it was unfortunate that when I was working on the `Illini Century' DVD we had set up two interviews but were unable to do them due to his declining health. I know it is something he wanted to be a part of.
All in all, he was a legend in the state of Illinois and I am honored that I had the opportunity to interview him.
In the history of basketball in the state of Illinois there are few people, if any, who are more recognizable than Jack Burmaster. From starring at Elgin High School, to playing for the University of Illinois, to a brief stint in the NBA, to barnstorming with the Harlem Globetrotters, to coaching Evanston High School for over 20 seasons and being the long time voice of the State High School Tournament on WGN, Burmaster did it all and along the way he left an indelible legacy.
As an All-State basketball player at Elgin High School, Burmaster led his Maroons all the way to the state title game in 1944 before losing 56-33 to powerhouse Taylorville High School led by future Michigan coach, Johnny Orr.
His high school career and his performance in the State Tournament were enough to impress Illinois head coach, Doug Mills. Talking about that recruitment years later in an interview for `A Century of Orange and Blue' Burmaster said heading to Illinois wasn't a hard choice.
"At the time Doug Mill was the coach and the Athletic Director at Illinois and once he recruited me down there it was pretty simple," said Burmaster. "Going to Illinois was a pretty easy decision."
Starting his career during World War II, Burmaster was a rare four-year letterman at Illinois and started in three of those four seasons. Helping the Illini to a 27-14 record in his first two seasons, Burmaster was part of two incredible wins over George Mikan and DePaul in both the 1944-45 and 1945-46 seasons.
Burmaster never forgot those wins.
"They were huge wins and I didn't anyone even remembered them they were played so long ago. Mikan was the best center I ever played against and he was just so big. I still remember getting caught by one his elbows as he came by.
We were thrilled to death to get those two wins."
After returning to the bench in 1946-47 when the Whiz Kids returned from the War, Burmaster was named captain of Harry Combes's first squad in 1947-48. Alongside Illini legends such as Dike Eddleman and Bill Erickson, Burmaster was named the Illini's most valuable player and was an All-Big Ten choice.
Upon leaving Illinois in 1948, Burmaster was drafted by the St. Louis Bombers of the National Basketball Association and played one year in Sheboygan, Wis., for the Sheboygan Redskins. In that year, he averaged just over 11 points a game in leading the Redskins to a first place finish in the Eastern Division and earned second-team all NPBL honors.
When he left professional basketball, Burmaster immediately found his niche coaching in the high school ranks. Arriving in Evanston in 1952 after a brief coaching stop in Louisville, Burmaster spent 23 years on the sidelines for the Wildkits compiling an incredible 362-145 record and bringing four of his squads to the Elite Eight of the State Tournament. He is most recognized though for his coaching job in the 1968 season where his team (considered by many to be one of the Top 10 teams in the history of the state) went 30-1 and won the State Championship defeating Galesburg 70-51 in the Assembly Hall.
In addition to his coaching prowess many people remember Burmaster for the job he did on WGN-TV as an analyst and color commentator for the State Tournament. In the 1960's and 1970's, Burmaster's voice and basketball knowledge was as much as part of the tournament as the Assembly Hall was.
During his years at Evanston, Burmaster sent countless players to Division 1 schools including Illini, Larry Lubin. After retiring from high school coaching in 1974, Burmaster stayed at Evanston as an athletic director until his retirement in 1985 but things were almost much different.
In 1974 when Harv Schmidt was let go as the head basketball coach, Johnny Orr (who was coming off a Big Ten Championship at Michigan) was called in for an interview.
"I went down for an interview in Champaign and used a false name and all of that," recalled Orr in an interview for `A Century of Orange and Blue.' "I interviewed for about three hours and I was told everyone on the board wanted to hire me but Cecil Coleman (the Illinois Athletic Director at the time). I would have left Michigan, because it would have been to been nice to back home and I was looking forward to bringing Illinois basketball to where it should be.
They were having problems with loyalty in the state and I had my plans all ready. I was going to hire Jack Burmaster and Walt Kirk (former Illinois guard from the 1940's). I was going to put Jack up north and Walt down south and we were going to get all those kids."
But the Illini went a different direction when they hired Gene Bartow and Burmaster stayed at Evanston.
Up until his last days he never forgot his alma mater and we can all imagine how proud he was during the Illini's run to the championship game. Through all his accomplishments, he never forgot where it all began.
"I think anything that happened to me in my life I owe to Illinois and Illinois basketball in particular," recalled Burmaster in March of 2004. "The time I spent in professional basketball and coaching at Evanston--I owe so much of what happened to the time I spent at Illinois. I met so many friends down there on and off the court who have been a big part of my life."
Burmaster is his survived by his wife Emily, his son, John, a daughter, Terry and his nine grandchildren. He will always be remembered as a great player, a great coach but most importantly a great Illini.
The following are just a few of the thoughts and memories that have come in from Jack Burmaster's former teammates, colleagues and players.
Walt Kirk (Illinois Forward: 1944-1945, 1947)
After he was done with his basketball playing days, he went on to have a tremendous coaching career in Evanston and also did a great job announcing for the State Tournament.
He was just a special person--very, very loyal and he was basketball throughout all of his life."
Larry Lubin (Illinois Guard: 1976-1979 and former Evanston teammate of Burmaster
"He had so much confidence in himself and that spilled over to the players. He felt as though if we can get ourselves in a position to win he was going to push us over the edge. He was very confident in what he did and how he prepared for different teams. He always felt that we were going to win every game we played."
"Coach was a really laid back guy but when you have been a successful athlete or coach you are very competitive and want to win--he was pretty laid back but the blood really got going and he loved to compete and win every time he stepped on the court. He was always ready to play and always looking for his players to perform at a high level."
"My first thing was his quiet confidence. He had a presence about him and I remember him saying to us particularly when we lost in Double OT our senior year in the section finals--he said to us prior to the game, `Guys get us to the super sectionals and I will get us downstate. We won't lose that game.' He had supreme confidence in his ability to get teams to play and to win games that were important.
He had a presence about him and a quiet confidence that he knew exactly what he was doing and how he was going to get it done."