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LSHOF Class of '24 Profile: Dave Dixon Sports Leadership Award winner Tom Burnett

Burnett remained consistent while rising from Ruston to present NCAA's Final Four trophy

By TEDDY ALLEN

Written for the LSWA


There are several people to blame for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame’s 2024 Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award being presented to former Southland Conference commissioner and NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Selection Committee chairman Tom Burnett, not the least of which is Tom Burnett.

 

 We’ll get to that.

  

Burnett, still surprised by his pending turn in the spotlight, is part of the 12-member Class of 2024 to be honored June 20-22 in Natchitoches. For participation opportunities, visit LaSportsHall.com or call 318-238-4255.

 

 The reason a once-unlikely Dixon/Burnett pairing has come to this starts with Keith Prince, Louisiana Tech’s Hall of Fame sports information director from 1969-1993, who saw in the mid-1980s a kid from West Monroe by way of Houston — we’ll call him Tom Burnett — show up “in our office at a time when he was still searching for something,” Prince said, “maybe just something to care about … or even a reason to be in school.”

 

Prince let him hang around, and soon Tom was enjoying his new responsibilities, looking for more and even taking ownership of the job — a full-time assistant on a student assistant’s pay.

  

After graduation, Burnett dipped his toe into the sports writing waters in Monroe, felt a chill, and retired back to the safety of Ruston, where he pestered Prince for more loose change so he could hang around the SID office a bit longer. Things might have ended there, with Tom replacing a retiring Prince in 1993, had the next culprit not appeared.

 

 Enter the new American South Conference and commissioner Craig Thompson, who found Tom on either a Ruston street corner or the baseline at Thomas Assembly Center — accounts vary — and offered him 20 bucks plus dental to manage communication and media services from the New Orleans-based office.

  

Over time, the “other duties as assigned” clause came into play and Burnett was overseeing staff, formatting league schedules, managing championship events, dealing with coaching issues, helping birth the New Orleans Bowl, hosting NCAA hoops gigs at the Superdome and, well, “through all that,” Burnett confessed, “I guess I became an administrator.”

  

“During those early days, I saw his passion for doing things the right way,” said Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame writer Dan McDonald, the sports information director at then-USL when Burnett was just getting his young administrative feet wet. “He was 'old-school' like me, and we did a lot of things at conference championship events that were special at the time — things that are taken for granted these days.

  

“He was dedicated to making events special for the student-athletes and coaches, but he also appreciated and understood the job that the media did and their importance at the time to making those events successful.”

 

 The snowball was rolling. Roughly a dozen years passed and Burnett, at this stage with the Sun Belt Conference, still in New Orleans, was constantly spotted telling sportswriters where to sit and when to shut up at this Sun Belt event and then that, at this NCAA event and then that, until one day the next perpetrator, the Southland Conference Board of Directors, stepped in and made him, at 38, the commissioner of the entire SLC. A fellow named Greg Sankey had left for a job with the Southeastern Conference.

  

Now Burnett was telling not only sportswriters, but also coaches where to sit and when to tap the brakes. Same with athletics directors, ditto with the oddest species on the entire college athletics food chain, the university presidents.

  

But instead of weeping and gnashing of teeth, there was an air of respect for the young man in the necktie and helpful smile, a steady stream of gratitude for a guy who was proving himself a leader in an ego-heavy business because he was “mostly a great friend and a constant presence for many like me who have benefitted from his years of insight, experience and humor,” Herb Vincent, associate commissioner for communications for the SEC since 2013, said.

  

“Tom carried the weight of being a leader and its responsibility — a responsibility which directly impacted as many as 12 universities and thousands of student-athletes — with a steady, caring and passionate approach for over 20 years,” said former Northwestern State athletic director Greg Burke. “He was a communicator with the conference board of directors, presidents, athletic administrators, coaches and many others, always with the goal of making decisions which were best for the overall good of the membership.”

  

“Tom’s always maintained the ‘hand in the dirt’ mentality that he got from working for Keith Prince at Tech, the philosophy that you do the grunt work just as gleefully as you do anything else, and you enthusiastically embrace doing it,” said Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Chairman Doug Ireland, SID at Northwestern from 1989-2019. “He also models Keith in his ability to work with anyone and make everybody feel welcomed and part of the team.

  

“I don’t believe there was anyone at any level involved as a competitor, as a coach, or as an administrator who didn’t understand that even if Tom had to make an unpopular decision, he kept everyone’s best interests in mind and always wanted the best outcome for all. … Tom’s enthusiasm, pride and sheer joy in seeing Southland teams excel in out-of-conference and postseason competition was always apparent.”

  

Sadly, everyone asked about Burnett’s LSHOF honor ultimately points to the No. 1 culprit: Burnett his ownself. So does his ‘commissioning’ record.

 

Named to the Division I Committee on Academic Performance in 2003, shortly after the NCAA ramped up scholastic standards and created the Academic Performance Rate (APR) and shortly after he became commissioner, Burnett found himself surrounded by reps from the Ivy League, Big 10, Pac-10, ACC, SEC — none of which had APR problems like the Southland’s.

 

Faced with significant penalties for failure to comply, the conference responded after Burnett convinced the presidents of just how real the problem was. That triggered an immediate improvement in the league’s APR scores; one of the poorest performing schools at first became a model of such dramatic improvement that it was featured in the NCAA’s quarterly magazine, and sooner rather than later, one year the SLC had a better collective APR score in men’s basketball than the ACC did.

  

When Burnett was a rookie commissioner, precious few SLC contests were televised. The league semi-invented its own in-house TV network of weekly football games and men’s and women’s basketball doubleheaders.

  

The Southland Conference Television Network, an old school “over-the-air” operation, grew into close to three dozen affiliates across the South and Southwest, before an enhanced ESPN agreement and an expansion into volleyball, softball and baseball telecasts.

  

Eventually, SLC schools were producing hundreds of digital telecasts combined (like most leagues do now), which allowed for negotiation of the Southland’s multi-million-dollar agreement in 2020.

  

In 2007, Burnett approached the Big 12 about combining the two leagues’ football officiating programs into a consortium, something that was being done between leagues in other college sports, but not football. Officiating consortiums between FCS and FBS leagues are common throughout the NCAA today — but the Southland was the tip of the spear.

 

 The Southland simply took ownership of the FCS Championship Game. Before the 2010 season, Frisco, Texas won the bid to host and the SLC embraced the event, put passion behind it, and 12 of the first 13 title games sold out. Besides leading to the Frisco Bowl’s birth, the game is estimated to bring in $16 million in economic impact annually.

  

In 2014, the Southland was the first FCS league to adopt full-time instant replay at every home game like the FBS leagues had.

  

Easier said than done, but somehow in between the league’s spring meeting and the first game — 90 days — the league installed cameras, cables, extra power, developed a set of four stationary cameras in each stadium and, well … it worked. Soon after, the Big 10 added stationary cameras in their stadiums for additional replay angles, and although it took a few years, everyone in FCS was eventually in the replay business.

  

Five March Madness wins followed, the first one courtesy of the Northwestern State Demons over Iowa in 2006, the league’s first win in the Round of 64 since the Karl Malone-led Louisiana Tech team in 1985.

  

While Demons coach Mike McConathy waited for his postgame interview on CBS, Burnett planted a can’t-help-myself “big wet kiss on his cheek,” Burnett said. “I hope he’s forgiven me for that. But it was such a needed validation for the league, proving what our teams were capable of doing, winning in the national tournament and belonging in the mainstream of Division I.”

 

 That win also triggered another first for the league — NCAA Tournament revenue-sharing the conference had never realized previously.

  

Along with providing two of those March Madness wins, Stephen F. Austin upset No. 1 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 2020, the SLC’s first-ever win against a top-ranked team and Duke’s first nonconference home loss in over 20 years.

  

Thanks to Sam Houston State, the league finally won its football national championship in the COVID-delayed 2020 season, played in the spring of 2021.

  

“The conference was a trendsetter nationally among its peers,” Ireland said, “because Tom was an innovator and bold enough to give new ideas a chance.”

 

 Then in 2021-22 — and who knows where the blame lies here, maybe with the NCAA? — Burnett became just the ninth commissioner and first since 2009 to chair the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Committee, the first FCS commissioner to serve in the role.

 

 This is, of course, the group that manages the selection and administrative processes of the national championship, just about the most important college athletics showcase in the whole world, and this is the truth because right there on national TV on Final Four Weekend in 2022, there was NCAA president Mark Emmert introducing Tom, who congratulated the Kansas team for winning the title and handed to Jayhawks coach Bill Self the actual trophy, right there on the floor of the Superdome in the city where Burnett first began administrating.

  

Cinderella story is all it is. A happy ending for a necktie-wearing but purposeful blend of an i-dotter, t-crosser, dice-roller, smile-wearer, and problem-solver, the longest-tenured commissioner in the SLC’s history.

  

“I’ve always felt college athletics was something special, and when I was involved, I worried about its future,” McDonald said. “But I always felt better knowing people like Tom were in charge and were doing the right things to help keep it special.”

 

 “I’ve never been surprised by Tom’s career success,” Prince said. “He’s a natural leader, and his vision for things that are needed and will work has always been exceptional. He proved that many times over as a conference commissioner and as chairman of the NCAA basketball selection committee.

  

“No doubt he deserves to be in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He’s been in mine for a long time.”

  

Teddy Allen is a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee as the 2022 recipient of the Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism. He writes for ShreveportBossierJournal.com.

 

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