Cheryl Burnett sighs when she’s
asked if her first season as coach of the Michigan women’s
basketball team was a success.

Chris Burke

It was a season that saw the Wolverines double their Big Ten
conference win total from last year, set the single-game attendance
mark for the program and upset then-No. 12 Minnesota.

For Burnett, that’s not good enough.

“It’s very easy,” she said. “We
didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, so I don’t think
we’ve done what we need to do. I will take total
responsibility for that. I believe our staff could’ve,
should’ve done something more or something different for us
to have gotten there.

“So we’re behind (expectations) — we
didn’t make the tournament.”

Burnett took over the Michigan program after a tumultuous
2002-03 campaign for the Wolverines that culminated with the
unpleasant resignation of former coach Sue Guevara.

Expecting an NCAA Tournament berth in her Michigan debut might
seem unreasonable, but it’s exactly the type of thinking that
quietly makes Burnett one of the best coaching hires the Michigan
athletic department has made in recent memory.

At her former post, Southwest Missouri State, Burnett made two
appearances in the NCAA Final Four and another one in the Sweet 16,
while orchestrating 13 consecutive winning seasons.

And while that winning résumé is nice,
what’s more valuable to the Wolverines is Burnett’s
passionate belief that the same success can be achieved in Ann
Arbor.

“Everything that I thought Michigan potentially could be,
the answer is a resounding yes,” Burnett said. “This
job and the potential of this program is a national-caliber
program. It has everything we will need to succeed.”

The situation Burnett entered was not all that dissimilar to the
one men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker was hired into in
2001.

Minus the scandals and probations, Burnett needed to not only
stabilize a struggling program, but also to teach the Wolverines
how to win again.

“I definitely believe there’s a mindset (involved in
winning),” Burnett said. “I definitely believe that a
pride of tradition carries itself a long way. I just call it the
intangibles — how we compete, how to win. Did we make
tremendous strides in those things? I think we made astronomical
strides.”

Those intangibles are something that Burnett is hoping will also
rub off on the Michigan fans. At Southwest Missouri State,
Burnett’s teams often played in front of packed arenas. At
Michigan, Burnett is faced with building a fan base from the ground
up.

If the record-setting crowd of 4,611 that showed up for the
Wolverines game against Michigan State on Feb. 12 is any
indication, Burnett’s on the right path.

“That’s really important to me and our staff,”
Burnett said. “There’s so much more that we know
we’re going to have in place that will impact attendance
incredibly in the future.

“I’ll use the Ohio State game as an example. We lost
that game, but the people that were here at that game were giving
us a standing ovation when we left. Our style of play, people
appreciate, because our kids are playing their guts out.”

Present at that Ohio State loss on Jan. 29 were the Bluenatics
(rhymes with lunatics), the growing student section that Burnett is
confident will continue backing the program in the future.

“It’s something that I’m used to having, but
the students approached me about that,” Burnett said.
“That’s just a foundation now of what we hope will come
in the future.”

Speaking of the future, Burnett has managed to land a stellar
recruiting class for next year that includes Becky Flippin, one of
the nation’s top point guard prospects, and Katie Dierdorf,
daughter of former Michigan football star Dan Dierdorf.

“I always thought recruiting was extremely
difficult,” Burnett said. “At Michigan, we’re
finding doors are very open. Now it’s our job to get the name
on the dotted line.

“I knew in my coaching career (at Southwest Missouri
State), there was a glass ceiling, and we could only take the
program so far. I wanted to be somewhere where the sky’s the
limit, and this Michigan program is that program.”

It’s hard to imagine a recruit not wanting to play at
Michigan. Sit down with Burnett for five minutes to talk basketball
and she’ll have you ready to lace up the shoes and sprint on
to the court.

From yelling at the Crisler Arena crowd to standing up and make
noise at critical points in the game, to discussing the future of
the Michigan program like it should be a perennial Final Four
attendee, Burnett makes it clear that anything less than a complete
and total effort from all aspects of the program is
unacceptable.

“We don’t just want our players to outwork other
teams,” Burnett said. “We want our staff to be one of
the hardest-working staffs. We want kids to dream of being part of
the road to success.”

Her first season as coach at Michigan wasn’t exactly what
Burnett was hoping it would be. It might not be easy, and it might
not be quick, but Burnett is set on the idea that Michigan is a
national championship program just waiting to happen.

“We are the ones, now, who have to get the recruits and
win and build the fan base,” Burnett said. “But the
potential is there to explode.”

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