Michigan’s new commander in chief of women’s
basketball, Cheryl Burnett, has blazed a trail of excellence. Now
she embarks on a new challenge: taking Michigan’s program to
national prominence. She has the passion and knowledge. But she
embodies much more. She’s not just a coach, she’s
It was the second half in the second round of Michigan’s
Preseason Women’s National Invitational Tournament game
against Cincinnati, and the Wolverines found themselves down by
seven points. The crowd sat anxiously in the Crisler Arena stands,
hoping high scorer Jennifer Smith would bail the team out.
But the fans’ intent gazes weren’t enough for Cheryl
The coach began to stomp her feet and wave her hands, shouting
to the crowd, “Get up!”
Some fans seemed confused, while others were charmed by
Burnett’s heartfelt plea. Regardless of interpretation,
everyone stood up collectively to begin an arena-wide chant to
cheer the girls on.
The crowd was on its feet for nearly the rest of the game
— and its vocalized presence seemed to work magic for the
players. Michigan squeaked out with a 73-69 victory over the
Since that game, Burnett has called upon the crowd several times
when Michigan needs a boost or is down in a game.
This technique is nothing new to the veteran coach, who
regularly riled up crowds when she was head coach at Southwest
Missouri State. Burnett says that she has always been an
“I’m just really natural about how I coach,”
Burnett said. “I’ve always been very in tune to the
players on the court. It’s also kind of how I used to play. I
played in the sense that I was very verbal with my
Actively involving the crowd with the games is just one way
Burnett has tried to start building a fan base in Ann Arbor. When
she took the helm of the Southwest Missouri State program, as few
as 400 fans would grace the stands of the 8,846-seat Hammons
Student Center. By the time she left, the arena was regularly
filled to the top with screaming, stomping fans — no doubt
modeling their spunky head coach.
“I believe that our support system — which is the
crowd, the fans — can help us win games,” Burnett said.
“I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it and I believe
Burnett’s enthusiasm has also impressed the players, who
admit that building a fan base could greatly benefit their energy
level during a game.
“We would have more people to play for,” freshman
Kelly Helvey said. “Not only ourselves and our coach.
We’ll have people that will keep coming, and we’ll
build a tradition.”
Who knows, with Burnett in town, perhaps Crisler Arena will play
host to a sold-out women’s basketball game before her reign
Burnett realized early on that before she could be a great
teacher of the game, she had to be a great student as well.
“I’ve always known I wanted to coach,” Burnett
said. “It goes all the way back to high school.”
It was way back in high school that Jim Enlow coached Burnett as
a member of the girls’ basketball team at Centralia High
School in Missouri. When Enlow would take his boys’ team to
scout upcoming opponents, Burnett would be the only girl to tag
“I just knew the impact that he had on my life was more
than a basketball coach,” Burnett said. “So I just knew
that I wanted to have that kind of impact on players.”
After Enlow pointed Burnett down the road of coaching, a number
of other mentors helped guide her in a profession that until
recently has been mostly for the boys.
Burnett worked as an assistant for Jane Schroeder, the
women’s basketball coach at Illinois. Then, early in her head
coaching days at Southwest Missouri State, Burnett had the
privilege to work with Charlie Spoonhour — the men’s
coach at the time — now the coach at UNLV.
If you look closely at Burnett’s offensive and defensive
strategies, you may see a resemblance to another marquee name in
college basketball. Burnett spent time at her alma mater, Kansas,
last winter to watch the Jayhawks practice under men’s
basketball coach Roy Williams, who is now at North Carolina. Her
patented scramble defense bears a striking resemblance to the sets
of last year’s Jayhawks and this year’s Tar Heels.
Now Burnett is the mentor and hopes to leave some lasting
impressions of her own.
Whether it’s in the middle of a Tuesday practice or the
final seconds of an overtime game, there’s no doubt in the
minds of onlookers who’s in charge of the Wolverines. Burnett
is one of those coaches that has an air about her. Her confidence
makes you wonder if she’ll make you run sprints if you say
the wrong thing, and her voice (though not as strong as she would
like it) might invite you to start calling her “Coach”
even if she was just taking your order at the drive-through.
Burnett knows exactly what she wants out of a team.
“It’s definitely a totally effort-driven,
give-up-the-self for-the-team concept throughout,” said
Burnett of her coaching style.
The new job at Michigan is as close to a blank slate as Burnett
can ask for. With 11 new players, the challenge comes in getting
each and every one to put her trust in her system — one that
takes time to master.
When she led her first practice, Burnett discovered how
challenging it was to direct her players, considering the
unfamiliarity with her terminology, drills and motion offense, for
“It’s a system where players can get better and
better with experience,” Burnett said. “Now we have all
freshmen. So we’re asking them to do things that they
don’t have experience with. I have been amazed at their
intelligence and quickly reading things and learning.”
The players that work hardest in practice start, but Burnett has
no reservations about beginning the game with her best talent on
Burnett has also gotten her team to fight back on the court. The
players are noticeably more aggressive and physical this season in
all phases of the game.
“I have found that when people demand respect,
there’s a very unique element that players really buy into
that,” Burnett said. “It’s not like they always
have to like everything, but they respect it because they learn to
But if these players listen to that unmistakable Burnett
coaching voice — which she always loses during a game —
the future of Wolverines basketball will be laden with success.
Although Burnett reported for coaching duty back in April, she
did not get to practice with her team until mid-October (NCAA
regulations prohibit coaches from working with players earlier than
But she began working much earlier on one of the most important
parts of the job — building trusting relationships with the
players and their parents. Burnett began the job by visiting every
player’s home to get to know their families and backgrounds
— much like she would for recruits.
“(It created) such an incredible, trusting bond where I
could ask the parents, ‘What’s your expectation? What
do you want me as a coach to be able to do for your
daughter?’ ” Burnett said. “And then I could say,
‘Here’s what I expect out of your daughter.’ That
in itself was the best with communication and expectations in
running the program.”
Both players and parents were impressed.
“It’s hard not to like her,” said Greg Smith,
father of center Jennifer Smith. “She’s not only good
with the X’s and O’s, but she has moral standards and
character. I wouldn’t want my daughter playing for anybody
other than her.”
“She does create a good bond,” guard Rachael Carney
said. “A bond both on and off the court. (The coaching staff)
is always open for us to go talk to them if need be.”
After last season’s last- place finish in the Big Ten, the
Michigan women’s basketball program was left searching for an
answer to two straight dismal years.
Enter Cheryl Burnett. After enormous success at Southwest
Missouri State, it was clear that Burnett had the potential to
change the direction of Michigan women’s basketball. But she
doesn’t just want the Michigan name to move forward. She
wants it at the top.
“I want our program to be as big as UConn and
Tennessee,” Burnett said. “That is the most important
Some admirable aspirations, but she has a long climb to make it
The Wolverines are lucky when they draw even 1,000 fans to a
game, so before Burnett can significantly build this program, she
has to build the fan base. It’s nothing she hasn’t done
before. She was able to fill the bleachers at Southwest Missouri
State, and she’s already made strides to do the same
Following the Wolverines’ first two exhibition games,
Burnett told her players to go converse with people in the stands
and tell them to bring 10 people with them the next time. It must
have worked, since Michigan hosted the quarterfinals of the
Preseason WNIT due to its first- round attendance number.
And any business guru knows that the best way to guarantee an
audience is to hook them young. It was part of the motivation
behind inviting area elementary schools to a Friday afternoon game
on Nov. 21 against Western Michigan.
“I’m really blessed to have a great marketing and
promoting guy, Mark Reardon,” Burnett said. “He’s
come up with a lot of his own ideas. He and I implemented a lot of
Much of the charisma that Burnett exudes comes from her hands-on
approach. She spoke to a number of organizations in the Ann Arbor
area in preparation for the team’s first-round game of the
Preseason WNIT. She also makes an effort to return any e-mails
regarding fans’ concerns with their game experience.
“That person goes and tells 50 people, ‘Coach
Burnett e-mailed me back,’ ” Burnett said. “And
now I have 50 people trying to help me.”
It takes more than 50 people to build a program, but each step
“I want a national championship,” Burnett said.
“I’m a dreamer, but I’m willing to put the work
into the dream.”
Two Final Four appearances, a .752 career winning percentage, an
Academic All-American of the Year and the NCAA’s all-time
leading scorer. These are just some of the things that Burnett
produced in her 15-year stint at Southwest Missouri State.
It’s one impressive list to compile, especially
considering she did this at a smaller, virtually anonymous Missouri
Valley Conference school.
“Having Burnett in the league scares me,” Iowa coach
Lisa Bluder said earlier this year at the Big Ten Media Day in
Chicago. “I have so much respect for her and what she’s
done, and belief in her system, and just how she does
Bluder made the jump to the Big Ten from the Missouri Valley
Conference just like Burnett did and knows exactly what the
first-year Michigan coach is capable of.
But Burnett isn’t just some local legend from the Show-Me
state. She has national acclaim, too. In only Burnett’s
second year in the NCAA Tournament, Southwest Missouri
State’s road to a Final Four appearance happened to travel
through Knoxville, Tenn. — home of the perennial powerhouse
“And after that (Tennessee coach) Pat Summit would tell
everybody, ‘You do not want to have to play Southwest
Missouri State,’ ” Burnett said.
If Burnett can do all of this at Southwest Missouri State, then
what is possible at Michigan?
But now Burnett is no longer a big fish in a little pond. If she
wants the notoriety she’s received in the past, she’s
going to have to do it in a conference full of big fish.
“Some of the best coaches in the country are in the Big
Ten,” Burnett said. “But I look at it as now we need to
prove that. We need to be successful to really earn the reputation
that we need to earn.”
Burnett may not have the recognition of Summit or
Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, but she may not even want it,
given her team-first attitude. Now with an institution boasting
academic tradition, Burnett will have an edge in recruiting.
“We’ve always recruited overachievement,”
Burnett said. “We want that kid that’s playing the
hardest, that’s the most team-oriented.”
Sophomore guard Rachael Carney summed it up, saying “they
won’t accept anything but the best.”