Back on Campus: Willie Burton Former Gopher Great is back to finish his degree
Willie Burton led the Gophers to the 1990 Elite Eight
June 21, 2012
By Justine Buerkle GopherSports.com
Wearing a button-up shirt, jeans, and basketball shoes, Willie Burton looks just like any other University of Minnesota undergraduate--except for the fact that he is 6-foot-8 and at least 20 years older than most of his classmates.
While the former Golden Gopher basketball player had one of the best careers in program history, scoring 1,800 points and leading the Gophers to an Elite 8 appearance, he left Minnesota in 1990 a few courses shy of his college degree. His preparations for an NBA career did not allow him the time he needed to finish his classes that spring, but he is close to earning his degree now. Burton is living on campus this summer, and will have one undergraduate course left after completing the one he is taking now.
Burton's quest for a degree has not been as simple as tying up a few loose ends. When he first looked to return to school, he found that his major--urban housing--no longer existed. So Burton has been working since 2010 on a multi-disciplinary degree three areas: communications, history and social science, and applied technical/professional.
Right now, Burton is re-taking an astronomy course that he took during his first stint at Minnesota--in order to graduate, he needs the lab component of the course, which he did not originally take. He likes going to class and says he can benefit from learning alongside the younger generation. The 44-year-old isn't afraid to joke about his age.
"When they say, `I'm a sophomore,' `I'm a junior,' I say, `Hey, my daughter's a senior," Burton said.
A Detroit native, Burton does not have a permanent home in the Twin Cities. He decided to live in a university residence hall over the summer rather than finding a house or apartment off campus.
"The dorms here are not like typical dorms," he said. "The University of Minnesota is first class." Burton likes the set-up of his residence hall and sees no reason not to live on campus. He knows that he sticks out among his teenaged hall mates, but he doesn't mind.
"They're not sure if I'm a parent, but they don't see any children around me," he said. "It's a little confusing, but they're curious. They just don't say anything."
Being a parent actually factored into Burton's decisions about his own education. Following his NBA career, Burton waited longer to return to school in order to spend time with his family and help his children get through school.
Although he has used what he learned during his earlier college years--undertaking various ventures from building green housing in Detroit to his current project of building a curriculum for high school student-athletes--Burton feels that he needs a diploma to gain more credibility, not just in the business world, but with his children. Earning his own degree gives more weight to any advice he gives them about education.
While he is away from his own children, Burton has spent time with the younger generation of Gopher basketball players. He stops frequently in the team office and makes himself available to the players and coaches, but says he also tries to stay out of head coach Tubby Smith's way.
"I don't try to give out too much advice unless the advice is asked of me," Burton said.
Now that his NBA career is over and his children have grown a little older, he has been able to step back and reflect on his Gopher career and the team's Sweet 16 and Elite 8 appearances. Burton led Minnesota in scoring during three of his four years and stands at second on the career scoring list. But he lists the contributions of teammates Mario Green and Bob Martin as his proudest and most memorable moments of the 1990 Elite 8 run, which included an upset of No.2 seed Syracuse.
Though 22 years have passed between then and now, Burton feels just as comfortable on campus now as he did as a senior on the basketball team.
"I don't think much has changed," he said. "Visually, there are newer buildings and newer structures, but the University of Minnesota, from my personal opinion from the way I see it and the way I feel, hasn't changed much."
That's just the way Burton likes it. He believes that Minnesota has always treated students well and offered superior education. His love for the campus shows in his knowledge of its history and design, and in the sheer amount of time he spends walking on its sidewalks and enjoying the sights. As his permanent residence is in Detroit, Burton has a rather unique answer for those asking his address.
"I told them, `If you want to find me, just come on campus,'" he said. "'If you're looking for me, come on campus. I'm not far. I'm somewhere on this campus.'"
Burton is already considering pursuing a Master's degree, ideally at his beloved University of Minnesota.
He hopes that his dedication to school serve as an example for others who left without diplomas.
"I've made as many phone calls as I can to guys to come back and finish their degrees," Burton said. "A lot of them aren't far (from graduating). We weren't far when we left."
Burton has several reasons to finish what he started in 1986. He will gain added clout in the business world, increased credibility with his children and the student-athletes his program helps, and the satisfaction of finishing what he started. But perhaps what Burton values most is a concept often lost in today's world of competitive job markets and accelerated programs: the simple enjoyment of school.
"If I want to get lost, I can get lost here and just be," he said. "I don't have to be Willie Burton. I can just be a student at the University of Minnesota. And I love that."