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‘You couldn’t have scripted it any better.’ Forty years later, Spalding AD Roger Burkman reflects on 1980 UofL champs

Steve Jones

Every team and student-athlete at Spalding University has the same ultimate goal – to win a national championship.

So it’s ideal that the man leading the Golden Eagles’ athletic department – Athletic Director Roger Burkman – played on one of the city’s most celebrated championship teams and understands what it takes to get to the top of the NCAA mountain.

Forty years after helping the University of Louisville to the 1980 NCAA Division I men’s basketball national title, Burkman’s memories of his championship season remain fresh, and his relationships with his former teammates and coaches remain strong.

The lessons he learned as a college basketball player about the importance of teamwork, a strong work ethic and wise decision-making continue to influence his life and work today. Burkman and the rest of coach Denny Crum’s 1979-80 Cardinals, who were U of L’s first basketball champions, will be honored on Saturday afternoon at halftime of the Louisville-Virginia game at the KFC Yum! Center.

“It’s amazing that it was 40 years ago, but we can still remember it like it was yesterday,” said Burkman, who is in his 15th year at Spalding and was a junior guard and the sixth man on the 1980 title team. “It’s just so fond of a memory, that whole season. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

Burkman said his role on the team was to be essentially a “coach on the floor,” coming off the bench to provide defense, energy and ball-handling and to help all the players get organized. After averaging about 30 points per games at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, Burkman took on the role of an aggressive defensive stopper at U of L, which relied on All-American Darrell Griffith, Derek Smith and others to supply most of the scoring.

“Roger, what an outstanding player, person and friend,” said former U of L guard Tony Branch, who was a senior on the title team and Burkman’s roommate. “He ended up being a great defensive specialist, one of the best defenders in  the whole NCAA. And he could score a little bit, too.”

Burkman said the competitiveness and motivation of the Cardinals carried them.

“We’ve talked about how physical and tough the practices were, and a lot of the games were easier than the practices because they were so competitive,” Burkman said. “We were tough. … And we didn’t have any, ‘How many points did I get?’ We were just out there to win.

“A lot of U of L fans watched and kind of grew up with that team, and I think that’s a reason why, to this day, people stop and say hi to you, or want an autograph or want to talk about the games that year.”

U of L lost star player Scooter McCray to injury in the third game of the season and suffered a couple early losses before raising its intensity in practice and finding its groove the second half of the season. The Cards were a No. 2 seed and earned a first-round bye in the 48-team NCAA Tournament. They survived back-to-back overtime games against Kansas State (in Lincoln, Nebraska) and Texas A&M (in Houston) before throttling top-seeded LSU 86-66 in the Midwest Regional final to earn a spot in the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Some of the unforgettable memories for Burkman?

Louisville 1980 championship team with 2019-20 Cardinals
Member of the 1980 Louisville basketball team met the 2019-20 Cardinals on Friday, Feb. 7. The 1980 squad will be honored at U of L’s game Saturday against Virginia.

Branch’s last-second shot to beat Kansas State — “it hit the front of the rim, the back of the rim, then kind of rooooolls around, and through,” he said — and how Crum accurately predicted the Cards could beat LSU by 20 because U of L’s defense would overwhelm the Tigers.

After that, the Final Four at Market Square Arena was a homecoming for Burkman, a native of Acton, Indiana, and an easy trip north for an excited U of L fan base.

About 10,000 fans attended the Cards’ shootaround before the semifinal game against Iowa, and Burkman had a large group of family and high school friends in the arena. After practice, he greeted his parents on the front row and gave his father, Al, a hug.

“I head back to the locker room, and I look over my shoulder, and my dad is signing autographs,” Burkman recalled with a laugh.

U of L defeated Iowa, then UCLA in the national title game, cementing the Cards’ place in history. The players remain some of Burkman’s closest friends.

Burkman said the friendships are a testament to the culture built by Crum and his staff and the high character of the players they recruited.

Burkman has considered Crum a lifelong mentor and said the Hall of Fame coach is like a grandfather to Burkman’s children.

As a high schooler, Burkman expected to attend Purdue. That changed when he established a personal connection with Crum, who knew Burkman loved fishing and took him to do that on his recruiting visit to Louisville.

“I said, ‘This guy is pretty cool, man. I like this,'” Burkman said with a laugh. “It was a great basketball program, a great city, and they had guys like Darrell Griffith where you knew you were stepping into a winning program.”

Crum has been a longtime supporter of Burkman’s work at Spalding and has many times served on the expert panel of the Golden Eagles’ annual Bracketology fundraiser.

Crum taught Burkman the importance of getting to practice early and being well-prepared. On the court and off, the coach drilled into the players’ heads the simple motto, “Make good decisions.”

“If you ask both my children,” Burkman said, “probably my most common reminder, statement, phrase, whatever, is, ‘Make good decisions.'”

Burkman said Crum helped him develop his leadership style – to stay even-keeled, to never get too angry or emotional, to make thoughtful decisions – and he said his playing career and national title at U of L helped lay the foundation for a happy, successful life and career.

“That’s one great things about being on a championship team is you get to meet so many people and make so many friends,” he said.