By Mark Nagi
Tennessee has had its share of quality football players over the years. In the 2000s, one of the best of the best with linebacker Kevin Burnett. A two-time team captain, Burnett shined during his senior season in 2004. He was an all-SEC performer, collected 120 tackles, including a career-high 16 stops in the Vols victory over Florida. He went on to play nine seasons in the NFL. Today he’s started a new career, as the high school football coach of the McArthur Mustangs in Florida.
Recently, Burnett took the time to catch up with The Knoxville Focus to discuss his time at Tennessee, where he sees the program headed, and his new gig on the sidelines.
The Knoxville Focus: How did your years at Tennessee prepare you for life in the NFL, and then after your pro football days were done?
Kevin Burnett: First thing you have to look at is the experience with Coach Fulmer, John Chavis, Larry Slade, Randy Sanders, Jay Graham… they provided us with the best on field experience possible. Look at how many pro players came out of our program. Every day was like an NFL practice. And then in the classroom, look at what Tyler Johnson has done, Fernandez West… the support staff and (former Athletics Director) Doug Dickey was doing at the time to get us resources. Mr. Haslam providing us with such nice facilities. Look a the opportunities we had. I don’t think you had a choice but to turn out great if you applied yourself. It was a great experience for me.
KF: Obviously Tennessee football hasn’t been at the level it had been when you were playing. How hard has it been to watch Tennessee struggle?
KB: I guess what makes it so disheartening is that you get people that aren’t tied to the program. Fulmer and Chavis played at UT. Having guys around the program that loved the program really brings a sense of culture and pride back. When you have coaches come in that are climbers that leave after a year or two years or are fired… that leaves such a hole. No one is tied to the program when people leave in a year or two. It really disrupts the program. It was hard to watch.
KF: Do you think that things are moving in the right direction with Fulmer in charge?
KB: Me and Coach Fulmer spoke when John Currie had the job (as Tennessee athletics director). I came to a football game and sat in Coach Fulmer’s box. We said that we had to get a football guy in office. We need a football AD, someone that knows X’s and O’s because football pays the bills. That’s not a knock to any other program… that’s just the reality of it. To run a successful program you have to have a good deal of knowledge about football to know how to run a good program. Looking at what Currie had done up to a point.. OK, now it is time to get things turned in a different direction. Right after that was the whole coaching debacle (in 2017) and then Currie got fired and Fulmer stepped in. I called him and said, “This is what we were just talking about.” I have no doubt Coach Fulmer will get things turned around, I have not seen enough from Pruitt and staff to form an opinion yet. Usually with football they give them three years. You have it or you don’t. This will tell the tale with three recruiting cycles. Football isn’t a one man show. How well can you get guys to execute?
KF: How are you adjusting to life as a high school football coach?
KB: It’s exciting. It gives me an opportunity to give back to the community that I came from. Not geographical, but the same middle to lower class, working class neighborhood. You get a lot of kids that get passed by, so I feel fortunate and grateful that I can be around young minds and help mold them and steer them in the right direction.
KF: How are you staying connected to your players during COVID-19?
KB: Everything is digital. It’s hard being a new coach to be able to reach out and they have to remember you. It’s a challenge,
KF: Do you see yourself doing this job for a while?
KB: Just being around the kids is a joy to me. Gives you something to look forward to outside your family. It’s fun to be around young minds to cultivate from ground up. You check classes or do scheduling or try to do grades. It gives you a bunch of stuff to do.
Mark Nagi is the author of “Decade of Dysfunction,” which takes an up close look at all that led to Tennessee’s crazy coaching search of 2017. The book is available on Amazon.