After each basketball season you can find Mike Burkett at his family cabin or people watching at the local pub as he contemplates his coaching future.
This year was a bit different, however. After the 2020 girls’ basketball tournament was canceled in early March due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, Burkett couldn’t make his usual postseason trip due to Colorado’s stay-at-home order.
Instead he stayed home and made the decision to retire from coaching after 21 years with St. Mary’s girls’ basketball.
“I think it was just time,” Burkett said. “I’m 66, and it just felt like it was time. Unfortunately it didn’t end the way anybody would want it to, but it’s been a wonderful 21 years. I’ve built a lot of great relationships and met so many fabulous people.”
The past three seasons Burkett coached St. Mary’s to three consecutive No. 1 state rankings, and back-to-back Class 3A state titles in 2018-19. When the 2020 state tournament was canceled the Pirates were on their way to a third consecutive title as they prepared for a semifinal matchup just hours before the remaining games were canceled.
“I’m blessed to go through it (with this group),” Burkett said. “They’ve been with me for four years and some even longer than that. It was a tough thing to do, but I always tell them, life isn’t fair, and a lot of these little things hit you in life.”
In 21 seasons with the Pirates, Burkett accumulated a 419-99 record, making him the ninth most winningest girls’ basketball coach in Colorado history, and has the second most wins of any girls’ coach at one school. He won 12 league championships, five district titles, nine regional championships and led the program to three state title game appearances — and won two.
Burkett said his team’s first state championship game will always stick out in his mind, but above all, his best memories from his time at St. Mary’s will be the relationships he forged with his players and coaching staff.
“Wins are byproducts of creating the culture and relationships with the kids,” Burkett said. “It’s about creating the culture you see at St. Mary’s when you walk into the gym.”
He took creating that culture as a personal challenge. He said one year he paid for the team’s apparel out of his own pocket and still drives the team bus.
Some of the traditions are easy to spot. The crowd cheering, “Here we go, here we go,” and the starters’ pregame cheer — which was established by Burkett’s first group of varsity starters in 1999. Burkett also made sure to always have 14 chairs on the home sideline, and 13 on the opponents — something he copied from Colorado Springs Christian after he noticed the Lions’ had given his team 13 chairs before defeating St. Mary’s by 35 points in his first year coaching.
“I’m a big proponent of present to past to future,” Burkett said. “And being there for 21 years creates a lot of those traditions. I just hope some of those traditions continue into the future.”
"I know the team will transition next year, and they’ll still be very good. They have some nice players coming back, and hopefully I can still be the guy who drives the bus.”
Burkett said he plans to stay with the St. Mary’s athletic department and transition into an assistant-type role.
He also hopes his son Kyle, currently an assistant, will take over as head coach.
“I will be the girls’ biggest fan, but it will be hard to go to games because I had the best seat in the house for 21 years,” Burkett said.
Burkett never coached a losing season and won 20 or more games 13 times in 21 years at the helm. He also led St. Mary’s to the biggest scoring differential in Class 3A in the past 14 seasons as the Pirates claimed each win by an average of 20.62 points per game.
Burkett spent a season coaching at Genoa-Hugo and another at Palmer under retired Hall of Fame coach Dan McKiernan before joining the Pirates.
Before Burkett arrived at St. Mary’s the Pirates won just four games between the previous two seasons. They were 11-9 in his first year after starting four freshmen and a senior.
Burkett was named the Gazette Preps Girls’ Basketball Coach of the Year the past three seasons, named the CHSAA coach of the year in 2017-18 and 2018-19, the Colorado Coaches Association Basketball Coach of the Year in 2019, MaxPreps Coach of the Year in 2012-13 and an eight-time winner of the Tri-Peaks league coach of the year.
“I just want to thank all of the assistant coaches I’ve had — there are too numerous to mention,” Burkett said. “They made this program go — I just happened to be the guy driving the bus.”