The picture sits on a shelf in Mississippi University for Women men’s basketball coach Dean Burrows’ office, a smiling young man holding an equally happy-looking boy clutching a trophy.
The trophy is for the 2020 Atlantic East Conference men’s basketball tournament championship. The young man is then-Wesley College player Derick Charles, and the boy is Trey Burrows, the coach’s son.
There also are pictures of Charles holding up Trey so he can finish cutting down the net and Trey on Charles’ shoulders in the team’s postgame photo at midcourt, again holding the trophy.
The coach’s only memories of that tournament are from the pictures, because he spent that week in the hospital with complications from Type 1 diabetes. It was not as scary as his hospital trip two years earlier, when he was once given a 20 percent chance of making it through the night, but it was enough for him to admit after the fact that he should have stayed in the hospital for the NCAA Tournament, but he “talked his way out.”
If you know Dean Burrows, his success at that is not much of a surprise.
“Released from the hospital and right down to campus and practice to surprise my guys,” he recalled. The situation led to a story on Wesley’s surprising season on d3hoops.com headlined, “If that man is alive, he’ll be coaching,” taken from a comment by a Wesley assistant.
Burrows has said many times that his players at Wesley were older brothers to his kids, and the picture perfectly captures pure joy shared between his “real” family and his basketball family.
But Burrows’ first season in Columbus meant temporarily sacrificing part of both families. His “real” family — Stefanie, his wife of 16 years; Isabella, 14; Jaelynn, 12; Trey, 10; and Avery, 6 — remained in Delaware for the school year, while on the basketball side, for the first time in nine years, he was coaching players brought to campus by somebody else.
It wasn’t easy, and that had nothing to do with the 3-15 record.
“It was harder than I thought,” Burrows said. “I think going into it we knew it was going to be difficult, but those 67 days from Dec. 27 to March 5 … that was the time period between seeing my kids.
“My wife came down in late January, so that was good, but between then and the time I went back was 40 days. You have FaceTime, but it’s not the same.”
A coach misses enough family time during basketball season in what passes for a normal season, but this was much different.
“I’m going to have to reacclimate to being a full-time dad again,” he said. “When I was back up there last weekend for my wife’s 40th birthday, seeing my son sprout up a little bit, seeing my 6-year-old with her penmanship from when I left until now, or how well she’s reading. It makes you not take those for granted.”
Oh, yeah, and Stefanie bought a puppy, just in case a family of six with a college basketball coach for a father didn’t have enough chaos.
Coaching is a nomadic profession, but moving from Delaware to Mississippi is a pretty dramatic change, even if you don’t leave the family behind for a year or have a new dog. So why do it?
“It was an opportunity for me to come somewhere that I’ve never been to in my life and be part of building something,” said Burrows, noting The W brought back athletics just five years ago. “You don’t get to do that too often in life, and that’s what really intrigued me.”
With nine years as a Division III assistant and head coach under his belt, Burrows has developed ways of running a program that were foreign to his new players, and he knew it.
“They didn’t necessarily ask for me, or someone else, to come in and be their head coach, but I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere,” Burrows said.
Burrows expects a lot from his players, from hitting the books to hurrying to help a teammate who hits the floor during a game, but they get a great deal out of him as well.
“From day one until the end, I told them, you’re going to get everything that I have,” he said. “That’s who I am. I have to be the most energetic; I have to be the most focused every single day.
“The expectation was they’re going to give us everything they have every day. A lot of the guys did, but it’s a learning curve. How I do things was probably complete culture shock to a lot of these young men.”
Burrows expects “seven, eight, maybe nine” players to return from this year’s 3-15 team, which went 3-4 at home, won two of its last four games and had seven games canceled.
“I saw growth from day one until the end,” he said. “Did that translate into wins and losses? Not necessarily how we wanted it to be, but we lost four games decided by two possessions or less. We’re there; we just have to take the next step.
“We have to understand that everything matters, from jump ball to the last buzzer, like that turnover with 19:52 left in the first half, that can come back and haunt you.”
Twenty-three players took the floor at one point this past season for the Owls, and that won’t happen again. An energetic recruiter, Burrows treated the 2021-22 season as a long audition, learning as much as he could about his players to see who would fit the program he intends to build.
“At our level, the Division III level, the NCAA has a policy that you have to have tryouts,” he said. “That’s hard, whether you recruit a kid, don’t recruit a kid, whatever the case may be, you look across from another person and tell them their time here, whether it’s one day, two days, a year, whatever the case may be, that it’s done, it’s hard.
“That’s the human side of it. A lot of people think you’re mean-spirited, but no, it’s just a part of the game. I think coach (Nick) Saban said it best: If I wanted to make everybody happy, I’d sell ice cream.”
In case anyone doesn’t get the point, there’s this:
“My job is to replace them,” Burrows said. “Some guys get bent out of shape about that, but the ones who are competitors, they’re champing at the bit because that means we’re getting better, and that’s going to help them.”
As far as who is going to try and replace them, Burrows is casting a wide but selective net.
“I’m an impatient person, but with recruiting I have to be patient,” he explained. “I’m relationship-oriented. Some coaches will “social media recruit,” and that’s just not who I am. I’m not going to recruit 20, 30, 40 guys. I’m one person.
“I like to go into a school, sit down, look them in the eye, get to know them, their parents, their guardians. I want to make sure we’re the right fit for them and they’re the right fit for us.
“I love finding that young man who is going to be able to represent us and knowing OK, this is what they bring to the table, how can they help us, but how can we help them with their journey?”
That perfect fit, the mutually beneficial relationship, is perhaps the most important part of the equation for Burrows, who clearly feels he enjoys that situation with his employer.
“The past few weeks we’ve had on-campus visits with young men we’re recruiting, and I can pick up the phone or email a department chair, and they’re going to meet with that young man when I bring them by,” he said. “In a lot of places, that’s unheard of.
“There’s so much good here in terms of location, campus, facilities, resources, cost. Yesterday I went to a student organization here on campus, and I got a text later on from the head of that organization saying how appreciative the kids were, and it’s just like, no, I learned from being out there and seeing the quality young men and women that we have here.”
Enthusiasm about The W helps Burrows in recruiting, but there is the added element of NCAA membership. The transition will be complete after next year, when the Owls join the Saint Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. They will play four of their future conference rivals next season.
“Next year, we have two on the road in Illinois and two coming down here,” Burrows said. “I’m looking forward to that, especially with Greenville, who runs the Grinnell system. They score crazy amounts of points, and I want to see that up close and personal before we’re in a league with them.”
So there will be one more year before the prospect of playing for conference championships and NCAA berths and getting all-conference recognition becomes reality for the Owls. But there is much work to be done before then.
“We have goals, but we’re not going to get to those goals unless our daily habits are on point,” Burrows said. “Everybody looks up the mountain, but they don’t see what it takes to get up there. We’re not skipping those steps.”
That means getting quality people into the program.
“Pillar or piece?” is the fundamental question for recruits, Burrows said. “You can go somewhere else and be a piece of it. Here you can be a pillar in terms of what we’re trying to build our foundation on.”
That, too, is about more than the team’s record.
“I know as a coach we’ll be judged on wins and losses, and that’s fine,” he said. “I’m completely at peace with that. But that’s not how I judge.
“I judge by getting better every single day, I judge by the type of husbands, fathers, sons, employers, significant others, employees, whatever the case may be, that they’re going to be five, 10, 15, 20 years down the road.
“That’s how I judge it.”