Success in basketball, like in life, requires resilience, and an ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.
For a young UNC Wilmington team, the 2019-20 campaign hasn’t been easy; nor has it unfolded as perhaps expected.
Coach C.B. McGrath was fired six games into the Seahawks’ Colonial Athletic Association slate, with an 0-6 start that extended their losing streak to 10 games. After Carter Skaggs’ transfer and Kai Toews' decision to begin pursuing his professional career, McGrath’s exit marked a culmination in significant shake-ups during some hard times.
Enter Rob Burke.
The assistant was promoted to interim coach on Jan. 13, three days ahead of a weekend home-stand against 2019 CAA regular-season champion and preseason 2020 favorite Hofstra, and a Saturday night contest with 2019 NCAA Tournament team Northeastern.
“It’s just been a whirlwind, trying to prepare for two of the best teams in our league,” Burke said. “And at the same time, we’re trying to get a little bit better as a team. So, it’s been fast-paced, it’s been nonstop, but it’s been really fun.”
Talk to Burke, and it’s easy to feel when he deems this process “fun,” the sentiment is genuine. The coach exudes an enthusiasm in his speech that brings to mind wrestling legend “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.
Rhodes’ most famous interview addressed “hard times” and overcoming them. That’s what the Seahawks are working to do.
In its first two games since the transition, UNC Wilmington took Hofstra to the wire in a 63-61 loss, but the defeat was merely a prelude to a breakthrough.
On Jan. 18, the Seahawks scored a 76-74 overtime defeat of Northeastern. For a program that reached six NCAA Tournaments since the dawn of the 21st century, knocking off the CAA’s last Tournament team for the first win of 2020 served up a reminder.
“This is a championship level program,” Burke said following the win, “And we have to live up to it. I'm so proud of those guys in the locker room.”
Hard times don’t last; not with the right mix of perseverance. Energy also helps.
“He’s a very energetic guy, and I felt like we needed that as a team,” Seahawks guard Shykeim Phillips said of Burke. “When the team’s getting down, we just look to him and he gives us energy.”
Burke’s energy comes from a passion for the game that runs so deep, Burke said he wishes he could still suit up. He puts up “150-to-200” shots a day, and while he can’t trap an opponent in the corner or hit the boards himself, Burke approaches coaching with a similar tenacity.
Experience is another ingredient for overcoming hard times. The 2019-20 season has been a learning experience indeed, but this UNC Wilmington lineup is filled with underclassmen.
Marten Linssen is a redshirt sophomore. Jay Estime’, Ty Gadsden and Mike Okauru are juniors. Jaylen Sims is a sophomore. Phillips, a freshman, won CAA Freshman of the Week after putting up 12 and 14 points against Hofstra and Northeastern.
Whether or not the Seahawks come on strong enough to be a Colonial Tournament dark-horse contender, Phillips recognizes the value in building to the future through the present.
“We’re a very young team, [but] I think we’re very talented. We’re starting to make some noise now. If we can finish the year off strong, that’ll build a lot of confidence going into next year.”
Whether the 2020-21 campaign includes Burke is an answer that will unfold in the coming months. Taking over as an interim coach presents unique challenges, from adjusting schematics to getting players to buy into a plan.
It’s a cumbersome workload to take on in the short term, with the looming uncertainty of the long term. Serving as an interim is oftentimes a prelude to seeking a new job.
Burke recognizes this because he’s lived the realities of the profession.
“I’ve been through this before,” he said. “When I was at The Citadel, my head coach, Chuck Driesell, did not get his contract renewed at the end of five years. I’ve been let go before. That’s something me and my wife have gone through with our children.”
Burke wants the Seahawks to focus on having fun on the court, but the uncertainty that comes away from it can be anything but. As someone trying to lead a team through hard times, Burke is qualified, having experienced them himself.
“It’s not fun,” he continued. “But just to be able to have those experiences, and have my dad’s support and my wife’s support, it’s been something I look at like, 'I’ve got a Plan A. I don’t have a Plan B.' So I’ve got to make this work as a basketball coach.”
That support from Bob Burke, Rob’s father, continues a family legacy that set the foundation for the junior Burke’s career. Bob is a legendary figure, his name gracing the court at Chowan University.
His career earned praise from noteworthy names like Dave Odom, and his former pupils include present-day head coaches Nate McMillan of the Indiana Pacers, and now Rob.
“I don’t know how to do anything else, to be honest with you, man,” Burke said. “It’s in my blood. I fell in love with the game as a young kid and have been working at it since.”