Ben Criddle: Why Chris Burgess left his alma mater for BYU

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Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

PROVO — Few will argue with the fact that BYU is a unique institution that presents an extraordinary culture and community.

That same culture and community can prove polarizing to some, but to others, it presents an environment that is desirable to return to, and maybe even more so than any other institution out there.

Count Chris Burgess among the latter group.

Burgess was announced as a prominent addition to the new Cougars coaching staff led by Kevin Young last week. He joined ESPN radio recently to discuss his decision to leave his alma mater and to bring his coaching talents back to BYU.

Burgess was part of Mark Pope's staff at BYU from 2019-22 before taking a similar post at Utah, coaching under coach Craig Smith. So why return to Provo? What makes a seemingly lateral move by joining Young's staff the best option for Burgess and his family?

Burgess outlined three primary reasons in the interview, all of which played pivotal in making his decision.

Reestablishing relationships

Burgess isn't that far removed from coaching at BYU, and subsequently is very familiar with several players on the current roster, including Cougars big man Foussyeni Traore, with whom Burgess established a strong relationship.

"The reunion with Fouss — honestly you get choked up," Burgess said. "It's so difficult leaving people — good people, and to be able to come back for his senior year and have another impact on his life … that was one of the best things about coming back."

Burgess takes pride in developing big men, and was central to Traore's development during the early stages of his career. He'll assume that same role on Young's staff, but will also work with the entire team, several of whom he's already familiar with.

"There's guys in this locker room that I have relationships with," Burgess said. "I recruited them out of high school, or I coached them here, so the opportunity to be back and be a part of their lives again was another reason."

With regards to developing big men at BYU, Burgess' first focus is on the execution of an effective pick-and-roll on the offensive end, and then presenting himself as a strong and central focus on defense.

"The big (man) sees everything. He has to be your loudest guy,' Burgess said. "He's that guy who sees everything and has to communicate to everyone around him. … You don't want a quiet big."

Coaching under Kevin Young

In order to lure a coach to make a seemingly lateral move as an assistant it necessitates a unique offering. In Burgess' mind, the opportunity to coach under Young, and his inherent strengths coming from an NBA coaching background, was difficult to pass up.

"He has an NBA pedigree, but not only coaching in the NBA — he's been in the NBA draft rooms and the NBA workouts," Burgess said. "So it's the reputation he has, for all of those different reasons. So I got super excited to work for him."

Burgess soon saw that Young's impressive resume matched up well with what he was presented firsthand during the interview process, where he saw plainly how well they could work with one another. He was impressed with how Young is making his staff somewhat unique with the hiring of Doug Stewart, who will be Young's chief of staff, but also work in a similar role and function as an NBA general manager.

"I think that you're getting a head coach with a ton of passion and a ton of energy, and a ton of urgency," Burgess said. "He's doing everything he can to construct a college staff, but in an NBA way."

Young's first assistant coaching hire was Brandon Dunson, who came to BYU after coaching at Stanford for a couple of seasons.

"I got to compete against him during the last two years with him being at Stanford, and he just has the best reputation in terms of the relationship on the court and working with players. They all love him," Burgess said. "They all speak so highly about him, and in just my four or five days on the job I've seen just how driven he is."

Young stated his intent on bringing in assistants from the collegiate ranks, to help bridge whatever gap exists between his NBA knowledge and how college basketball operates. So far, with the additions of Burgess, Dunson and Stewart, he's largely accomplished that vision.

"I think Cougar Nation should be excited that coach Young is putting together a staff that is all in different roles to support him in this transition to this university and college basketball," Burgess said. "You want to surround yourself with people that work unreasonably hard and that they're intellectually curious, and that they're extraordinary teammates. I think you sprinkle in some passion with those things and you have something great. I'm finding that with the people that coach Young is hiring, and that's exciting to be a part of."

BYU assistant basketball coach Chris Burgess poses for photos while at the Marriott Center Annex in Provo on Friday, May 3, 2019.
BYU assistant basketball coach Chris Burgess poses for photos while at the Marriott Center Annex in Provo on Friday, May 3, 2019. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The Y. and BYU's environment

What put the cherry directly on top for Burgess was the opportunity to return to a BYU culture and community that he and his family enjoyed immensely and thrived in.

"My family always loved our time here in Provo during the three years that we were here with coach Pope, and his staff," Burgess said. "This place holds a special place in our hearts, and so when the opportunity came about to work for coach Young … I got super excited to learn from him.

"There's just a lot of reasons, but everything came down to (the fact) that this is the best place for my family to reunite with BYU and to make it part of our lives for the long term."

Throughout the process, Burgess has received several positive notes from Cougar fans, via email, direct messages on social media and otherwise, and has appreciated every single one of them.

"It's been super humbling, if I'm being honest, with the positivity, the text messages and direct messages I've (received) from the fan base welcoming me and my family back to Provo. It's just been very humbling," Burgess said. "It's another reason why I'm super excited to be here."

Criddle's conclusion:

When Young decided to leave the NBA as the highest-paid assistant coach and come to BYU, the basketball world was shocked. Why would he leave the NBA to come to BYU?

"Timing in life is everything and the NBA is great, and has a lot of amazing players," Young said at his introductory press conference. "But it's a hard lifestyle, and there's not a lot of stability in it. As a dad with three young children and a wife that has been doing this forever, the more we felt it was the best of three worlds."

Those three worlds: coaching at a high level (Big 12), being together as a family a bit more, and representing BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while receiving the support of those institutions.

Burgess cited three similar factors that influenced him to leave his alma mater and return to coach at BYU, but as I read between the lines, I think there is even more to the story for both of these coaches.

BYU just hired the man as an assistant coach that the greater collective Cougars fan base wanted as their next head coach. Times have changed in Provo, ladies and gentlemen. For the last 14 years, Utah, among many other institutions, has been able to allocate more resources than BYU towards its coaching staff.

Why did Chris Burgess make a seemingly lateral move and why did the highest-paid NBA assistant coach come to coach at BYU in 2024? BYU is finally paying above market rate for its coaching staff.

Coupled with all of these aforementioned factors cited by both Burgess and Young, for most of Cougar country, this investment is long overdue. For many, it's like taking an ice-cold refreshing drink after wandering in the wilderness of independence and West Coast Conference affiliation for far too many years.

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Ben Criddle


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