Becky Burke, the new women’s basketball coach at UB, admits she can be competitive to a fault. Her parents, Mike and Susie, who raised five children, knew that Becky was different from a very young age.
An example: When the Burkes were living in Poughkeepsie, they had a flag football birthday party for Becky’s older brother, Mike, in their big front yard. Her brother invited about 15 of his friends over for the occasion. He was about 14 at the time. She was two or three years younger.
“Of course, I wanted to play,” Burke recalled at her office in Alumni Arena. “So, I go out and I’m playing flag football and I was the best one on the field. It’s my brother’s birthday party, and he was getting offended and all upset that his little sister was out here scoring all the touchdowns.
“My mom literally had to yank me from the birthday party. Oh, I was pissed. I was watching from the window.”
Becky chuckled at the memory, still amused by the thought of outplaying a bunch of older boys, including a brother who would go on to be a solid high school football player.
Her father laughed at the story, too. He had another to tell. Later, after the family moved to Clarks Summit, Pa., they were at her brother’s high school football game in nearby Scranton. Mike and Susie were halfway up in the stands. Becky was down near the edge of the field.
“Becky had her hair tucked under her little baseball cap,” Mike said from Florida, where he’s a doctor in cancer medicine. “She had a football and threw a perfect spiral to me in the stands. The guy next to me said, ‘Boy, your son throws a nice football!’ I said, ‘Thanks, that’s my daughter.’”
His daughter was a natural athlete who would have loved to play football if it were an option. Becky started off as a swimmer before gravitating to basketball, where her dad coached her for years in youth leagues.
Once, when she was in eighth grade, Becky was swimming laps at the YMCA when a coach saw her and asked if she could swim for his team. She said she was a basketball player now. The seasons conflicted. The coach said she didn’t even have to come to practice, just the meets.
“That year, she won the state championship in her age group in breaststroke,” her dad said.
But basketball was her real love. Burke had the physical gifts and a basketball IQ beyond her years. Little girls could finally look up to female hoop role models and see a world of possibility. The UConn women’s team was early in its run, with stars like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. The WNBA was growing and the U.S. women were ruling in the Olympics.
“When I was coaching her, we would pretty much win the championship every year,” Mike said. “We’d argue if it was my coaching or her playing. I think it was mostly her playing.
“She had a great ability at a young age to see the court, to see what was happening,” he said. “She’s get frustrated at the other kids sometime. I pulled her aside once and told her, ‘They can’t see what you’re seeing,’ and I think she understood after that. She had the ability to see things from a basketball perspective that other kids her age couldn’t.”
Becky soaked up basketball knowledge like a sponge. Mike said she watched more hoops on TV than any of her siblings. She watched it all — college and pro, men and women — but her real hero growing up was a headstrong little NBA superstar guard, Allen Iverson.
“When she was really little, she had her Allen Iverson shoes and everything,” her father recalled. “I took her once to a Sixers-Nets game. She said, ‘I can’t believe I’m breathing the same air as Allen Iverson.’”
The air was pretty heady at Abington Heights High, where Burke started all four years, scored over 2,000 points and was the Pennsylvania 4A player of the year as a senior. She was highly recruited and chose South Carolina before switching to Louisville after SC changed coaches.
Burke, at 5-11,was a starting shooting guard almost from the time she arrived as a freshman in 2008-09. That year, the Cardinals reached their first Final Four, losing to Connecticut in the national title game. She was in Jeff Walz’s first recruiting class and the first player to stay all four years for Walz, who has now won 414 games and reached four Final Fours.
Walz has characterized her as “stubborn” and intensely competitive, a player who hated to lose.
“Oh yeah, it’s the truth,” said Burke, who turned 32 in December. “As a player, I was very stubborn. I was the most competitive player on the floor. He and I butted heads some; we also were on the same page a ton. But he and I are built very similarly. We both have this edge about us, this competitive nature that not a lot of people have.
“There’s a reason that for four years he couldn’t take me off the floor,” she said. “At that level, you’re getting recruited over every year. He brought in an all-American in my position every single year. But guess what? That man had to play me. He couldn’t take me off the floor.
“Because of that competitiveness, that little bit of stubbornness, I was going to give him every reason to have me on the floor. I was going to shoot the highest percentage; I was going to know the scouting report the best; I was going to win every sprint.”
Some players would have resented being challenged for a spot every season. Burke thrived on the competition for her job.
“Oh, hundred percent,” she said. “I’ve always been that ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’ type of kid. That’s just who I am.”
Burke played 138 games and ranks 16th in career scoring among the Louisville women. She was a 38 percent three-point shooter and as a senior finished second in the national three-point shootout.
After graduation, she played a year of professional ball overseas in China and Poland. But she gave it up after one season. For one thing, she missed her family and relationships back home. She has two older brothers, Mike and Matt, and two younger siblings, Mitch and Missy (she was the only non-M child, named after her grandmother, Rebecca).
“I’m a big family person,” she said. “I didn’t see a 10-year career in, say, Germany, while my nieces and nephews and sister were growing up. I just didn’t want to be that 35-year-old who comes back over here. Nothing against it, it just wasn’t the route I wanted to take, playing pro ball for 14 years and having nothing else on my resume.”
She had other ideas. The person who saw things unfolding on a court before the other kids as a little girl, who had a keen basketball mind, knew in her heart that she could become a coach, and a great one.
“I had the confidence that I could,” she said, “but at 23, you had to go and prove it. You’ve got to really, really dive in and learn and grow in this profession. There’s so many things about being a head coach that you don’t get better at, or you don’t know how to do, until you do them.”
Burke could have gone to a Power Five school as an assistant. Walz would have hired her. But she didn’t want to be one of those long-serving assistants who wait years for a break. She figured the best path to her coaching dream was to start at the bottom.
At 23, she became head of basketball operations at Cal-Fullerton. The next year, she was an assistant at St. Joseph’s College, a Division III school in Indiana, where she worked in strength and conditioning and recruiting. She gained insights into all the nuances of a college basketball program. At that point, she felt she was ready to run her own show.
“I was like, ‘I can be a head coach. I can run a practice. I can run a program’,” she said. “Everyone has their own path. But I wanted to do it from the roots, from the ground up.”
In 2015, she became the first head coach of a new women’s team at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical, an NAIA school in Prescott, Ariz.
Literally, she started a program from scratch, at age 25. Burke had an entire year to prepare Embry-Riddle for its inaugural season. They went 14-12 the first season. In 2017-18, the Eagles went 21-6, starting a trend that saw Burke’s teams make big leaps from the first year to the second.
In 2018, she took the head job at the University of Charleston, a Division II program in West Virginia’s capital. Burke took a team that had gone 13-17 the year before her arrival and went 48-14 in her two seasons.
Then she made the jump to Division I. At 30, she became head coach at USC Upstate in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The Spartans were coming off a 10-20 season; they hadn’t had a winning season in six years. Unable to recruit fully during the pandemic, Burke won eight games in 2020-21. Last season, they went 22-8 and she was Big South Coach of the Year.
Mark Alnutt, the UB athletic director, knew there was a good chance Felisha Legette-Jack would leave for Syracuse, her alma mater, after the 2021-22 season. He had a preliminary list, but Burke, still only 32 and with only two years of D-I head coaching experience, wasn’t on it.
But the more Alnutt spoke with insiders in the basketball world, the more intrigued he became. He saw how she had built a program from the ground up, and how she’d won quickly. Burke became a candidate.
“She naturally gravitated toward the top,” Alnutt said. “We grilled these candidates for about two and a half hours on various questions. She separated herself even more from the pack. I knew pretty quick.”
Alnutt said Burke might be young, but she’s wise beyond her years as a coach and a leader. He was struck by her energy, her confidence, that fact that she respected the winning brand that Legette-Jack had built at the university but wasn’t cowed by the thought of maintaining it.
He liked the fact that Burke had taken an unconventional route, that she hadn’t felt the need to work her way up at a Power Five school, that she’d groomed herself by learning different aspects of the job as lower levels.
“Last but not least is her plan that she laid out for Buffalo,” Alnutt said. “Not that we need to take a step back and rebuild but having that confidence and a strategy and a plan in place. She understands the realities of the transfer portal, but we can use it to our advantage, too.”
It could be intimidating to replace the most successful women’s basketball coach in Western New York history, a woman who took the Bulls to four NCAA Tournaments in seven years and made the Sweet 16.
“It doesn’t bother her one bit,” Alnutt said. “Part of that is her competitive nature.”
Alnutt has realistic goals after seeing UB’s all-time leading scorer (Dyaisha Fair) and the MAC rookie of the year (Georgia Woolley) leave the program, along with a few others. He told Burke he wants the UB women to be in Cleveland for the MAC Tournament next year. That means top eight.
Burke told him they’re the MAC champions and as far as she’s concerned, they’re going out next season to defend it.
“I don’t do rebuilds,” she said. “Let’s be honest. We have a lot of work to do in recruiting right now. With this portal and it being April 19, we’ve got to get lucky. We’re working our butts off, but we’ve got to get a couple of impact players to come in in these next few weeks, and I believe that we will.”
She said the 2023-24 freshman class will be a “home run.” That’s how confident Burke is in her recruiting contacts and ability to sell what the program has to offer in Buffalo. In the short term, she has a challenging transition on her hands.
UB has signed four transfers since Burke took over: Chellia Watson, a 5-8 guard who was her leading scorer this past season at USC Upstate; Zakiyah and Re’Shawna Stone, guards from Division II national champion Glenville State; and Latrice Perkins, a guard from College of Charleston.
“If we’re being realistic, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Burke said. “We’ve got six, seven kids working out down there right now. Talent-wise, we’re not good enough to win a MAC championship as it sits. The kids we’ve got committed are going to be a major help. We need a few more, need some depth, some bodies in the post. That’s crucial for us.”
She promises they will be competitive, and in superb physical condition. How that translates in wins and losses remains to be seen.
“Oh, yeah. I think we’ll be very competitive,” she said. “At the end of the day, you’re going to have a chance when your team sits down and defends at a high level and your team plays harder for 40 minutes — and those are two non-negotiables for us.
“I told Mark in this interview process, ‘I’m the person for this job, because I’ve sat in this seat for eight years — as a 32-year-old. You could be interviewing assistants, and that’s fine. But they haven’t sat in this seat. They haven’t had that clipboard in their hands in the last 30 seconds of a game.”
Burke said she’s doing what she loves. She doesn’t consider it work. Competing is what she lives for. It’s who she is. She has a reputation for pushing her players to their absolute limit. At some point, a player will push back and challenge her, like the kid who wouldn’t let her coach take her off the court back at Louisville.
“I don’t mind it,” she said with a laugh.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.