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The Call to the Hall: Burton’s career as coach leads to IHSAA Hall of Fame

Had it not been for the guidance of his mentor, Burton’s legacy would’ve never gotten off the ground

March 9, 2012
By Troy Banning - Sports Editor ( , The Daily Freeman Journal

WEBSTER CITY - Angry and dejected, Don Burton wanted to quit; quit competing, quit school ... quit everything.

And he did. Not once, but twice.

Burton wasn't the first young adult to lose his temper and momentarily toss his gifts, and even his future, aside, but luckily for him there was an angel of sorts always grabbing him from behind and leading him back onto the right path.

Article Photos

DFJ photo by Troy Banning
Webster City native and longtime area basketball coach Don Burton poses with the first-place trophy he won while coaching the 1997 Iowa Select Team at the Australian Shootout Tournament. The team picture was signed by all of his players, which included future Iowa Hawkeye Dean Oliver. On Saturday, Burton, 75, will enter the Iowa High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.

His name was Harley Rollinger.

Now 75 years old and more than 50 years removed from his emotional roller coaster, Burton still remembers the euphoria of athletic success and the pitfalls that came with untimely injuries. And one question hangs in the air - what if?

What if Rollinger hadn't been there to talk Burton into re-enrolling in college not once, but twice? What if the Webster City High School icon - Rollinger was the Lynx football coach for 18 seasons from 1949-1966 - hadn't taken an interest in keeping Burton on the straight and narrow when he needed it most?

Fact Box

2012 IHSAA Hall of Fame Class

Don Burton - See Story

Adolph Hlubek - Spent 22 seasons as a basketball coach at Fort Atkinson, Melrose and Charlotte, and in that span his teams posted a record of 278-122. It was 75 years ago that his Melrose team won the single class championship, and the 1937 title marked the first unbeaten state crown in state history. He passed away in 1979.

Keith Stribe - A boys' basketball coach at Sanborn, Northwest Webster and Carroll. He directed Carroll to a 230-78 record from 1992 to 2006 and led the Tigers to state tournament appearances in 1996, 1997 and 2005. Carroll was 111-14 at home during his tenure.

Larry Lust - Received all state-honors in football, basketball and baseball, while also being a solid track performer and earning 12 varsity letters at Newton. He was instrumental as a scorer and defender on the Cardinals' back-to-back state championship basketball teams in 1963 and 1964. He earned a football scholarship to Iowa, but injuries forced him to drop the sport. He then transferred to UNI where he played basketball for three seasons and was one of the Panthers' top defenders.

Mark Mohl - Led Lost Nation from 1980 through 1983, he scored 1,815 career points to rank 23rd all-time when he graduated. Went on to star at Kirkwood Community College and Morningside before becoming an assistant coach on Osage's 1995 state championship team. He served as the Green Devils' head coach for eight seasons and was 109-70. He is presently the head coach at North Iowa Community College.

Chris Kuhlmann - A three-year starter at Denison-Schleswig, he scored 1,791 points during his career and ranked third all-time on the Class 2A-3A chart. Averaged 20 points per game as a sophomore to lead the Monarchs to a fourth-place finish in 2A at the state tournament, averaged 24.8 as a junior and 34.8 as a senior. Attended Morningside College where he established school records for points in a game (54), points in a season (696) and points in a career (1,950).

Brian Heying - Led New Hampton to three straight state tournament appearances, including a state title in 1993 and a runner-up finish in 1994. With him in the starting lineup, the Chickasaws were 65-7 and a three-time champion of the North Iowa Conference. Graduated as the school's all-time leading scorer (1,509 points) and rebounder (628). Went on to win four letters as a member of the UNI basketball team.

Ryan Bowen - A three-time first-team all-state selection at Fort Madison, he was named the Class 4A Player of the Year in 1994. Graduated with several school records including points scored (1,507), rebounds (749) and blocked shots (296). Played for Dr. Tom Davis at Iowa and left the Hawkeyes' program as the all-time leader in steals and field goal percentage. After playing professionally in Turkey for two years, he had a nine-year NBA career with Denver, Houston, New Orleans and Oklahoma City.

Raef LaFrentz - As the leading scorer at MFL/Mar-Mac, he led the Bulldogs to the state tournament in 1993 and 1994, placing third and fourth, respectively. Finished his prep career with 2,148 points and 1,079 rebounds and was a McDonald's All-American. Went on to star at Kansas and he's one of three Jayhawk players to finish his career with more than 2,000 points. He was the third player selected in the 1998 NBA draft and spent 11 years with Denver, Dallas, Boston and Portland, amassing 5,690 points, 3,423 rebounds and 919 blocked shots.

"Coach Rollinger had the biggest influence on me, definitely," Burton said recently. "It's because of him that I ended up being a coach and a teacher because he told me I was going back to school."

Rollinger's insistence on Burton tackling a career in education and coaching will reach its culmination on Saturday when Burton - a 1954 WCHS graduate and the head basketball coach at Northeast Hamilton, South Hamilton and Eagle Grove during a period that spanned four decades - will be inducted into the Iowa High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame during halftime of the boys' Class 4A state basketball championship game in what is sure to be a packed house at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. By his side will be his wife of 54 years, Karen, and his two children, Butch and Tammy.

It will be an emotional night, Burton is sure. And on the forefront of his mind will be his mentor.

"It's going to be a really good night and the nicest thing about it will be from the Coach Rollinger aspect," Burton said while fighting his emotions. "If it hadn't been for him I would have quit, without a doubt. So I owe everything to Coach Rollinger and my parents."

To understand, you have to jump back in time to when Burton, like most teens, felt he could walk on water. A 15-time letter winner in four sports at Webster City - a legendary career that earned him his rightful spot in the WCHS Athletics Hall of Fame in 2011 - Burton had both Iowa and Iowa State clamoring for his athletic prowess upon his graduation. He eventually chose Iowa State because it offered him the chance to compete in both football and baseball.

But the black clouds rolled in just three weeks into his freshman football season when he suffered a ruptured kidney that put his athletic future in jeopardy, at least in the eyes of his coaches.

"They told me I was probably done, so bull-headed me, I got mad and quit school," Burton said. "I came back to Webster City and went to junior college and played football and baseball and I thought that was going to be the end of it. But Coach Rollinger and my parents got together and he really wanted me to go back to college. He promised me a job if I'd go back to college."

So that's exactly what Burton did, landing at the University of New Mexico after he completed his courses at Webster City Junior College. But that black cloud seemed to follow him wherever he went.

Just a month into his stint on the New Mexico football team, Burton got hurt again and this time it was a knee injury. And just like that, history repeated itself.

"When I was going to have to have that operated on, I got mad and quit school again," Burton said. "I came back to Webster City and started working, and Rollinger again talked me back to school."

Still with the promise of coaching alongside Rollinger when he completed his degree, Burton traveled to the University of Northern Iowa and received his diploma in 1961.

The irony of the story is that Burton never did occupy a spot on the Lynx staff next to Rollinger. Instead he forged his own path, one that led him to 320 career victories in 22 seasons as a varsity basketball head coach, a 69 percent career winning percentage and a pair of trips to the state tournament.

He also served as a middle school coach in various communities for nine years and spent 11 seasons on the sidelines as a junior varsity coach. But basketball wasn't his only coaching passion; he spent years working with football, baseball and track teams as well.

And he did it all in the coaching arena without ever straying too far from home.

"I'm a home body. I've always lived around here, so I feel very honored of having the opportunity to go into the Hall of Fame because I wanted to stay local and that's kind of hard sometimes," Burton said. "I was always spoiled rotten around here because Rollinger looked out for me and took care of me and so did my parents."

Burton's 1968 Northeast Hamilton team placed third at the state tournament, and in 1991 he returned to Des Moines as the head coach at South Hamilton. He was a Hawks' assistant for four state-tournament berths, and in 1980 and 1987 they place second.

"I loved to pressure teams," Burton said. "For 13 or 14 straight years down (at South Hamilton), we pressured everybody the whole game and we went through a lot of years where we'd win 18 or 19 ballgames. In the 1990s we had some real good teams, and we were ranked No. 1 in the state for seven weeks in 1991."

Burton, who taught high school math throughout his professional career, retired from teaching and coaching at South Hamilton following the 2000-01 school year. But just one year later he made his return to coaching at the Webster City Middle School.

In 2006, he made the leap back to the varsity level when he took over the varsity basketball job at Eagle Grove. In his second season at the helm the Eagles - who had struggled prior to his arrival - went 15-6 and finished in the upper tier of the North Central Conference.

He slipped back into retirement after his third season at Eagle Grove.

In his heyday as a coach - a time that also brought him a Class 2A Coach of the Year honor from the Iowa Basketball Coaches Association in 1997 - Burton also had the opportunity to guide several all-star squads during the offseason. He coached the Northwest Dr. Pepper all-star team in 1997, and later he took the Iowa Select Team to Australia where the squad went 14-0 to win the Australian Shootout Tournament. That team featured players that turned into household names like future Iowa basketball player Dean Oliver and Hawkeye quarterback Kyle McCann, as well as future Nebraska Cornhusker Cary Cochran and South Hamilton graduate Jeremiah Ubben.

"That event (in Australia) was probably the biggest thrill in my coaching career," Burton said. "Working with players of such high character and talent was by far more gratifying than the actual win."

Burton has had the opportunity to work at a bevy of Iowa and Iowa State basketball camps, and he even got the chance to counsel youths at a Milwaukee Bucks camp in Decorah during one summer. It was at that Bucks' camp in 1970 where he came face-to-face with eventual NBA icon Lou Alcindor - you may know him better as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - for a friendly game of H-O-R-S-E.

"I used to think I was a fantastic shooter, so I got lined up to play him," Burton said. "At first I played him in P-I-G and with his hook shots, I got skunked twice. We went out a little further and he still beat me, but then I said, 'OK, I'm going to put the long shot in,' and I beat him because he couldn't shoot from out there. But you couldn't meet a nicer guy."

It's stories like those that bring a smile to Burton's face. It's reminiscing on all of the athletes and teams that he was fortunate enough to work with that he relishes.

And come Saturday night, he'll have yet another story to file away into his bank of cherished memories.



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