SPRINGFIELD — Cheryl Burnett smiles and shakes her head when folks want to give her all the credit.
Yes, her name will forever be associated with Lady Bears basketball. See the two Final Four banners hanging from the rafters at JQH Arena? And spot two of the retired jerseys hanging nearby of stars Melody Howard and Jackie Stiles?
Those were her teams and her players.
However, that’s not quite accurate, Coach Burnett will tell you. In reality, those were the community’s teams and the community’s players. No way would her 15 seasons leading Missouri State University women’s basketball have been a success otherwise, she says.
“Their vision may have been even bigger than ours,” Burnett said of the overall community and specifically then-MSU President Marshall Gordon and the MSU women’s athletic director who hired her, Dr. Mary Jo Wynn. “When they were saying, ‘Tell us what you need within reason,’ … it just took so many, many factors.”
Others might argue that Burnett was the most important factor, given her leadership put the Lady Bears on the national map. Thus, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to name Burnett as a Missouri Sports Legend, ensuring that a specially commissioned sculpture of the coach, cast in bronze, will soon line its Legends Walkway.
The honor highlights the Women in Sports Luncheon presented by the Bee Payne-Stewart Foundation on March 23 at the Ramada Oasis Convention Center in Springfield. (Ticket information is below.)
Burnett’s teams won 319 out of 455 games from 1987 to 2002, including winning records in each of her final 13 seasons on campus.
The Lady Bears reached the postseason 11 times, including 10 trips to the NCAA Tournament (1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001). The 1992 and 2001 teams remain the only basketball teams in state history, male or female, to reach the Final Four.
The Lady Bears also won seven conference regular-season championships between 1990 and 2001, five league tournament titles between 1991 and 2001 and played in the 2002 Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
Along the way, the Lady Bears became one of the best draws in college basketball, as fans rallied behind their pressing, trapping defense and high-tempo style.
Attendance rose from an average of 881 in Burnett’s first year as head coach to an average of 8,431 a game in her final year. The 1993 team led the nation in attendance.
To Wynn, Burnett ranks right at the top of the most influential figures in Missouri State sports history.
“She will be remembered for a long, long time and respected for a long time,” Wynn said. “Her accomplishments made the athletic department known nationally.”
Wynn is among the many thank-yous from Burnett, given Wynn’s leadership in advocating for women’s sports at MSU in the 1960s and 1970s.
It was Wynn who promoted Burnett after three seasons as an assistant for coach Valerie Goodwin-Colbert.
Burnett knew the game and recruiting trail well. Goodwin-Colbert brought her on in 1984 after Burnett spent a few years assisting the University of Illinois staff.
Burnett had entered coaching immediately after graduating from the University of Kansas in 1980, turning down an opportunity to play professionally overseas.
“She hired me on the spot,” Burnett recalled of Goodwin-Colbert, adding that the two competed against each other in college, when Goodwin-Colbert was a star for Wayland Baptist, the premier women’s collegiate basketball program at the time.
Wynn saw a lot in Burnett’s character and was optimistic that she would be a successful coach.
“She was definitely a person of character,” Wynn said. “She showed great strength, and you could tell that she had strong feelings for her work. She was demanding as a coach but very demanding of herself.”
Eventually, interest in Lady Bears basketball grew by the late 1980s. Wynn spear-headed the Fast Break Club, the program’s die-hard boosters that often held 7 a.m. breakfasts and found time in their personal schedules to cheer on the Lady Bears.
“It still amazes me those people did that,” Burnett said. “They had full-time jobs. They had families.”
Said former Lady Bears star Jackie Stiles, “What Cheryl Burnett is so good at doing is getting everybody to buy into their roles. We were unselfish, and it allowed us to beat a lot more talented teams.”
Burnett also credits countless other fans – for instance, Melody Howard’s arrival in 1991 led thousands of fans Marshfield, her hometown, to follow the program – as well as Jane Meyer and Larry Hazelrigg.
Meyer, whose family owned Meyer Communications, put Lady Bears games on radio, with Don West calling the 1992 Final Four era and Tom Ladd calling the 2001 Final Four era. Hazelrigg championed the Lady Bears through his Lady Bears coverage for the Springfield newspaper, the News-Leader.
“I will be forever grateful for what (Dr. Wynn) did for me,” Burnette said, and later added, “A lot of momentum was already set in motion.”
Last but not least, players made the difference.
“I knew the kind of kids I wanted to recruit. I wanted those recruits I called champions,” Burnett said.
Burnett’s recruiting philosophy centered on three core values: solid citizenship, impeccable academics and selfless but top tier athletes. Valedictorians and salutatorians of a high school graduating class piqued the program’s interest.
“I felt the overachievement of a female basketball player would carry over,” Burnett said. “If we saw a kid, I’d see what kind of person they were and what kind of student they were. If they weren’t (good in) either of those two things, we weren’t going to pursue them.”
Her initial recruiting class set up the program for success. They featured Karen Rapier, Heidi Nelson, Charity Shira Elliott and Amy Nelson.
It was a group that advanced the Lady Bears to their first NCAA Tournament in 1991, when they routed Tennessee Tech 94-64 in the opening round and narrowly lost to Pat Summit’s Tennessee Lady Vols, 55-47, in the second round in Knoxville, Tenn.
“I really believed we out-worked people on game day and out-worked people before game day,” Burnett said. “And I expected a lot out of my coaching staff.”
Wynn put it like this: “She electrified the community. … Cheryl impacted so many people, and we were just happy to help her realize her dreams.”
WANT TO GO?
What: The Missouri Sports Hall of Fame will host the Women in Sports Luncheon presented by the Bee Payne-Stewart Foundation at 11 a.m. on March 23 at the Ramada Oasis Convention Center in Springfield.
Tickets: $40, and sponsorship tables are available by calling 417-889-3100.
- Cheryl Burnett, Centralia native and former Missouri State Lady Bears coach, as a Missouri Sports Legend. A specially commissioned sculpture, cast in bronze, will line the Legends Walkway alongside such Missouri greats as Stan Musial, Len Dawson and Norm Stewart.
- The Lady Bears 1992 Final Four team, the state’s first Division I team – men’s or women’s – to reach the NCAA Tournament semifinals.
- The Lady Bears 2001 Final Four team, the state’s only other Division I team to reach the national semifinals.
- Patti Phillips, who for 11 years led the Women Intersport Network for Kansas City and in the past five has been the CEO of the KC-based National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators.
- Cathy Reynolds, a Springfield native who at age 16 won the Missouri State Championship and went on to play 17 years on the LPGA Tour.