In his final season of coaching the men’s basketball team at the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas in 2018, Ken Burmeister was battling cancer.
But with Mr. Burmeister stoic about his treatment, his players — one of whom was his son, Sam — often weren’t aware of all that he was going through.
“I remember my mom would call me my senior year when I was playing for him and just ask, ‘How was dad?’” Sam said. “And I would be like, ‘Mom, what do you mean?’ And she would tell me he had chemo that morning. I would always be astonished. I didn’t even notice him missing a beat. He was just a tough man, a fighter.”
The Twin Lakes, Wisconsin native and former Loyola men’s basketball head coach died May 19 after a long battle with colon cancer.
Mr. Burmeister, who died at 72 in San Antonio, coached at Loyola from 1994-98. He accrued a 40-71 record, improving each of the four seasons. His run with the Ramblers culminated in a 15-15 record.
Before coming to Loyola, Mr. Burmeister was an assistant coach at DePaul University from 1990-94. He was also head coach at the University of Texas at San Antonio from 1986-90 with an NCAA Tournament appearance in 1988.
Mr. Burmeister’s ties to the San Antonio sports scene were deep. He attended St. Mary’s University, Texas — located in San Antonio — and played collegiate baseball for the Division II Rattlers. Throughout his coaching career, Mr. Burmeister spent a combined 17 seasons as the head coach of three different universities located in San Antonio.
While Loyola’s record wasn’t stellar during Mr. Burmeister’s time, he was around for pivotal moments in the program’s history. He was the head coach when the Ramblers played their first game at Gentile Arena in 1996 after moving from the Alumni Gym, located where the current Damen Student Center stands.
Current team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, BVM got her start with the men’s basketball program while Mr. Burmeister was the coach. In her first few years, she served as additional academic support for the team.
“He always appreciated what I did,” Sister Jean said. “He was fine to work with. He was tough on the court. He worked everybody very hard, but that’s okay, that’s why they were there. But I know there was a certain amount of gentleness in him.”
Mr. Burmeister excelled at recruiting for Loyola. One of his biggest pulls for Loyola was forward Javan Goodman, a high school All-American who went on to become Loyola’s 11th all-time leading scorer and eighth all-time in rebounds.
During his time as an assistant coach at the University of Arizona from 1983-86, Mr. Burmeister recruited future NBA journeymen Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott to the Wildcats.
Elliott, who had a 12-year NBA career, said Burmeister was “fiery” when it came to recruiting players, but his demeanor during practice was even more intense.
“It was funny because recruiting he was always like, ‘Are you gonna come? We want you, we need you,’ Elliott, 52, said. “And then as soon as you got in practice, boy, he was on us just like every other assistant coach. … He had a lot of passion.”
Goodman couldn’t be reached for comment and Kerr declined to comment.
Despite the steady rise in the Ramblers’ record and the strong recruiting classes, Loyola elected to not bring Mr. Burmeister back after the 1997-98 season. Even though the 1997-98 season was the first non-losing season in 10 years, Loyola’s then-President Rev. John J. Piderit said they felt they needed somebody who could “take the next step,” according to a Chicago Tribune article from shortly after the firing in April 1998.
At the time, Mr. Burmeister told the Tribune he was shocked and disappointed since he still had one year remaining on his contract and the team had shown steady improvement. Immediately after Loyola, he coached for a year at Division III Trinity University in San Antonio from 1998-99 before taking a six-year break from coaching.
However, Mr. Burmeister couldn’t stay away from basketball for long. During his professional coaching hiatus, Brenda Burmeister — his wife of nearly 30 years — said he coached his son Sam’s fifth grade basketball team. Mr. Burmeister showed what Brenda called a rare moment of public emotion at the team’s end-of-the-year banquet.
“He gave out all the little trophies for the boys and he held Sam’s until the end,” Brenda said. “He started telling the parents how much he enjoyed coaching the boys the year. He said, ‘I have to tell you that of all these past players that I’ve coached, there’s nothing that gave me greater reward than coaching my son.’ … Tears started flowing down his face and all these moms around me were going, ‘Your husband should be coaching.’”
Roughly two months later, Mr. Burmeister took over as head coach for the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, where he was at the helm of the Cardinals from 2006-2018.
Elliott said Mr. Burmeister helped “put the Incarnate Word’s program on the map.” Under Mr. Burmeister, the Cardinals made the jump from Division II to Division I before the 2013-14 season.
As for his style of coaching, Tom Hitcho — one of the only remaining members in Loyola Athletics from Mr. Burmeister’s time — said it was “all business” for Mr. Burmeister during games. Hitcho served as the athletic trainer at the time and remembers “Coach B” as an offensive-minded coach who instituted a high-tempo offense called “Fast Break on the Lake.”
While Hitcho said Mr. Burmeister was known for his offense at Loyola, Elliott said he remembers him for his defensive teachings when he played under Mr. Burmeister at Arizona.
“He was really good at being critical during drills, especially on the defensive end,” Elliott said. “When I first got into college, I didn’t know anything about playing defense. So, when we were doing defensive drills, Coach Burmeister was always on me. … But when you did something right, he told you that you did something right and you could absorb that because you knew he was being honest with you.”
After Mr. Burmeister coached Sam’s fifth grade team, the two were once again on the same team when Sam played for his father at Incarnate Word from 2013-18. He called his dad an “old school” coach who believed in tough love and wasn’t afraid to yell at his players, including his son.
However, Sam said if he was especially hard on a player or somebody had a bad game, his dad always made sure to pull that player aside afterwards to tell them to keep their head up.
Both Hitcho and Sam mentioned how much Mr. Burmeister cared about his players and wanted them to succeed on and off the court. While he pushed his team hard, he also knew when to relax and have fun.
“We had a road trip in California,” Hitcho said. “He always liked to take a big road trip to treat the players. So, he saved up enough money after our game in California to go to Universal Studios. The team didn’t know, it was a surprise.”
Mr. Burmeister was a fan of big surprises, both as a coach and in his personal life. Sam shared a similar story where he planned a couple of trips to New York which included seeing “The Lion King,” a magic show and a Knicks game with one of his teams at Incarnate Word.
Brenda said she quickly picked up on her husband’s affinity for big gestures. When their first child, Amanda, was born, Mr. Burmeister got his wife a teddy bear. There was a zipper on the back of the bear, and Brenda said to her husband, “If I know you, there’s something in that zipper.”
Her hunch was correct, and she pulled out a diamond necklace. She said he told her “this necklace is for you, but someday it’s for Amanda.”
Brenda said he cried during Amanda’s birth, but guessed that their kids only saw him cry a handful of times during their lives. He never cried during his bout with cancer and tried to keep the news under wraps for as long as possible, according to Brenda.
Outside of coaching, Mr. Burmeister played an active role in his childrens’ lives and constantly worked to improve their backyard. He was on the sidelines yelling and cheering as his kids competed on local swim teams, and he attended as many of Amanda’s dance recitals and Sam’s games as possible. As for the yard work, Brenda said she thought it was relaxing and a cathartic break from the chaos of coaching.
Mr. Burmeister was also a very Catholic man and almost never missed Sunday mass, according to Brenda.
With the restrictions of large gatherings due to COVID-19, the Burmeister family announced they will not be holding any memorial service until it’s safe for people to attend in person. This service might not happen for months, but alternatives such as a virtual or drive-by memorial wouldn’t have done him justice, according to Brenda.
“I know my husband would rather have all these people get together and have a beer to toast him,” Brenda said. “That would bring him a lot of joy.”