Despite late-season swoon, Burkholder still loving coaching grind at AIC

By on February 21, 2018

It was the kind of admission no men’s basketball coach wants to make. Particularly one nearing the end of his fourth season, the last three of which have seen his team finish below .500.

But the club coached by Andy Burkholder, American International College, lost by 50 last Saturday – 98-48, to New Haven – the sixth of seven straight defeats to conclude an 11-17 season.

And when Burkholder, a 1993 Cocalico graduate (and ‘97 graduate of Elizabethtown College), was asked about that game on Monday night, less than 24 hours before a 78-77 loss at Adelphi in the finale, he conceded that his players “just kind of gave up”

“Which,” he added quickly, “doesn’t say a lot about me.”

Normally even-tempered, he said he detonated in the locker room at halftime, to no avail. He talked about how “a perfect storm” did his team in. How the Yellow Jackets had nine wide-open 3-point attempts, and missed them all. How a New Haven player named Danny Upchurch, 0-for-8 from the arc in the clubs’ earlier meeting – a 72-66 Chargers victory on Nov. 21 – this time went 8-for-15, while scoring 30 points.

Finally Burkholder, as if working through the seven stages of grief, sounded hopeful (the last stage), maybe even defiant.

“I think it’s through these times that you have a chance to grow as a coach,” he said at one point.

“You just keep plugging away,” he said at another. “If this was easy, everybody would be doing it. Everybody thinks it’s easy, but it’s a lot harder than you think.”

It was certainly no easier on Tuesday night, when Adelphi’s Terrel Martin-Garcia dropped in a layup with one second left to beat AIC in a game where a berth in the Northeast 10 conference tournament was up for grabs.

And the season as a whole was fraught with challenges for American International, a Division II school in Springfield, Mass. Seemingly everybody was hurt, and seemingly no one could make a shot.

Yet there is nothing the 42-year-old Burkholder would rather be doing than this. He is following a career path that was conceived on (of all things) a ferry ride in the United Kingdom and cemented when a close friend met an untimely end and the Twin Towers fell.

There is no looking back. There are no regrets.

“There’s days that you get more excited to come to work than others,” he said a few weeks ago, before the season went sideways, “but there’s not a day where I dread coming into work.”

Burkholder did admit that he spent the season “constantly second-guessing” himself about ways to wring the most out of his depleted roster, and that the Yellow Jackets’ offensive struggles had left him with a “suffocating-type feeling” at times.

But, you know, see above.

“I just think you try to keep everything in perspective – keep working hard, and understand that it can’t be your year every year,” he said, “but as long as you’re doing the right thing, your chance will come again.”

His first year, 2014-15, the Yellow Jackets went 24-7 and reached the NCAA Tournament, but the next two they went 11-16 and 11-17, respectively.

This season, his 18th in coaching altogether, only two of the 12 players on the roster appeared in every game, and there were days when only eight were available for practice. Burkholder swore he had never seen anything like it.

“You’ve just got to kind of laugh at yourself sometimes,” he said.

The Jackets’ anemic offense was another matter. They averaged just 65.5 points a game, seven fewer than their opponents, while shooting a tepid 40.9 percent from the floor, including 30.4 percent from 3-point range.

Time and again, Burkholder said, his team would get stops at one end and good shots at the other – only to come up empty. And until the season’s dying days, they would not allow that to deflate them. They would still dig in on defense, still give maximum effort.

Bob Schlosser, who coached Burkholder at E-town (and later had him on his staff), believes his former protege is well-equipped to handle the vagaries of the profession, not to mention a trying season like this one.

“He’s savvy enough and has enough experience to know the things that factor into you being successful,” said Schlosser, who retired after last season, his 27th as the Blue Jays’ boss. “You can tell he gets it. It’s a fine line. It can turn on a dime, because of things you don’t have control over. You’ve got to accept it and move on.”

Burkholder first broached the idea of getting into coaching with Schlosser some 20 years ago. The younger man, a forward Schlosser once described as “cunning” (as well as a subtle trash-talker), played his final season in 1996-97, but joined the team on a trip to the UK the following summer.

The two of them were talking during a ferry ride – neither can remember where they were traveling from, nor where they were going – when Burkholder mentioned that he had another semester of coursework to complete, and wouldn’t mind serving as a volunteer assistant on Schlosser’s staff.

Schlosser was all for it.

“Ex-players who wanted to coach were a big plus for us,” he said. “You’ve got somebody who knows the system and someone you can trust.”

So Burkholder came aboard, unpaid at first. He remained at his alma mater for five years, the last of which saw the Jays go 29-3 and reach the Division III championship game, where they lost by 19 to Otterbein — after leading by 11 with 15 minutes left.

As much of a touchstone as that game proved to be for Burkholder – he said he still has a picture of the opening tip under the see-through blotter on the desk in his office – his decision to make a career out of coaching was ensured by other matters.

And far more wrenching ones at that.

First was the death of a high school friend and classmate named Patrick Hoffman in April 2000. They had remained close after graduation, and Burkholder can still recall Hoffman leaving a message on his answering machine, finalizing plans to get together to watch the NFL draft on TV. Next thing Burkholder knew, his mom was calling to tell him Hoffman had died in a one-car accident.

“I don’t know that you really work through it,” he said, adding that he still has Hoffman’s senior picture on the mantel in his bedroom, as “a reminder to me of how delicate everything is.”

A lesson that was brought home 19 months after Hoffman’s death, on 9-11.

“And I said, ‘You know what? I don’t know when it’s going to be my time, but I’m going to do something I like to do. I’m going to try to do something I like to do, every single day. And wherever that takes me, it takes me,’” Burkholder said.

Besides assisting Schlosser, he had been working elsewhere to pay the rent during that phase of his life. He spent time on the staff at an alternative school in Ephrata. He did outside sales for the Manheim Auto Auction. But he rededicated himself to coaching, serving as a graduate assistant under a man named Charlie Brock at Springfield (Mass.) College for two years, then moving on to Shepherd and finally settling in at AIC under Art Luptowski (once the coach at Kutztown High School) in 2005.

Burkholder spent six years in that post, but because of a growing family – he and his wife Jen have three daughters – moved into AIC’s compliance office for a time. Then Luptowski left, and Burkholder returned to the bench.

“I certainly know that I’ve had jobs where I was adequate at, but I dreaded going to work,” he said. “I was not looking forward to coming in every day as the compliance officer; that was not stimulating or exciting.”

Coaching remains so, even now. The way he sees it, he could be sitting at a desk all day, trying to understand some formula or other. Instead, he’s trying to figure out “a different type of formula, but it’s a fun one: How are we going to win the next game?”

Certainly things didn’t add up the last several weeks. But again, no regrets.

“Not at all,” he said. “It’s not easy during times like this, but no, I don’t second-guess that for one minute. For one minute.”

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