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South Florida defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, right, with linebacker Ben Moffitt, coached at Decatur High during 1968-71.
Photo courtesy of University of South Florida
South Florida defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, right, with linebacker Ben Moffitt, coached at Decatur High during 1968-71.

Decatur still
in his heart

Before helping USF to national ranking, Wally Burnham enjoyed Red Raiders’ win in 1971 4A state championship game

By Ronak Patel
sports@decaturdaily.com · 340-2460

South Florida defensive coordinator Wally Burnham has gained success as a college football assistant coach at several stops — North Alabama, Florida State, South Carolina and now USF — throughout his 40-year coaching career.

But ask the Pell City native about 1971, and his tone changes. His voice peps up, and he begins to reflect.

Burnham served as an assistant coach on Earl Webb’s Decatur High staff in 1971. That year, Decatur won the Class 4A state championship with a victory over Butler in the finals.

“I still have the newspaper clippings from that year. It was a memorable year,” said Burnham, 65, who has helped South Florida to a 6-2 record and No. 20 national ranking.

Burnham, who was on Webb’s staff from 1968-71, remembers in detail the ’71 season and moments leading up to the title game.

“Things were different back then,” Burnham recalled. “We played the big Huntsville schools (Grissom and Butler) that year. We had three to four bellcows that we rode to the title.”

Continuing, Burnham said, “The day of the title game, it was pouring rain that day and at around 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., we were lining the field in preparations for the game.”

He also mentioned, without pause, the support the team got that year.

“The support from the community, the city was tremendous. You would see the local restaurants with signs saying, ‘Go Decatur,’ and that made you feel special when you drove by those places,” Burnham said.

Webb, the legendary Decatur Red Raiders coach who died Aug. 8, 2005, made a lasting impression on Burnham.

When Decatur High renamed its football fieldhouse in Webb’s honor March 6, 2005, Burnham attended the dedication ceremony and gave an emotional speech.

“Webb was a tremendous influence on me,” Burnham said. “He was a stickler for details and fundamentals. He was a laid-back guy, but he can easily get the players’ attention with a strong, stern look. His personality transferred into a winning attitude.

“He’s a gentleman and a winner. I have never met a person that didn’t like Coach Webb.”

Burnham first met Webb in 1960, while Burnham was playing in a high school all-star game. Eight years later, their paths crossed again after Burnham completed a year as a graduate assistant at West Alabama.

“I met Coach Webb at a coaching convention. He had an opening on his staff, and I accepted,” Burnham said. “Coaching is about connecting the dots. I connected it from my first meeting in ’60 and then in ’68, it led to a job in Decatur.”

The coaching whirlwind that Burnham began the year after the title season was something he never thought would happen.

“I thought I would become a high school coach, a teacher, then assistant principal and eventually, school principal,” Burnham said with a laugh. “I never thought I would get into college coaching.”

An opening at UNA became available in 1972. According to Burnham, it was too good to turn down.

“I knew several coaches on the UNA staff,” Burnham said “In fact, at that same all-star game where I met Coach Webb, I met a coach who was part of the UNA staff, and I stayed in touch with him through the years. An opening came up, and I accepted.”

His replacement at Decatur was Steve Rivers, who eventually succeeded Webb as the Red Raiders’ head coach in 1981.

While he has enjoyed lengthy success in college, Burnham contends it was hard to leave Decatur.

“It was gut-wrenching to leave Decatur, but coaching in college was something that may never come up again,” Burnham said. “In those days, those types of chances were few and far between.

“So, with Coach Webb’s full blessing, I jumped at the chance.”

Years later, from time to time, Burnham still reaches into his folders and pulls out the clippings, recalling the time he spent at Decatur.

“Those were four of my most enjoyable years in coaching,” Burnham said.

Wally Burnham at a glance

  • Played for Bear Bryant at Alabama in 1960-61 and Bobby Bowden at Samford in 1962.

  • Assistant coach at Decatur High during 1968-71, helping the Red Raiders win the Class 4A state title in ’71.

  • Assistant college coach at NorthAlabama (1972-76), East Tennessee State (1977-78), Richmond (1979), Memphis State (1980), Lamar (1981-82), Florida State (1985-93), SouthCarolina (1994-98), South Florida (2000-current).

  • Assistant pro coach with Arizona Wranglers (1983-84) of the United States Football League, helping them reach the championship game in ’84.

  • Helped Florida State win a national championship in 1993 as linebackers coach.

  • Serves as assistant head coach, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at South Florida. The Bulls are 6-2 this season and ranked No. 20 in the APpoll.

  • His son Shane, 31, is an assistant coach at Elon, and his son Pat, 37, is an assistant coach at South Florida.

    Ronak Patel

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