SALESMANSHIP & SPORTS
How Eugene Burroughs went from hoops to sales and back
By Varun Raghupathi
Twenty-two years in one profession is a long time. For Eugene Burroughs, second-year head coach of the Delaware 87ers, those two-plus decades could’ve been spent doing something entirely different.
“My father always told me I was going to be a salesman or a basketball coach,” the affable West Philly native said. “True as could be.”
As the man himself will tell you, there are numerous parallels between the two jobs. Burroughs would know; his real-world experience began with Coca-Cola, not on a court.
“It’s building relationships,” Burroughs said. “Players are like going to sell a product to a business. You have to kind of cater your speech to your personnel. Some of the sales training I got at Coca-Cola, which was unbelievable, it was amazing how, if you listen, people will tell you what you want to hear.
“You can use your listening skills to help you sell a product and I think coaching is the same way. You have to listen to your players, because they’ll tell you things. You have to observe, you have to be patient. You have to find a way to push their buttons, so it’s all sales. The basketball side of it is you have to add some Xs and Os to your salesmanship.”
Burroughs’ love for basketball began to germinate in the fifth grade. A few years later, he and his father realized the younger Burroughs could have a future in this sport.
“I’m in seventh grade and I went to La Salle’s basketball camp and I ended up playing with their college players,” Burroughs recalled without an ounce of hesitation. “After that workout, me and my dad were driving home and he was like ‘you know what, I think you’re good enough to be a college player if you keep working’. So that was probably the first time I realized that, you know, I could probably play college basketball.”
Still, college was a few steps away. Figuring out where to hoop in high school was a more pressing priority, and Burroughs’ decision was aided by a well-known basketball name around these parts.
“I actually grew up playing in the Sonny Hill League my whole life, started there in the fifth grade in the development league,” Burroughs said. “One of my coaches was Bruiser Flint, who coached at Drexel and UMass. Bruiser at that time was actually a player at St. Joe’s and he would coach on the weekends when they didn’t have games and practices.
“Bruiser went to Episcopal Academy, and his dad kind of reached out to my dad and said ‘hey, I think this is a great opportunity for your son.’ I actually applied and didn’t get in my first year as an eighth grader. I got in as a ninth grader and that’s how I got introduced to Episcopal Academy.” After a successful career at EA, during which time Burroughs was named Player of the Year in Philly as a senior, a college decision was next. Enter the University of Richmond, a perennially solid mid-major program. It didn’t take long for the 87ers head man to etch his name not only in Richmond lore, but in the NCAA Tournament history books as well.
Flash forward to the Big Dance of 1991. Cole Field House in Maryland is the site and the No. 15 seed Spiders are going toe-to-toe with No. 2 seed Syracuse in the opening round. Burroughs’ day, however, began inauspiciously.
“I’ll never forget it, I came in early and had a bad turnover. Coach takes me out and I don’t play, literally, until the end of the game,” Burroughs said. “He puts me back in, there’s like 34 seconds left in the game, they’re pressing, he throws me in, I get the ball, I get fouled, they call timeout and we go to the huddle.
“[I] didn’t take a shot all game and I’ll never forget one of my teammates Curtis Blair, who is actually an NBA referee, I’m walking out of the huddle and he says, ‘you better make these’. I walk up to the line and end up knocking down two big free throws and we win the game, so it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. We were the first 15 seed to beat a two seed in the NCAA Tournament and it was a great experience.”
Four years at Richmond prompted Burroughs to step away from basketball for a little while. The hoops-weary man made his way to Coca-Cola, where he worked in sales for a year and a half. Pretty soon, however, that basketball bug that’s bitten so many people dug into Burroughs.
“I got a call from one of my assistant coaches at Richmond, a guy named Bill Dooley, who took over for Dick Tarrant and he said ‘hey, there’s an opportunity if you want to coach at American University’,” Burroughs said. “They were in the same league as Richmond, so I had some familiarity and I decided to coach and I’ve been coaching ever since.”
Along the way, Burroughs has survived firings and shifted from school to school, patiently climbing up the coaching food chain. After working at American, Burroughs went to Hofstra and became an assistant coach for a man who, at the time, had a 31-51 record as a head coach: Jay Wright.
“Working for Jay, you knew that he was different,” Burroughs said. “I think that one of the things that makes him successful is charisma. When you talk to him, again, going back to sales, you always feel drawn to his ability to communicate with people and he was very detailed.
“One of the things I learned from him was ‘before you can run a business or be a coach, you have to know and learn every aspect of your business’. The only way you can be successful is to have a feel for what everyone else in your program does, and I took that in. You could see that Jay was going to be successful because he had that ‘it’ factor.”
After three years at Hofstra and an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2000, Burroughs made stops at Marist, the Naval Academy, Penn State and Marist again before jumping to the NBA.
“My situation with the Sixers really came about from Billy Lange, who I worked for at the Naval Academy for seven years,” Burroughs said. “He was on staff with the Sixers with player development and he called me one day and said ‘hey, there’s a position here, shooting coach, are you interested’? I said ‘yes, I would love the opportunity’ and I went through a series of interviews and eventually got the job.”
Burroughs spent two years as the 76ers’ shooting coach and he used the opportunity to learn, learn and learn some more.
“I used that as an educational tool to learn the NBA game,” Burroughs said. “Being in meetings with Brett Brown and staff, just sitting back and listening to pick-and-roll defense and offensive concepts and personnel decisions and culture decisions was important to me because I knew, with my world, I probably wouldn’t be stuck just as a shooting coach, so I took that information and just kind of downloaded it into myself to prepare myself for this situation.”
Soon enough, the pieces fell into place for Burroughs to finally become a head coach after 20 years in the business. The call came from Brett Brown, a man who knows a thing or two about patience.
“He asked if I wanted to coach the Sevens,” Burroughs said. “I think he gave me ten hours to make a decision and I actually had called around to some people I respect, like Jeff Bower (current GM of the Detroit Pistons) and Steve Rosenberry, who was an assistant GM with the Portland Trail Blazers. I asked them if it was a good opportunity and they said, ‘hands down you should do it, because you’ll grow as a coach’.
“I never had head coaching experience, but I’ve always wanted to run a program and be a head coach. I said ‘yes’ and it’s probably the best decision I’ve made so far in my career.”