Jimmy Burrow sits at his desk with play sheets and videotapes scattered around him.
It’s an overcast Tuesday morning in the Peden Stadium Towers. Instead of talking to a recruit on the phone or making small talk with his good friend and offensive coordinator Tim Albin next-door, he’s trying to figure out how he’s going to pack up 14 years of his life.
Because on this Tuesday, he announced his plans to retire from his role as defensive coordinator at Ohio.
He starts talking fast, in his signature twang, when he shows the VCR tape from the 1974 Sugar Bowl of the TV version from ABC, with Keith Jackson and Barry Switzer on the call. Burrow was a defensive back for Nebraska when the Cornhuskers defeated Florida 13-10.
What really makes the 65-year-old happy is when he talks about his son, Joey. Joey’s now the quarterback at LSU, but before that, he rewrote the Southeast Ohio high school record books.
It’s hard to stand in Burrow’s office without realizing he’s Joey’s dad. There’s a cut-out of Joey in his Athens jersey that sits to the left of the coach’s computer. A picture on the bookcase shows Joey and his parents at a Nike Elite camp.
For the past month, Burrow has battled with the idea of retirement: Leave a program he’s helped built from the bottom up or not watch one of his sons play college football on the sport’s biggest stage?
On Tuesday, Jimmy Burrow made the decision to transition from being a football coach to a football dad.
“When you leave, you’re leaving family,” he said. “It was hard talking to the safeties last night. It was hard talking to the whole team today. Those are all (coaches) tough relationships to say ‘Hey, I’m not going to see you every day.’ It’s based on family. I don’t want to miss out on my family.”
Football has been a part of Burrow’s everyday life for a better half of his own.
He played college football at Nebraska under legendary coach Tom Osborne and graduated in 1976. He was then drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the eighth round of the NFL Draft. After just one season with the Packers, he moved to the Canadian Football League where he was a two-time CFL All-Star and won the 1977 Grey Cup with the Montreal Alouettes.
In 1981, he stopped playing and switched to coaching. He made stops at Washington State, Iowa State, Nebraska and North Dakota State before he ended up in Athens.
When coach Frank Solich came calling in the winter of 2004, Burrow jumped at the opportunity to be the Bobcats’ defensive coordinator and safeties coach under the former Cornhuskers’ coach and legend.
In Solich’s introductory news conference in December 2004, he said he would assemble a great coaching staff. One maybe not filled with the biggest names, but a group of coaches who are great teachers, great communicators and great recruiters.
He got that with Burrow.
Over the 14 years that Burrow’s been in Athens, he’s helped the coach tally 106 victories, capture four Mid-American Conference East Division titles, make 10 bowl appearances and win the program's first four bowl games.
As a defensive coordinator, he piloted the Ohio defense that has consistently ranked among the best in the MAC in scoring defense and turnovers. It led the nation in turnovers in both 2009 and 2018. In 2016, he led a defensive unit that ranked 26th in total defense.
On top of that, he’s worked specifically with the safeties, developing some of the best defensive players the Bobcats’ have seen come through Athens. Mike Mitchell, now a defensive back for the Indianapolis Colts, was the cornerstone of Ohio’s defense from the start. As of late, Burrow’s developed talent such as Javon Hagan, who was the 2016 MAC Freshman of the Year, and Kylan Nelson.
In total, he’s coached six NFL Draft picks at Ohio.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “When this has been your whole life and all you’ve known, and then all of a sudden you wonder what you’re going to be doing today or tomorrow. Really, it’s based on being able to go to those games next year and support Joe.”
Burrow’s house sits in The Plains, and not far from Albin’s house, which also is in The Plains.
While saying goodbye to Solich was emotional, the same goes for Albin. The two are almost synonymous with Ohio football. They’ve been here all 14 years. Their families have become one big family, their sons have grown up in the Athens High School football program.
Whether it be talking on the sidelines or grabbing tacos on Tuesdays at Taco John’s, the two are close, and they deserve the same credit as Solich for the turnaround of the Ohio’s football program.
Burrow plans to live in Athens for the future. His wife is the principal at Eastern Elementary, and they’ll make the trip down south next season for all of Joey’s games. But leaving isn’t on the table, Southeast Ohio has become his home.
He’s not fully shut the door on coaching, either. There’s been talk of doing some freelancing from home.
Most importantly, he doesn’t like the word retirement.
“It never crossed my mind of them stepping down or moving on to something else,” Solich said. “It surprised me. I understand, when family is involved. As a head coach you don’t want to step in and persuade a guy to go another direction. It wasn’t easy for me to hear. I’m used to him being here.
“You don’t lose your friend, but the everyday communication, you lose that. What you go through as coaches. Togetherness. We’ve had a lot of good times, sometimes in this business when you can’t win them all.”
Toward the end of a roundtable conversation Tuesday with Solich and Burrow, Solich was asked if he’d ever envisioned the day where one of his coordinators would retire before him.
He smiled and laughed for a second, then paused in reflection. No, he’d never thought of Albin and Burrow leaving before him. He hasn’t taken the two for granted, but he’s never spent time thinking about his or their retirement.
Burrow found it hard to tell Solich. He sat outside in his car for 30 minutes or so, then drove to the office to tell Solich. Burrow made sure the talk was quick, he didn’t want to get emotional in front of him. Solich made sure to call him later to talk about it some more, just not face-to-face.
There’s no doubt that the absence of Burrow will take some getting used to, and it hasn’t even begun to be felt yet, but the consistency that Solich has preached will continue to shine through.
There won’t be any high-pitched yelling at practice, that will instead be heard at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His competitiveness may not be driven toward game-planning anymore, instead it might be getting a plane ticket to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to see Joey play in the biggest game of the season.
As the conversation Tuesday came to a close, Burrow said he has no regrets after his 14 years at Ohio. He made sure to remind everyone that San Diego State didn’t score a point in the last game he coached in, the DXL Frisco Bowl. He acknowledges that he never won a MAC Championship, but he expects to be part of the celebration next year.
Athens is home, and it will always be.