The plan — “probably” — was to announce her resignation as the Union College women’s basketball program’s head coach last year at the team’s end-of-season banquet.
That mid-March banquet, though, was canceled because of restrictions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic — and, seeing a difficult year ahead for her players, Mary Ellen Burt postponed finalizing the decision to vacate her post in order to continue leading a program that practiced, but never played any games in its 2020-21 season.
It made for an unusual final campaign, one unlike any of the 25 that preceded it.
Burt, though, never doubted she’d made the right decision.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do to stay. It was certainly a different year than any other I had coaching, but it was probably a more meaningful year, in some ways, with trying to help the kids through it,” Burt said. “It was no longer about trying to get wins or build your resume or move onto that next job. It was just about trying to help those kids. I felt so bad for those kids for what they were missing out on.”
Burt’s departure from the job she held as Union women’s basketball head coach was formally announced this past Thursday, ending a tenure that started in 1995. Burt, a 60-year-old Rotterdam resident, will continue as the head coach of the school’s women’s golf team, a program that began play in 2012 with her leading it.
“It’s been building toward this,” Burt said of making an exit from one of her coaching jobs. “It’s a long haul in basketball, with recruiting and everything else.”
Burt is Union’s all-time winningest head coach in a single sport with her 344 women’s basketball wins, and she led the program to its only NCAA Division III tournament appearance in 2004. The school has said it will conduct a national search to find a replacement for Burt.
The decision to give up her post as women’s basketball head coach was one Burt eased into over the last several years. Burt said she told her players last Tuesday that she was retiring from the job, but the announcement wasn’t met with much surprise.
“They all knew,” said Burt, who said she “had been really transparent” regarding how much longer she intended to coach the program.
That extended into recruiting, too. In recent years, Burt said she made sure potential players knew she might not coach them for the duration of their Union careers. An avid golfer who joked she “plays on most of the days ending in ‘Y’” when the weather is cooperative, Burt said she’d remark to recruits that she was “on the 18th hole of my [basketball coaching] career — and it’s a par-3 and I’m on the green.”
That transparency felt right to Burt, just as it did to stick around for this past school year to make sure her players had one more familiar face to help guide them through all the uncertainty. Like others in the athletic department, Burt spent time this past year working in the school’s COVID-19 testing center; her role was as a greeter, and she said she welcomed the chance to check in with students on how their days were going and make sure they were doing OK.
“Once you’re a coach,” Burt said, “you’re always a coach.”
A graduate of R.L. Thomas High School in Webster, Burt received her undergraduate degree from University of Southern California and later an MBA from St. John Fisher. Burt worked as an assistant coach for more than a decade prior to heading to Union, and didn’t originally intend to stay as the team’s coach for more than two decades. Each time, though, when Burt could’ve left, she opted to stay.
“I love coaching. I love being around the kids here. I love being on Union’s campus,” Burt said.
Burt said a trio of assistant coaches — Jamie Seward, Mike Smith and Jared Zeidman — played an invaluable role in the program’s success during the last two-plus decades. She noted, though, that her players’ success in the classroom was what most impressed her; every four-year player graduated during her tenure.
Burt’s final game coaching Union was a 62-55 defeat against Clarkson on Feb. 22, 2020. At the time, Burt had an idea that it might be her last basketball game. At that moment, she didn’t know what was ahead in the year to follow — but, looking back on it, Burt said she was proud to guide the program’s players through their game-less 2020-21 season.
“For me,” Burt said, “to do anything I could to help them, that was rewarding.”