By David Fong
TROY — Time was running out on Matt Burgbacher.
With time for one more play, Burgbacher gathered his players around him. He had their rapt attention as he reached deep into his vast reserves of football knowledge and made the call. He knew it would work — it was the same play he had seen work for his father, Charlie, dozens of times in the past.
He held his breath as the quarterback dropped back and heaved the ball.
Just as soon as the receiver had reached the end zone, the whistle blew, signaling the end of the game.
Recess was over and it was time for Burgbacher and his teammates to head back in for kindergarten class at Lincoln Elementary School in Portsmouth.
“I knew the kindergarten teacher there at Lincoln and she would always tell me all the kids would listen to Matt when they played football, because he always knew all the plays and drills and the things the kids would like to do,” said Charlie Burgbacher, the winningest coach in Tippecanoe High School football history and the current defensive coordinator at Troy High School, where his son Matt is the head coach. “He just always liked being around the game. He always loved sports.”
Matt Burgbacher — who has led Troy to back-to-back playoff appearances and conference titles the past two seasons, the first Troy coach to do that in 20 years — can’t remember a time when sports, football in particular, weren’t a part of his life. He and his four siblings were frequently at their father’s side during his his head coaching stints at Portsmouth Notre Dame, Covington and Tippecanoe High Schools.
On this Father’s Day, both Burgbachers look at their careers together with equal parts love and respect.
“It was awesome growing up, because of how much I loved sports,” Matt Burgbacher said. “I loved being around the older players when I was a little kid. I loved being around the game of football. When my dad was at Portsmouth Notre Dame, he was the head football coach, basketball coach and track coach, in addition to being the athletic director. He practically lived at the school.
“We knew if we wanted to spend time with our dad, we were going to have to be at the games with him. Because if he wasn’t coaching a game, he was usually at the school running a sporting event. Is that a normal life? For most families, probably not, but for the Burgbacher family it was. And that was OK with all of us. We loved being around him and his teams. We knew he loved coaching football, but we also knew he loved his kids.”
After six years coaching at Portsmouth Notre Dame, the elder Burgbacher took the head coaching job at Covington, bringing his wife Carol and five children with him to Miami County. Matt remembers staying wrapped up in football with his dad — sometimes literally.
“That was back when football film was actually on the reel-to-reel film — and I’d watch film with him. Sometimes I’d get tangled up in the film when he was trying to break it down and he’d have to yell at me.”
Film faux pas aside, Matt still remembers football being a family affair, particularly during the magical season in 1985 when his father guided the Buccaneers to the state semifinals.
“Growing up, my two brothers and I would start as towel boys, then we would move up to water boys,” he said. “We were at practice every day. It wasn’t because our parents made us, it was because that’s what we wanted to do. My sisters were the stat girls for my dad’s teams.”
Playing for dad
After six years at Covington, Charlie was hired at Tippecanoe . By this point, his oldest children were nearing high school age. All would maintain their love of sports during their time at Tippecanoe. Older sister Susie (a 1992 Tippecanoe grad) played volleyball, basketball and ran track, while younger sister Katie (a 2002 grad) played basketball and volleyball.
Older brother Mike (class of 1993), Matt (class of 1995) and Andy (class of 1998) all would play football for the Red Devils, which meant playing for their dad.
By this point, all three knew better than to expect any sort of favoritism when they stepped on the field. If anything, they figured they could expect the opposite. They knew more would be asked of them and they would have to go above and beyond what their teammates did, leaving no doubt they earned every second of playing time they received.
“What was great about him was that even though he was our head coach, we knew there was always going to be a separation — at home he was our dad; on the field he was our coach,” Matt said. “There wasn’t going to be an preferential treatment. As a parent myself now, I can appreciate that. As a parent, that’s hard on you. I know it was difficult sometimes for mom and dad.
“I remember when my brother Mike was a sophomore, he was one of the better linebackers on the team, but my dad refused to play him because he was his son. Finally, (defensive coordinator) Larry Thoele had to come to him and tell him that Mike needed to be playing.”
Matt took over as quarterback his junior year in high school. Playing the marquee position on the field, the spotlight — from both his father and the community — shone even brighter on him than it had his older brother, who played running back and linebacker. As the expectations rose, so too did the volume from his father, who has been known for his grizzled sideline demeanor for decades.
“I’ll never forget in 1993, my first year starting at quarterback,” Matt said. “It was my first start in a scrimmage down at Oakwood. The first play was an ‘83 keep pass.’ We had been working on it all week. But I was a young quarterback who thought I knew it all and looked down my receiver the entire time. They picked it off and returned the interception for a touchdown.
“I remember not wanting to go over to the sidelines, because I knew my dad was going to ream me. After he got done chewing me out, Matt Pond, my quarterbacks coach, came up and patted me on the back and said, ‘Junior, I bet that will be the last time you make that mistake again.’”
If it’s any consolation to Matt, his father remembers getting a little chewing out of his own when he got home that day.
“I think that was the one time his mom got on me,” Charlie said. “She thought it was too much. She let me hear about it after the game. I was probably harder on my kids than I was other people’s kids. I think that’s pretty typical when you are coaching your own kids. I think you are always a little harder on them.
“But one thing we never did was take it home with us. When we were on the football field, I was their coach. When we got home, I was their dad. Whatever I had to say to them about football, I said on the field or in the film room. When we got home, it was time for them to do what they needed to do around the house.”
Becoming a coach
In addition to playing well on the football field, Matt also became a star on the baseball diamond at Tippecanoe. That was the sport he would go on to play at Marietta College following his graduation from Tippecanoe. Figuring his football days were largely behind him, Matt studied business and, when he graduated, got a high-paying job in Mason.
“Like a lot of college kids, when I graduated, I wanted a job that was going to pay me a lot of money,” Matt said. “I got that. I was making a lot of money. But I don’t know that I was doing what I truly loved. I missed football.”
Burgbacher would go back to school and get his teaching degree. He would also begin his coaching career working with his father in 2004. Just as had been the case when he was a player for his dad, there would be no special favors afforded to him as an assistant coach.
“I went into my dad’s office in early July and asked him, ‘So what have you got me coaching? Quarterbacks? Defensive backs?’ He said, ‘No, you already know those positions,’” Matt said. “He told me I was going to be coaching the offensive and defensive lines. I had never played those positions in my life. I had no idea how to coach them. He told me, ‘If you ever want to be a head coach, those are the two most important positions you’ve got to learn.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got to work with a very good defensive line coach in Dale Pittenger and I got to work with one of the best offensive line coaches out there … Charlie Burgbacher.”
At the time, Charlie said he didn’t know for sure if his son would stick with coaching or move on to become a head coach. He does admit, however, he had always kind of hoped that would be the case, even when his son was getting tangled up in the film at Covington or staring down a receiver at Tippecanoe. He figured if his son was going to eventually become a coach himself, he wanted to to everything he could to make sure Matt was ready.
“If he was going to be a coach, I wanted him to be familiar with everything that goes into being a coach,” Charlie said. “If you are going to be a coach, you have to be able to appreciate everything your staff does. You’ve got to be able to coach every position on the field and know what those guys are going through. It was a purposeful thing. Let’s have an understanding of the nuts and bolts of everything that goes on on the football field.”
Charlie Burgbacher was grooming his son to follow in his footsteps. It wouldn’t take long before that happened.
Leaving the nest
After five years on his father’s staff at Tippecanoe, Matt Burgbacher was hired to coach the fledgling Fort Loramie football program.
He was an instant success.
Prior to Burgbacher’s arrival, the Redskins had gone 25-15 in their four-year existence. His first season as head coach, Burgbacher went 10-3, leading the team to a spot in the Division VI regional championship game. The Redskins would make the playoffs all six of his years as head coach as he amassed a combined record of 51-18.
During his time at Fort Loramie, Burgbacher was the 2009 Division Co-Coach of the Year, the 2010 and 2011 Metro Buckeye Conference Coach of the Year, the 2011 Division VI Ohio Co-Coach of the Year, the 2011 Southwest District Division VI Co-Coach of the Year and the 2012 Northwest Central Conference Coach of the Year.
He quickly caught the eye of a number of bigger high school programs, including Troy, which was looking for a coach at the time. In the spring of 2015, Matt was hired to take over the stories Trojan program. As soon as he found out he had the job, there was one phone call he had to make.
“My wife was actually standing next to me when I got the call, but as soon as I hung up and talked to her about it, dad was the first person I called,” Matt said.
Of course, the younger Burgbacher may also have had an ulterior motive for calling his father so quickly. He wanted Charlie to join him as his defensive coordinator at Troy.
There was, however, one problem. That would mean asking a legend to step down as a head coach.
In Charlie’s 26 years as head coach at Tippecanoe, his teams went a combined 186-91. For the sake of comparison, in the years before Burgbacher’s arrival — from 1921 to 1988 — Tippecanoe won a total of 237 games in 67 years. Under Burgbacher, Tippecanoe won or shared seven conference titles. Prior to his arrival, the Red Devils won or shared that exact same amount in a 67-year span. He also led Tippecanoe to its first 11 playoff appearances.
Matt met with his father on a Thursday following a girls basketball game at Tippecanoe. By Sunday, Charlie had made his decision.
“It wasn’t an easy thing to do — but looking back, in the long run, it was the best thing to do,” Charlie said of leaving Tippecanoe. “It was an easy way to step out and move on. I felt like we had taken the program about as far as we could take it under the circumstances and we were leaving the program in the hands of a good, young staff. It was a good group the took over and the timing just seemed right.”
For the first time in four decades, Charlie Burgbacher was no longer a head football coach. For the past three years, he has served as his son’s assistant.
The two Burgbachers are different in many ways, but ultimately, remain united through football, just as they have for the entirety of Matt’s life.
“I think there were probably some issues that first year,” Charlie said. “I had been a head coach for a number of years, and I don’t think we always agreed on how we should do things. But then I started to realize that this is his time to shine. He can handle this. It might not be my way, but it’s his way and it’s his name at the top of the program. He’s a good coach.
“I’m to the point now where I kind of like being an assistant coach. I get to work with the kids and have fun, but then I get to go home at night and not have to worry about this and that — all the things you have to worry about as a head coach. Matt can do that now. He does a good job of running things.”
Matt said that from the moment he left Tippecanoe, he had one day hoped he would have the chance to coach alongside his dad. Besides, it sure beat the alternative of coaching against him. Had Charlie remained at Tippecanoe, the two would have squared off when the Red Devils joined the Greater Western Ohio Conference in 2016.
“It’s been great having dad on staff,” Matt said. “I know this has been a big change for him, but he’s never shown any frustration or never questioned any of my decisions. He’s always been on board with what we are doing. Philosophically, we are two coaches who want to make sure things get done right — we just may have different ways of doing them. Plus, he helps me with a lot of things behind the scenes. It does help having a coach with 47 years of experience on staff. There’s not a lot he hasn’t seen or done.
“And besides, it would have been awkward coaching against him. I don’t think I would have liked that. I know my mom wouldn’t have. When I first took this job and it looked like it would happen if he stayed at Tipp, people asked her which side of the field she would sit on when we played. She told them she would sit right in the middle, underneath the goalpost.”
What the future holds
Charlie Burgbacher is on the northern side of his 70th birthday. How much longer will he remain coaching alongside his son? He said he doesn’t know for sure. Neither does his son. Matt’s son Braden — Charlie’s grandson — will be entering the seventh grade this fall and, no surprise, plays football.
Will Charlie stick around long enough for three generations of Burgbachers to roam the field together at Troy Memorial Stadium?
“We’ll see,” Charlie said. “Honestly, I don’t know. I am enjoying what I do right now. We’ve got great kids and a great staff. I feel like I am going to coach as long as I feel like I am making a contribution, as long as I’m making an impact on people and helping people and as long as I’m having fun.”
Matt says he doesn’t know how much longer his father will be coaching, either. He does however, know one thing as it pertains to Charlie’s future.
“He’s still so passionate about what he does,” Matt said. “But there will come a time when he’s going to hang up his whistle. When that time comes, he’s going to be able to go out on his own terms. I’m going to make sure he goes out the way he wants.”
Contact David Fong at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong