Coach Nigel Burton — the former UW standout dubbed "Mighty Mouse" — leads Portland State against his alma mater 1 p.m. Saturday at CenturyLink Field.
While starring as an undersized defensive back at Washington, Nigel Burton envisioned a life as an accountant.
At 5 feet 9 and 180 pounds, he never seriously entertained playing beyond college and prepared to leave football behind after graduating with a business degree.
But those around him believed Burton could have a long career as a coach because the two-time captain and academic standout had unique leadership skills and understood UW’s complex defensive schemes like few others.
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“After his first year in the program, I would have guessed he would make a fine coach someday,” former UW coach Jim Lambright said. “It was always the matter of does he have bigger and better plans.”
Burton earned an MBA and dabbled briefly in the private sector before returning to football. After 12 years in coaching — and now three as head coach at Portland State — the former UW standout dubbed “Mighty Mouse” leads the Vikings against his alma mater at 1 p.m. Saturday at CenturyLink Field.
“It’s not about me in any way, shape or form,” Burton said. “I’m not planning on suiting up on Saturday.
“If I do, I told (Portland State players) I could give them about one good play. That would be about it. I’d probably blow a hamstring. It’s always great being in Seattle, but this isn’t at all about me.”
In some ways, he’s right.
This game is about the battered Huskies (1-1) rebounding from a 41-3 defeat last week at Louisiana State and looking to rebound impressively against a FCS opponent.
It’s about the Vikings (1-1), who fired defensive coordinator Eric Jackson on Wednesday following a performance in which the defense surrendered 401 yards.
And in some ways it’s about the legacy of Lambright, who will watch three former UW players — Lester Towns, Ikaika Malloe and Burton — coach for Portland State.
“Lambo has been one of my biggest influences,” Burton said. “He still comes to my games. When I coached at Oregon State, he came to games. Now coaching at Portland State he comes to a game every year.
“I’m assuming he’ll be at this one. This will be the shortest drive for him. He’s been a huge influence in my life. And he changed my life just allowing me to be there and play there. And I appreciate that.”
Following the 1995 season, Pacific dropped its football program and the Huskies, still recovering from probations that limited scholarships, needed to make smart decisions in personnel.
Burton, who played as a freshman at Pacific, needed a new home and Washington needed a veteran defensive back.
However, at first glance the Huskies weren’t sold on Burton because of his size.
“I already missed on some guys because they didn’t fit the cookie cutter, meaning they weren’t the right size or didn’t have the right speed,” said Dick Baird, UW’s former recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach. “But there’s a certain amount of kids that have the intangibles, and I just had the sneaky suspicion that he was one of them.”
Baird convinced Lambright, who had been an undersized linebacker when he played for the Huskies, and Burton committed to Washington without taking a visit.
“When he showed up, I said, ‘Where’s the rest of you?’ ” Baird joked. “I learned a great lesson there. … Big things come in small packages.”
Burton started three years at Washington at rover, where he had linebacker duties.
He graduated in 1999 and took a job with an accounting firm before starting a coaching career in 2000 as a defensive assistant at South Florida.
After stops at Portland State (2001-02) and Oregon State (2003-07), Burton was hired at Nevada (2008-09) as defensive coordinator and became head coach with the Vikings in 2010.
Burton has a 10-14 record at PSU.
He acknowledges defeating the Huskies is a tall task, but then he is used to overcoming long odds.
“The big thing is we go about our business and we execute and let the chips fall where they may,” Burton said.
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @percyallen