During the whirlwind of the last few weeks watching his son, Joe, lead the Cincinnati Bengals to one of the most unlikely Super Bowl bids in the game’s 56-year history, Jim Burrow has also found a few moments for reflection.
And when he ponders the football road his family has traveled — his own brief NFL career and four decades as a coach, and three sons who played college football, highlighted by Joe winning the Heisman Trophy in 2019 and becoming the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft — there’s one unmistakable starting point.
“It all goes back in a roundabout way to coach Walden,” Jim Burrow says in a phone interview a few days before he departed for Sunday’s Super Bowl. “Coach Walden has affected my life more than anybody.”
That would be Jim Walden, whose long coaching career included nine years as the head coach at Washington State from 1978-86, a tenure filled with Apple Cup upsets that helped make him one of the most popular coaches in school history.
Burrow was alongside Walden for much of it as a graduate assistant and assistant coach at WSU.
And while the relationship between Burrow and Walden dates to 1964 in Amory, Mississippi, it is Jim Burrow’s time at WSU he says may be as critical as any other to all that has happened since.
When Walden left WSU for Iowa State in 1987, Burrow followed as an assistant and ended up living in Ames, Iowa, until 2000.
“In a roundabout way, that’s how Joe was born in Ames,” Burrow says. “So there’s just a lot of things that kind of come around as a connection.”
The Burrow family was full of sports legends in Mississippi long before anyone had heard of Joe Burrow.
Jim Burrow’s father, James — Joe’s grandfather — was a point guard at Mississippi State from 1949-51. Jim’s mother, Dot (nee Ford) set a record for three-on-three high school basketball, scoring 82 points in a game for Smithville High.
“The best athlete in the family,” Walden says of Dot, noting she rarely lost in family games of Horse.
Walden grew up in Aberdeen, about 16 miles away, and became something of a local legend himself as a starting quarterback at Wyoming and then four more years in the CFL.
When his playing career ended, Walden returned home to get into coaching and was hired as the football coach by James Burrow, who was the principal at Amory High.
“We built a house there, and don’t you know it, but lo and behold, we moved in right next door (to the Burrow family),” Walden says.
Walden kept that job five years, and in his final season, Jim Burrow was one of his quarterbacks as a sophomore. “A skinny-ass 125 pounds,” Walden says with a laugh.
Walden got his big break in coaching in 1969, hired first as a graduate assistant and then defensive assistant at Nebraska under his old coach at Wyoming, Bob Devaney, and there the Walden-Burrow connection took another turn.
During Walden’s four years at Nebraska, the Cornhuskers won back-to-back national titles in ‘70 and ‘71.
Meanwhile, after graduating from Amory, Jim Burrow walked on at Ole Miss in 1971 playing on the freshman team.
The next year, Walden says Nebraska suddenly needed a scout-team quarterback, specifically one who could run the wishbone, then the hot offense in football.
Walden says he told Devaney “I know where you can find a good scout-team quarterback who can run the wishbone,” and got the Cornhuskers to give Burrow a scholarship to come to Nebraska. Walden recalls Burrow one day running for a 75-yard touchdown in a full-contact scrimmage against a defense to this day regarded as one of the best in college football history, causing Devaney to ask Walden if the defense was overrated.
Instead, Walden says, “Jimmy was just that good of an athlete.”
After spending one year on the scout team, Burrow became a standout safety for Nebraska — he’s remembered for a game-saving tackle against Florida in the 1974 Orange Bowl — and was drafted by Green Bay in the eighth round in 1976. He played three games with the Packers before being waived and signing with Montreal in the CFL in 1977.
A shoulder injury that season eventually led to yet another reunion with Walden.
Introduction to Pullman
By then, Walden was in his first year as an assistant at WSU, taking a job as quarterbacks coach under Warren Powers, who had also played at Nebraska and was an assistant there when Burrow was a player and Walden a coach.
Sidelined from playing, Burrow said he was searching for something to do and reached out to Powers and Walden.
“He called and said ‘I’d love to come out where you guys are because I’d have access to a weight room and all the stuff I’d need to keep busy’ and that he’d help us out in any way he could,” Walden says.
And for the next five years, that’s what Burrow did. He returned to Pullman in the CFL offseason and did whatever the coaches asked, serving as a graduate assistant.
One of his primary responsibilities was “a lot of driving to Spokane to pick up recruits,” Burrow says with a laugh.
Along the way, he earned a master’s in Education Administration from WSU in the spring of 1981.
“The plan was to go be a school administrator,” Burrow says.
Then fate intervened again.
Becoming a coach
Walden became WSU’s head coach in 1978 when Powers left for Missouri, part of the infamous “four coaches in four years” period of Cougar football.
Walden, though, vowed to stay, and in 1981 guided WSU to the Holiday Bowl, its first bowl game in 50 years.
WSU’s offensive coordinator, Pat Ruel — who later had a long association with Pete Carroll, including 2010-19 as an assistant with the Seahawks — then left for Texas A&M, creating an opening on the staff.
Walden filled it by asking Burrow, who at that point had decided to retire from playing, to be tight-ends coach. The next year he became defensive-backs coach.
“I basically learned how to coach at Washington State,” he says.
Asked for memories of WSU, Burrow doesn’t mention specific games, but names and moments. He recalls nights at longtime Pullman favorite hangout Rusty’s with Bill Moos, who went on to become the school’s athletic director, and the spring of 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted and ash littered the campus, laughing that wearing masks to protect against the ash prepared him for wearing masks the last couple years.
He also recalls having an up-close seat to one of the biggest “what ifs?” in WSU sports history — the recruitment of Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg, remembered now as a Hall of Fame second baseman for the Chicago Cubs, was in 1978 also one of the best high-school quarterbacks in the country at North Central High in Spokane, named a Parade All-American.
“I remember we were recruiting him in (assistant) Ken Woody’s house, and we actually signed him to a football scholarship,” Burrow says.
But shortly after, the Phillies drafted Sandberg and promised to pay him the equivalent of his scholarship, which Walden says the Sandberg family had told them was what it would take to get him out of his WSU commitment.
“That was one of Jimmy’s recruits,” Walden says with a wry laugh. “Dadgummit the Phillies jacked up the money, and we lost him.”
Calm, like his son
Walden’s description of Jim Burrow as a coach sounds a little like how Burrow’s famous son is often characterized.
“He was good in the room with the guys,” Walden says. “He had their attention because they knew he’d played and he understood how to talk their language. He was just a very quiet guy. You didn’t hear coach Burrow scream much. You really had to get on his nerves to get him to raise his voice.”
Joe Burrow’s coolness under pressure, so evident in the comeback win over Kansas City in the AFC title game, seems a trait to have fallen not far from the tree.
Burrow’s oldest two sons — Jamie and Danny — were born during his CFL/WSU years, and each played at Nebraska.
Burrow followed Walden to Iowa State in 1987 and stayed in Ames after Walden resigned in 1994, working six years as a coach at Ames High School. That’s where Joe was born in 1996, to Burrow and his second wife, Robin, whom he met in Ames.
Walden considers Burrow’s oldest sons as something akin to his own, saying they were all one big family during the WSU years. He’s met Joe only a couple times, when Joe was young.
Joe Burrow mostly grew up in Athens, Ohio, when Jim Burrow worked as an assistant at Ohio University from 2005-18 before retiring to watch Joe’s games at LSU in 2019.
“Coach Walden gave me that job (at WSU), and I was a full-time coach for the next 35 years,” Jim Burrow says.
Walden has seen other players he’s coached achieve success on the grandest stage, notably Mark Rypien, the MVP of Super Bowl XXVI with Washington. But Walden, now 83, says he can hardly put his head around what it’s been like watching Joe Burrow’s rise.
“It’s just so fun for me to know them,” Walden said. “I’ve known his dad since 1964 and watched Jimmy develop into a great coach and watched two of his sons do a great job of playing football at Nebraska, and now with this thing — it’s just off the charts. Talking Heisman Trophy winner and potential Super Bowl champion, it’s just like, ‘What?’ It’s just mind-boggling for me, it really is.”