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December 1, 2012
If anyone has been around the University of South Carolina athletic department longer than Assistant Athletics Director for Operations and Event Management Shawn Burke, you're going to have to look extremely hard to find them.
That you might not know his name given his longevity at USC - he first began as an intern in 1985 and has been on staff permanently since 1988 - is a testament to how well he does his job.
As head honcho in charge of operations and event management, Burke's job is to make sure you don't notice how smoothly all university athletic events run, particularly the department's signature event: football games. From basketball to baseball to every sport in between, Burke can be found managing staff, walking the venue and ensuring that public safety and spectator enjoyment go hand-in-hand.
From growing up the son of an assistant on Lou Holtz' staffs to his days interning with Olympic Sports at USC to directing the Metro Conference championships to managing the largest events in school history - football games with 80,000 people in attendance and an entire nation watching on television - Burke has seen it all in his 25-plus years in and around the University of South Carolina athletics program.
Gamecock Central: Not too many Gamecocks may know this about you, but you grew up around college athletics, correct?
Shawn Burke: That's right. I was born in Cleveland, and my dad (Brian Burke) was a head coach at Ohio University from 1979-1984 and before that also was on Lou Holtz' staff at N.C. State and William & Mary, so I got to grow up around college football.
GC: That had to be neat as a kid. What were your best memories of being around college football?
Burke: Really it was at N.C. State, my dad was there from 1972-77. I thought it was so neat that I could go to Carter-Finley Stadium and take my friends and afterward we'd get to go into the locker rooms and all. That was just the coolest thing for a kid in junior high back then to be able to do, to go back in the locker room and meet Bruce Shaw or Don and Dave Buck. There were some really good players back then.
GC: So you had a family connection to Lou Holtz long before he came to South Carolina.
Burke: Absolutely. He and my dad played at Kent State together. Lou is the one who got him in the business at William & Mary. Then he followed him to State, and while Holtz went to the Jets for a year he went to Virginia to be the coordinator with Dick Bestwick, who would later become the A.D. here and who hired me. It's a small world when you think about it.
GC: When your dad was the head coach, that was obviously back before you had the Internet and message boards and a thousand different ways to hear people complain about the head coach who happened to be your dad.
Burke: That's right, it was a little different. You're not quite as under the microscope as you are now. Though we did have (former Chicago Sun-Times columnist and ESPN contributor) Jay Mariotti covering Ohio at the time, so he did ask some hard questions. You still had to watch yourself, because they could still grill you, even back then.
GC: Personally, you were an athlete as well, only in tennis.
Burke: I played college tennis at Ohio. I played 4-5-6 singles and 2-3 doubles. They were the best years of my life those college years being an athlete, there at Ohio.
GC: After a year as a tennis pro in Columbus, Ohio, following graduation you went back to school at OU and got a master's in sports administration and facility management in 1985. What let you to USC directly from there?
Burke: There was an internship that came open in Olympic sports. There was a guy named Bobby Foster, a lifelong Columbia guy who was the golf coach and also the associate AD. I worked for him for a good bit, and that's where I got my feet wet. Back then we played in the Metro Conference, playing Cincinnati, Southern Miss, Louisville and all those folks and I ran the women's basketball, men's and women's swimming and diving, track and baseball championships. It was a really great experience.
Bobby gave me a lot of leeway to do things from the ground up, going out to try and get advertisers for the program, putting them together, dealing with security, tickets, parking, the whole thing. It was good. Golf was another fun one, too. Those were good days and good duties.
GC: From that internship you left for one year to work for the University of Dayton in 1987 as event coordinator for the basketball arena and football stadium as well as working with scheduling and payroll. How did that come about?
Burke: I enjoyed working in event management even going back to my undergraduate days. I would volunteer as a student running the MAC (Mid-American Conference) wrestling championship. It was a natural progression to do Metro Conference sports here, then the Metro Conference internship here, then got my first real job at Dayton just from looking in the NCAA news listings. I stopped by on a trip back home on vacation and got the job. I worked there for 10 months before coming back here.
GC: And it was Dick Bestwick getting hired at USC that led you back to Columbia, correct?
Burke: That's right. I was at Dayton when he was named A.D., and reached out and gave him a call because I'd enjoyed my internship days so much. So I ended up giving him a shout, talking to him and coming on down. That was 1988, and they haven't been able to get rid of me since. It's worked out well.
From there, tickets, then in the business office, combined those jobs, was assistant business manager, assistant ticket manager, director of special events, game management, then assistant A.D. and up to now.
GC: In your current role, what is it you do that when it goes well, nobody notices?
Burke: Well, hopefully football! With football, it's a huge team effort. It's a gigantic effort to take care of 80,000 people. They're coming into your living room and you want to make them happy and comfortable and have a good gameday experience. We meet every Thursday at the Lettermen's Lounge and have campus law enforcement, the highway patrol, we've got the ticketing folks, marketing folks, cheerleaders, the band, folks that do the scanners, the Gamecock Club...anything and everything that's involved with what you see on Saturdays, we get together and plan for with an agenda and areas of responsibility.
I run the meeting and talk about what's going on this week, what's going in this week, what do we need to be prepared for. What times are things happening? When is the visiting team getting here? How many buses are they bringing? All those kinds of things. With the Wofford game, we had the salute to the Armed Forces. That involved different things than the homecoming game, which had its own things going on. It's different every week.
GC: What kinds of adjustments to you make from week to week?
Burke: The first game, for instance, we met before and try and be prepared as best you can. You learn from one week to the next, and you're going to have some hiccups the first game no matter how prepared you are. Things are going to happen, but you try and get everybody on the same page, communicate, talk to each other and eliminate as many as you can before 80,000 people show up.
Looking back, the first game against East Carolina was hot as a dad gum rascal out there. It was hot hot. We had the most visits to the first aid station, the most transits to the hospital of any game we've had since I've been here. That was a challenge to all our first aid folks and our nurses and doctors. We actually had a couple extra doctors in, so it worked out well. It was just busy. You read over the reports after the game from EMS, all the reports and how the cases were resolved, and luckily nobody passed away, which is always a concern. We have some great fans; come heck or high water they're going to make the games, and some aren't in the best shape. That's what I'm always most concerned with.
GC: What was the most challenging game to manage?
Burke: The Georgia game was the most challenging from an operations standpoint. We had (ESPN College) Gameday, the concert over at Gamecock Village, two top-five teams, everybody and their brother talking about it...it involved everybody, all day. Fortunately, it was also the most successful game we had from everything that happened. We won the game, the concert went great and we knocked the tar out of Georgia! It couldn't have been better.
GC: How many people are involved in making a football game run smoothly?
Burke: I'd say it's several thousand. We had 15 concessions alone, working the different concession stands, you have 1,100 or so there, that's just center plate, then you get into the catered areas, Seawell's and Southern Way in the Zone, you're talking in that area alone probably 1,300, 1,400 of those folks, you have a hundred or so highway patrol working, you have probably upwards of 400 or so yellow-shirts working security, so you have a lot of folks working hard. By the time you add it all up, you're in the 3,000-4,000 range.
GC: Has the new Gamecock Walk and the Gamecock Village area been a challenge to manage?
Burke: That's all different and new and a big plus. The new video board, obviously, everybody loves. It was needed, it was agreed that was the number one thing to step up on and make better. But that new Farmer's Market parking area and lot has gone over really well. Folks have received it in a very positive way, and the Gamecock Walk was something new and different, but as the games progressed, more and more people came and it really caught on to where it's now a big deal. It's now something people look forward to with the band playing.
Also, we have a big tailgating tent out there for all our prospective student athletes. That's gone over real well with our coaches and prospects coming in for all sports. They're all part of the whole ambiance of the gameday experience. It's a tremendous showcase and recruiting tool with televisions out there, food and the whole deal. They're all part of the whole experience directly across the street from the stadium. You can't beat it.
Another thing we did that has been really well received is the clearing of the tarmac. The stadium grounds per se, to be honest, it's almost a miracle that through the years, you have thousands of people leaving the stadium and hundreds more trying to get out in cars, and everybody is in a hurry, that nobody - knock on wood - got seriously hurt. That whole situation has really been remedied, and now we have only emergency vehicles there and the television trucks.
We had some folks who had parked there for years and years and years who didn't like it at first, but you know, you get to go over to a brand-new Farmer's Market, you have pedestals for your TV, you have permanent restrooms, you have grass, you have tailgating areas - it's not a bad deal to go across the street anymore, you know? There was a little initial kickback, but once people have seen it and experienced it, I haven't heard any negatives. Just the opposite.
GC: Could you have imagined when you started how different the stadium and surrounding areas would become?
Burke: No. Gosh, it's changed so much since I first got there. At one time it was basically just a concrete stadium in a concrete area. It was bland. I think it all started with the fairgrounds, when they did their beautification project, which turned out really, really well. That place was functional before, but it certainly wasn't a great thing to look at, and now it's a very pleasant venue to look at.
When you combine that with the things we've done inside the stadium, the video board the signage on the ramps with all the accolades and awards the kids have won through the years, the SEC flags, it's changed a bunch. The painting work, adding restrooms, the locker room, the restrooms, you go all around and it's fantastic. The signage, we just had some small metal signs here and there, and now you have these beautiful wraps going around. It's really nice from when I first came.
Facility improvements are a group effort. Coach Spurrier had some ideas on how things were done from when he was at Florida. He wanted to see more color, more garnet, and it needed it. It was a concrete, big-old building, just very gray. Now, it's fantastic, it's really come a long way.
GC: Besides football, you also do basketball and baseball as well, and those facilities are as good as anyone's in the country as well.
Burke: For me, it's exciting that we have new, very good coaches in basketball and baseball, and of course Dawn is a proven winner. That's what's fun for me is watching competitive teams. I can't wait to see how those basketball teams compete this year. I know the women's team will do great, and I think the men's team will surprise some people, I really do.
Baseball, it's kind of a mini-football operation now. When we moved from Sarge Frye to the new ballpark, to have shuttles, to scan tickets instead of having card tables out there. You have permanent restrooms instead of the small, tiny ones we had before, Sarge Frye had its pluses, it was a nice cozy atmosphere on campus, but the new ballpark, everything is gorgeous, you have a concourse you can walk around and not be crowded. You have a beautiful big scoreboard, a beautiful weight room, parking right next to the ballpark. It was a different deal, but it was once again very well received. It was laid out very well, and coach Tanner had a bunch to do with all that along with the facilities guys, Jeff Davis and Kevin O'Connell.
I always talk to the umpires before the game to go over any issues, and they just marvel, They go all over the country and they say "This is as good as it gets. You guys have got it going on." That's kind of neat to have guys who have been to LSU and other places say there, and it's such a treat for out players to be able to play there.
Also the video board and what we'll be able to do with marketing now is fantastic, making it fun for the fans, we have the wireless mikes going throughout the place, parking is real easy for fans, we have elevators to get up and down, suites for folks, the press box is a night-and-day difference, the view of the Columbia skyline is terrific - it's a big boy park. So much has changed. We've done tremendous things.
GC: Of all the sports, what's the most fun for you to work?
Burke: Football. Since coach (Spurrier) has been here, I've been here a while and some of those teams weren't good through the years. For him to come in and do what he's done, in my opinion in a relatively short period of time, in this conference is amazing. I really hope people appreciate it, and I hope he will stick around as long as he can. He's done such a phenomenal job, it makes it fun for someone like me and the fans who have been here through those times when it wasn't like this. I'm enjoying it, and I look forward to enjoying it for a long time to come.
- On the record: Toni Karl
- On the record: Raymond Harrison Jr.
- On the record: Clark Cox
- On the record: Erika Goodwin
- On the record: Steven Bondurant
- On the record: Kevin O'Connell
- On the record: Jeff Crane
- On the record: Andrew Kitick
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