By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Nigel Burton calls former University of Washington head coach Jim Lambright his greatest coaching mentor and has forged such a close relationship with current Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian that they don’t need the game to bring them together.
“I consider ourselves buddies,” Burton said Wednesday, “because we don’t talk football when we see each other.”
Burton was a three-year-starter at UW, was named team captain as a senior and has purple flowing through his veins 13 years after graduating from the school.
And on Saturday afternoon, Burton would love nothing more than to feast on Husky meat.
Now in his third year as head coach at Portland State University, the 36-year-old Burton will be leading the charge in hopes of an upset bid at CenturyLink Field in downtown Seattle.
“I’ve addressed it with the team, and I told them this game is about them — it’s not about me in any way, shape or form,” Burton said during the Big Sky Conference conference call Wednesday morning. “I’m not planning on playing, and if I did, I’d have one good play in me. Then I’d probably tear a hamstring or something. So it’s not about me.”
And yet when Burton’s upstart Vikings play a UW team hungry to get back on track this Saturday, the crosshairs will be squarely on the PSU sideline. Burton and two of his assistants, Lester Towns and Ikaika Malloe, are former UW players who will be trying to put Portland State on the map with a first-ever win over a Pacific-12 Conference school. The Vikings are 2-28 against Football Bowl Series schools, with their last victory coming by way of a 17-6 win over New Mexico in 2006.
Burton will also be trying to knock off a friend whose coaching clinics he has worked at over the years. Sarkisian said he has known of Burton since their days as college football players.
“I’ve always admired Nigel. He was part of the eight sacks I endured here as a player,” said Sarkisian, a former BYU quarterback who once played at Husky Stadium in 1996. “And then he got into the profession — we got into it right around the same time — and he’s worked his way through the ranks. Wherever he has gone, his teams have played well. They’ve played hard, they’ve played with passion. He’s always recruited pretty well. And I was really happy for him when he got the Portland State job.”
Burton has coached against UW five times as an assistant, mostly at Oregon State, but Saturday will mark his first visit as a head coach. In his first two seasons at Portland State, he led the Vikings from a 2-9 season in 2010 to a 7-4 mark last year. This season, PSU is off to a 1-1 start, losing 45-37 at North Dakota over the weekend.
A 1999 graduate of UW, Burton initially got into the world of accounting but eventually drifted back to football. He began his coaching career at South Florida and has also been at Oregon State and Nevada, the latter being a two-year stint as defensive coordinator.
“It took a year or two (to return to football), but I fell in love with coaching,” he said of his career path. “You always can use the game to affect a young man’s life, and that’s what I enjoy the most.”
Burton mentioned Lambright, an Everett High School graduate, as a key mentor, saying: “He’s been a huge influence in my life.” Lambright has attended at least one Portland State game in each of the past two years, and Burton expects him to be at Saturday’s game.
Once a player under Lambright, Burton has gotten pretty used to roaming the sidelines in recent years. He’ll let the players decide Saturday’s game, no matter who his Vikings are playing.
But he won’t forget his days as a Husky.
“I loved my time there,” Burton said Wednesday. “I loved playing there. I think it instilled some things in me that I still carry with me.”
Burton dismissed defensive coordinator Eric Jackson effective immediately on Wednesday.
Jackson joined Burton’s staff when he was named head coach in 2010. Before coming to the Vikings, he was secondary-special teams coordinator at Princeton for nine years.