UM mourns death of ex-backfield coach Tirrel Burton, 87

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Tirrel Burton, right, joined Bo Schembechler's staff in 1970 and served until 1991.

Tirrel Burton, a longtime assistant coach at Michigan, has passed away.

Burton, 87, suffered a heart attack and stroke in the past week and died late Tuesday night, according to several former Michigan players.

“We lost a great treasure,” said former Michigan running back Jamie Morris. “Ann Arbor lost a great citizen.”

Burton was hired by Bo Schembechler and joined the staff in 1970 to coach running backs. He remained on staff through the 1991 season.

“What a fine gentleman,” former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said of Burton. “I will miss him and admire him always. I learned a lot from him.”

Morris considered Burton one of his great mentors. During his radio show Wednesday afternoon on WTKA, Morris said he planned to play Burton’s favorite country music and discuss the Westerns he enjoyed.

“You think, ‘My mentors can’t die,’” Morris said. “I made myself go last night (to see him). God, I didn’t want to go. I’m glad I did.  What I wanted to see was him jump out of bed and say, ‘I’m fine.’ You play tricks in your head.

“As a player, he meant the world to me. He got me on the field Yeah, I pestered him. He said, ‘We had to put you on the field because you were beside me 24/7 asking me questions. I wanted to know things. I wanted to play. There was a guy behind Bo Schembechler who co-signed me playing. It was coach Burton who saw something in me before anyone else.”

Tirrel Burton

Burton grew up in Oxford, Ohio, home of Miami University, and watched Miami athletics. After serving in the military for three and a half years, Burton enrolled at Miami.

He played football for Ara Parseghian and ran track.

“He had tremendous speed and we were anxious to have him,” Parseghian told the Miami Athletics site for a story in 2008. “He could break the line. That’s what every coach looks for.”

Burton led the 1955 unbeaten Miami team in rushing, scoring, interceptions, kickoff returns and punt returns. When Burton played, he was one of a handful of black players on Miami’s team.

“Being on an athletic team in the '50s was not about being black, it was about being on a team,” Burton told the Miami website in 2008. “Our undefeated football team turned down a bowl game because southern bowls wanted no black players.”

Former Michigan assistant coach Jerry Hanlon was teammates with Burton at Miami and they later became co-workers at UM.

“He was more than just a good coach,” Hanlon said. “He was one of those guys who kept things in perspective. At that time with what was happening on campuses, he was a Godsend, at least to me and I’m sure to everyone on staff. He kept things in perspective. He looked at both sides and kept us on the straight and narrow and told us how to handle things on occasion.  He was a heck of a guy and a great co-worker.”

Burton at Miami (Ohio)

Burton was an avid golfer.

“He beat the hell out of me in golf every time I played him,” Hanlon said, laughing. “I told him, ‘I hate you Burton,’ and he said, ‘What do you mean?’ I told him, ‘Every time we ran a sprint in college I was always looking at your butt because you were always ahead of me and now we play golf and all you do is laugh at me when we tally the scores.’ We always hit it off with each other.”

Jon Falk, who later was hired by Schembechler to become Michigan’s equipment manager, also grew up in Oxford, and Burton tributes were never far. Falk likes to tell a story of being stunned when he arrived on campus how Burton already was commemorated in Ann Arbor, too.

“I went to high school and saw pictures of Tirrel Burton, the great football player and great track star,” Falk said. “I went to Miami, walked down the hall and there were pictures of Tirrel Burton, the great football player and Tirrel Burton the great track star.

“Then, when I was at Michigan, I was walking around campus, I saw the Burton Tower and I said, ‘Wow, that’s something.’”

Funeral arrangements were pending.