Rob Burke embraces rebuilding challenge

Robert Burke has been down this road before, coaching at a school where a living legend might just pop in for a moment or two.

At Princeton, where Burke spent four years as an assistant, the hoops Yoda, Pete Carril stopped by every now and again.

At Georgetown, where Burke served four years alongside John Thompson III, the gruff and imposing elder John Thompson was a regular presence.

And now Burke is at Mount St. Mary’s, as a head coach for the first time in 22 years. His occasional visitor? Jim Phelan -- he of the bow tie and 830 victories.

For those keeping score, that’s three coaches, three Hall of Famers and nearly 2,000 wins.

But Burke is hardly daunted by the walking history that has dotted his career path.

He won’t run the Princeton offense.

He won’t steal from Thompson’s playbook, and for the record, he won’t be wearing a bow tie.

He will be his own man and the Mount will be his team.

“I will do my thing,’’ he said simply.

In a lot of ways, Burke walks into the ideal place to make a first impression. Between graduation and a leave of absence granted Jean Cajou, he returns just one starter -- Shawn Atupem -- from last year’s 16-15 squad.

Atupem averaged 10.7 points and 27 minutes per game. After that Burke has a roster that, together, averaged four minutes per game.

Burke, who takes over after Milan Brown jumped to Holy Cross, has a chance to mold a young team. Accustomed to a more structured system, with more traditional positions as a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, the Mountaineers have taken to Burke’s concept of working more as interchangeable parts.

Although he is defensive-minded like Brown was, Burke also wants to speed up his team. He’s found players eager to push the ball after makes and turnovers but who also understand that they still need to be able to execute in the halfcourt.

“As crazy as this sounds, sometimes when you’re winning all the time it gets a little boring,’’ Burke said. “You can’t do much other than keep things moving. In the situation I’m in, every single guy can improve and improve every day. They’re definitely impressionable, but the good thing is they also understand what it takes to win.’’

Indeed the culture of winning, long ago fostered by Phelan, was resurrected by Brown. He ended a nine-year dry spell with an appearance in the 2008 NCAA tournament and directed the Mountaineers to the College Insiders Tournament a year after that.

Burke, who grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and got his coaching start as an assistant at UMBC (where he went head-to-head with Phelan), realizes that continuing such success will be a challenge in the immediate future.

Another word for impressionable is inexperienced. The Mountaineers, with so much inexperience, will surely have at least a temporarily bumpy ride.

But Burke is hardly worried. In fact, he’s almost energized by the challenge. After his eight-year partnership with Thompson III ended abruptly in 2008 -- neither side is interested in saying what exactly happened -- he spent a year at American University as an assistant.

“I’ve never been one to be in a rush to get somewhere,’’ Burke said of his contentment as an assistant. “A lot of people would tell me I needed to get a head-coaching job earlier, but that wasn’t my style. I always wanted to be at a place where I liked the people I was working with and we had a chance to win.’’

When Mount St. Mary’s called, though, Burke finally found all of that and the title of head coach.

He has slid over the one chair with apparent ease, struggling only with this new found responsibility of delegating.

“To some degree I realized that maybe for the last few years I had been bored,’’ Burke said. “To me it’s very exciting to be responsible for having such an impact on these guys’ lives. As an assistant, you have an impact but to be the person in control of that is so important to me.’’

But as he finds his way, Burke once again has a nice resource to shepherd him.

Phelan has welcomed Burke with open arms, inviting him to the house for dinner, and offering advice but sagely offering it only when Burke wants or asks for it.

“He’s around a lot, but he’s also been great in that he’s only around when I want him to be,’’ Burke said. “I know the history of this place, and I appreciate it very much. I know the numbers and I know what Coach Phelan has accomplished. It’s not a challenge. It’s something to build on.’’