March to Arch much different this time

For a long time, Cheryl Burnett has thought about having a view of southern Missouri's Table Rock Lake out her window. If she had all the money and choices in the world, that's still where she would want a house.

"I'll be getting it in the next couple of years," she said. "I already have my land."

Burnett knows about following your dreams and building things. In 15 seasons at what was then called Southwest Missouri State, her team won 319 games, went to 10 NCAA tournaments and played in two Final Fours.

Cheryl Burnett … remember her from March Madnesses past? How eight years ago she was in her program's second Final Four and had Jackie Stiles, one of the nation's most exciting players, leading her team?

Remember how just one year later, Burnett stunningly resigned? How a year after that, she was hired at Michigan after a season of sitting back and observing the sport?

How then she left the Wolverines after going 35-83 in four seasons and retired from coaching?

Remember all that? Wonder where Burnett is now? Why, at age 50, she's no longer a coach?

Well, the easy answer is the "where:" She's back in Springfield, Mo., and works in a development job at what's now called just Missouri State, no more Southwest. She helps with fundraising initiatives for the university, and it has nothing to do with coaching.

Which leads us to the "Why?" It seems like a harder answer, more complex. But Burnett says it's simple, too.

"I had gotten tired in my career," she said. "I basically coached almost 30 years. I say now that I'm in eternal burnout from coaching. So if you asked me right now if I'm ever going to coach again, I gladly answer, 'No.'

"I'm happy not to be in that 365-day-a year highly stressed life where I didn't get to be around family activities and friends' activities as much as I wanted. I'm still young, and now I'm able to live life to the fullest. I get to breathe, and not have those same pressures."

If you thought Burnett was sitting by the phone hoping for another job offer to coach, she says it couldn't be further from the truth.

Burnett grew up in Centralia, Mo., a small town north of Columbia. She played basketball from 1976-80 at Kansas, where she was the first woman to receive a full athletic scholarship. She then spent three seasons on the women's hoops staff at Illinois before becoming an assistant at Missouri State, where she was elevated to head coach in 1987.

Basketball dominated most of her existence. It doesn't anymore.

"I feel like I am the luckiest human being in the world to have had my whole life," she said, "but especially to have the last 10 years result as they have. I got to do what I wanted for a long time, which was coach. But I came to a point in my life where I needed for that to stop."

It was a recent Sunday morning, and Stiles had just finished working out. She's still manic about staying fit, but wishes she was doing that for the sake of playing basketball.

Her body broke down on her. You really don't want to know the exhaustive list of ailments and surgeries, but they include multiple operations on her right wrist, right ankle, right shoulder and right Achilles tendon. She had knee problems, too. It all prematurely ended her hoops career.

She tried cycling to recapture that competitive rush. Now, at age 30 and living in Wichita, she does basketball clinics and motivational speaking. She also keeps tabs on her favorite player in America: younger sister Roxy Stiles, who's at Missouri State.

Burnett sounds at peace with being away from competitive basketball as a coach. But Stiles can't help it; she still has her doubts about that.

"Gosh, words can't describe how she impacted my life, and so many people's lives, on and off the court," Stiles said. "I've known her for so many years, and it's really different not seeing her out there coaching. She has such a talent. She was able to get people to understand their roles; it was so fun to be on her team. She was the hardest-working coach I've ever been around.

"I just wonder how long she's going to be happy without coaching, because she has so much energy."

Burnett would shake her head and smile at that. She knew about Jackie from the time Stiles was just a hoops-crazed sixth-grader in tiny Claflin, Kan.

Nobody really used the term "obsessive-compulsive" … but in retrospect that was what Stiles' practice habits were like. She had to take and make a designated number of shots each day, or else she would lay awake at night desperately worried she hadn't done enough in the past 24 hours, that she'd let some irreplaceable opportunity to improve pass by.

Stiles, who finished with an NCAA-record 3,393 career points, broke the previous mark March 1, 2001, on the Hammons Center court she had lit up so often for four years. But the best was yet to come.

Missouri State was under-seeded and shipped away from home for the NCAA tournament, but that was nothing new. When Burnett led the program to its first Final Four, in 1992, she'd done it as a No. 8 seed that had to beat No. 1 seed Iowa on the Hawkeyes' home court, and later No. 2 Mississippi in the regional final.

Burnett had gotten used to steeling herself to disappointments on selection day. But when, with a 25-5 record and the best scorer in the college game, Missouri State was sent far away to play its 2001 early-round games at Rutgers, Burnett was ticked. And her utterance is still fondly remembered here in the Midwest.

"Freakin' New Jersey," she said when the bracket popped up on screen. "They're sending us to freakin' New Jersey."

And, yes, she really did say "freakin'" and not the, um, other word. It became a rallying cry for Bear Nation, known for passionate fans who would travel anywhere.

Off to freakin' New Jersey they went. And when Missouri State beat the Scarlet Knights on their home court in the second round -- Stiles scored 32 after having suffered a slight concussion in the opening game against Toledo -- the next destination was freakin' Spokane, Wash.

There were three days and 2,575 miles between the second round and the Sweet 16.

"It was almost impossible to drive from Rutgers to Spokane in time for the game," Burnett said. "But some of our fans still did it. They drove all night to make it."

And it was worth every mile to be there to see a 41-point game from Stiles in a victory over No. 1 seed Duke, which then-Kansas men's coach Roy Williams watched and later saluted during a press conference about his team.

The odyssey wasn't over. The last step to St. Louis was facing Washington in its home state.

Missouri State won again, advancing to a Final Four back home in the Show-Me State behind the senior leadership of Stiles, Tara Mitchem (who had scored 40 points against Toledo), Carly Deer, Tiny McMorris and Melody Campbell.

"You know, coaches never think any game is played as well as you want, because you want perfection," Burnett said. "But that particular team, I think, played four games -- back-to-back-to-back-to-back -- as well as that team could play. That's an amazing accomplishment."

Do you think the anticipation of something is the sweetest part of life? That it's a universal human regret that those euphoric periods can't stay? That whatever we look forward to will come and go too fast, and the relentless ticking of the clock won't allow us to savor any of it?

A day to freeze time for Stiles would have been Tuesday, March 27, 2001. She and her teammates had tried to sleep as much as they could the night before in their hotel in Spokane, but they were giddy. Then they arrived back at the airport in Springfield and were besieged.

The small terminal was packed, overflowing with joyful fans. It took more than two hours for the players to work their way out the door as they talked to and signed autographs for well-wishers.

After traveling from coast to coast, now Missouri State and its supporters had just a 208-mile drive from Springfield to the Gateway City. An easy bus ride for the team, right? But there was a freakish late-March snowstorm Wednesday, which turned an expected three-hour trip into six hours.

Meanwhile, Stiles flew to Minneapolis, site of the men's Final Four, to accept an award. Then to St. Louis to join her team. Looking back, Stiles and Burnett wonder if they should have refused Jackie's trip to Minneapolis. At the time, though, they didn't want to seem ungrateful for the honor.

And Thursday, the day before the national semifinals, was unending.

"It's almost like it's hard for me to remember much about the Final Four, because it was such a whirlwind," Stiles said. "That first day, we leave the hotel by 8 a.m. Then we have to watch an anti-gambling video, have our practice that was open to the public, then our own practice, our media interviews, an autograph session and the banquet that night.

"This may sound silly, but I remember my hair was awful for the banquet. I was so stressed and exhausted, I was practically in tears. We didn't get done until 10 p.m., and the next day was our Final Four game."

Stiles laughs a little while recounting that, but the truth is that it wasn't the experience a player would dream of having upon reaching the pinnacle of the season. She's far from alone in that.

In fact, most players and coaches will tell you the time demands at the Final Four really are a steep challenge. Every team has to deal with it. But in 2001, only one of the four didn't get to play its early-round games at home. And all that travel caught up to Missouri State, which lost in the semifinals 81-64 to Purdue.

"We did not play well," Burnett said. "We wished we could have gone into that game playing with lively legs. I don't want to take anything away from Purdue and the game they played. They won. But we wished we could have represented ourselves better.

"I haven't watched the film since, and I bet none of our kids have, either."

Stiles, who had her worst shooting performance of the season (7-of-21 for 22 points), certainly hasn't.

"It's still, to this day, hard for me," she said. "I'll never be able to watch that game tape."

What Stiles does want to hold on to is the feeling of those last few days of her college career: the frenzy for tickets among Missouri State fans, the electric atmosphere in the arena at tip-off in St. Louis. But even that has its bittersweet side for her. It was the culmination of the best four years she has ever had.

"My experience at Missouri State, especially my senior year, it kind of ruined the rest of my life," she said, chuckling but not entirely joking. "Because what could stack up to that?"

Stiles went on to be rookie of the year in the WNBA, but her pro career wouldn't last long because of injuries. She went through surgical procedures and rehabs and tried to play overseas. Eventually, she had to face being through with competitive basketball.

And understandably, that's why she's still unsettled by it. Her exit came long before she was ready to make it.

Burnett's experience with leaving coaching, however, was on her own timetable, although it wasn't conflict-free by any means.

The year after making the Final Four and losing five seniors, Missouri State went 16-13 and played in the WNIT. Then Burnett resigned on April 22, 2002. She said that day she had no job interviews lined up; she was just going on faith that she would land elsewhere.

It didn't appear to make a lot of sense then. It still doesn't.

There's no concise way to sum up all the ingredients that formed a toxic stew in the Missouri State athletic department back then and pushed away a coach who had built the most successful program at the school.

Yet anyone who has covered or gotten an inside view of intercollegiate athletics knows that it rarely matches the "one big happy family" image that schools strive so hard to project. Administrators become jealous of coaches for receiving attention/credit from the media, or vice versa. Coaches become jealous of each other. Biases, such as sexism, surface. People stop talking. Working relationships become strained and sometimes snap. Everybody ends up believing they're the "real" wronged party.

Burnett won't talk about it. She just won't. She doesn't want to rehash any problems. What's the point? She says she's not holding hard feelings about anything. She loves the university. She's working for it again.

She says she loved Michigan, too. Her four years there were quite disappointing in terms of the program's record. She wasn't able to recruit there well enough to turn a corner. But she enjoyed the experience at the school and being in Ann Arbor.

However … Missouri is her home. Due south of Springfield by the Arkansas border is Table Rock Lake. Her future house there will be such a nice place to relax.

"The one part of coaching that I do miss is on the court, the teaching," Burnett said. "That's what I enjoy when I do clinics. And I still do consulting with some of my friends and ex-players who are coaching.

"But I don't want to be in the public eye now; I've done that enough. I enjoy just being a regular person."

To the degree that she is a regular person in Springfield. She's still very popular, of course. You don't have to look far for fans who think it was a misfortune all the way around that she left in the first place.

With that 2001 appearance, her former program remains the most recent mid-major to make a Women's Final Four. Missouri State is one of just four mid-majors to advance to the Final Four in the past 20 years, along with Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion and Western Kentucky.

Burnett always bristled at that term "mid-major." She felt Missouri State was a major program in the sport. Yet as college athletics became delineated by whether you were in a power conference for football, there was no avoiding the "mid-major" designation.

She looks at the changed landscape of women's basketball and knows it has become harder than ever for mid-majors to realistically strive for a Final Four. And while she understands the good intent behind a lot of the NCAA legislation aimed at regulating recruiting, she also points out how it has impacted schools such as Missouri State.

"As they put restrictions on recruiting, I felt like it became impossible to outwork someone else in that area without breaking the rules," she said. "The reason we had gotten a lot of great players away from going to bigger institutions was simply because we were the first letter they received, or we were in the stands at more of their games.

"When the legislation started restricting so many things, I know it was for the athletes' protection. But it created an environment where nobody could really outwork anyone else legally. With those institutions that don't always abide by the restrictions -- that might call when they're not supposed to -- it's hard to explain to a student-athlete that that school is breaking the rules. Especially when it was a phone call that she was thrilled to get."

Katie Abrahamson-Henderson took over for Burnett and made the NCAA tournament three times in her five seasons. But she and the Missouri State fan base never quite warmed to each other.

She left (she's now an assistant at Indiana) and was replaced by Nyla Milleson, who had already been working in Springfield since 1992. Milleson was coach of Glendale High and then Drury University.

Missouri State went 11-19 last season under Milleson and is currently 10-17 entering Thursday's game at Bradley. Stiles' friend and former teammate Carly Deer -- now Carly Stubblefield -- is an assistant coach. Missouri State has won its past four in a row, and its home attendance average this season of 4,750 is still better than many "big conference" schools.

Roxy Stiles is a junior who has played in every game, but has been limited to about nine minutes per contest due to injury issues with her hip. As a child she had it operated on for dysplasia. She averaged 33.5 minutes two years ago in her rookie season, but it has been a battle since.

"I'm so proud of her; she's handled everything so well," Jackie said. "People thought I was tough? She's playing Division I basketball and needs a hip replacement.

"Sometimes when I'm there to watch her play, I'm afraid I make her nervous. I don't want to put extra pressure on her. Which it shouldn't, because it doesn't make any difference if she has two points or 20. I just want to be there for her. I love her to death.

"She's got such a good head on her shoulders. She wants to be a doctor when she's done playing, and I kind of envy that. It's so cool she knows what she wants to do next. I always wanted to only play basketball. I remember in second grade, I said I was going to be a pro player, before the WNBA even existed. Then I had to retire early, and it was like, 'Now what am I going to do?' I feel like I've found it, though, and I'm fortunate to stay connected to the game."

Still, you hear something wistful in Stiles' voice when you mention that the Final Four is back in St. Louis this season.

"Eight years," she said. "Wow, it's been eight years."

You don't hear that same kind of emotion from Burnett, who is two decades older than Stiles. Maybe Burnett hides it better? Or maybe you should take her at her word and believe it really isn't there.

"I'm doing everything I can to give back to this community in any way possible," Burnett said. "There were so many wonderful memories. But I get to live a whole other life now that I'm extremely happy with."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.