When Jimmy Burrow decided to retire after three decades coaching football, he figured it would be worth it to watch his youngest son play football for LSU in person.
Like LSU itself, Jimmy Burrow got more than he could have ever imagined.
Joe Burrow is the nation’s No. 1 Heisman Trophy candidate on the nation’s No. 1-ranked college football team. And Jimmy Burrow, who grew up in neighboring Mississippi, is having no retirement remorse.
“Obviously the only reason I retired was to be able to go watch Joe play and be with my wife, Robin, because she goes to every game,” Jimmy Burrow said Thursday. “I would have been happy and content to do that.
“But there is so much more to this whole thing due to Joe and LSU’s success that has all added to the fun for us.”
Some of the media spotlight glaring on Joe has splintered off to his parents. Jimmy Burrow, who spent the past 14 seasons as defensive coordinator at Ohio University, is a weekly regular on the morning drive “Off the Bench” sports talk show on WNXX-FM 104.5 in Baton Rouge. Robin Burrow, an elementary school principal, was interviewed this week by Sports Illustrated.
“We appreciate all the interest and support Joe is getting,” Jimmy Burrow said.
The support extends to the small town of The Plains, Ohio, where the Burrows live. Right outside of Athens, where the Ohio University campus is, The Plains is about the same distance from Ohio State’s campus in Columbus as Tiger Stadium is from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Though it’s Ohio U. and Ohio State country, Jimmy Burrow said LSU yard flags have sprouted up in their town like autumn mushrooms. A local restaurant is giving discounts to customers wearing purple.
“That makes us feel good,” Jimmy said. “People come up to us at games in Baton Rouge and say they’re from such and such in Ohio, but they just wanted to see him play.”
If Joe and the Tigers keep playing like this, they will wind up in the College Football Playoff. And there is an excellent chance they could play Ohio State, Joe’s former team ranked No. 3 behind LSU and Alabama in The Associated Press poll.
Such a matchup might put the LSU yard signs in Ohio to the test.
“Joe would probably never admit it, but that’s probably his dream matchup,” Jimmy Burrow said. “And mine. And the entire state of Ohio. We’re hoping that can happen.”
Meanwhile, this concurrent Heisman Trophy thread is running through the season. LSU has three national championships in the modern or wire service era — 1958, 2003 and 2007 — but only one Heisman winner: Billy Cannon in 1959.
Right now, Joe Burrow is better than even money to join Cannon in that super-exclusive LSU club. For someone who has spent his entire life in football — Jimmy Burrow was a defensive back at Nebraska when Johnny Rodgers won the Heisman in 1972 and a coach there when Eric Crouch won in 2001 — what is it like for your youngest child to be this close to college football’s most prestigious prize?
“It’s a little overwhelming to turn on the TV and see they’re talking about it nonstop on the sports channels,” Jimmy Burrow said. “It’s a little scary, too.”
Jimmy Burrow’s son is the Heisman favorite because his team is winning and he’s completing passes at a record clip. Joe Burrow is connecting on 78.8 percent of his passes — 80 percent against AP Top 25 opponents. He’s on a pace to break the FBS record of 76.7 percent set in 2008 by Texas’ Colt McCoy.
Jimmy Burrow isn’t about to divulge what he would do as a defensive coach to try to slow Joe down. But he does know what has made his son so effective.
“There are a lot of different options with the development of their wide receivers,” Burrow said. “Actually, he has four or more good choices with their top three wide receivers and (tight end) Thad Moss turning into a very dependable receiver. And Clyde (Edwards-Helaire) has developed as a runner and pass catcher.
“Then add the improvement of the offensive line. Those guys have played great. Add to that a new scheme and a quarterback who has done it his whole life, and it’s kind of a perfect storm for a quick turnaround.”
Of course, none of this was so a year and a half ago when Joe decided to transfer to LSU from Ohio State, choosing the Tigers over in-state Cincinnati.
Jimmy Burrow said his son relished the bigger challenge.
“(Cincinnati) was probably the natural choice,” Jimmy Burrow said. “That was probably the easiest. But Joe ended up choosing LSU because he wanted to play at the highest level. He always wanted a chance to play for a national championship. Ultimately, that’s why he chose LSU.”
I wondered how Jimmy thought Joe was dealing with all the adulation and praise. He said his son self-insulates himself from that.
“He doesn’t read the clippings,” Jimmy said. “He doesn’t look at the internet to read about himself. A few times I sent him things about him on the internet but he said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to read that.’ It makes me feel good he’s focusing on what’s at hand.”
What’s at hand next is LSU’s Nov. 9 showdown with No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Jimmy and Robin Burrow will be there, cheering on their youngest boy.
At some point, Jimmy will probably think about a coverage or a blitz or a short-yardage package he would call. But then he’ll think how much he has enjoyed the journey of this season, and what may still be to come.