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January 17, 2012

Burleson a Hokie at home in Florida

By: Jimmy Robertson

He lives 12 hours from the school in which he graduated and from the campus that he loves, but Bob Burleson likes being a Hokie in Florida these days.

Bob Burleson, seen here with grandson Thatcher before the Tech-UNC game this past fall, made a contribution, along with teammate Jack Burrows, to help build the Burrows-Burleson Tennis Center.

“I’m a true Floridian through and through except everyone knows I’m a Hokie,” Burleson said. “It’s fun to be a Hokie in Florida right now.

“Back in the early 90s, we couldn’t seem to get over that hump and beat Florida State. Then we got in a conference [the ACC], and in that first championship game [in 2005], we should have beaten them [the Seminoles] by four touchdowns. But the last few times have been fun. I was hoping we’d get to play them this year, but they didn’t live up to their end of the deal.”

Burleson, a Johnson City, Tenn., native, played tennis at Tech for head coach Don Seabolt in the late 1960s, and he graduated in 1970 with a degree in building construction. Though he played tennis, he also became an authority on other Tech sports primarily through his work as a student assistant in the Hokies’ sports information office under legendary sports information director Wendy Weisend.

Under Weisend’s guidance, Burleson kept stats for games and helped run press row. In fact, one year, the NCAA Tournament was held at Cassell Coliseum – Tech made it, but was sent to another location – and Burleson oversaw press row for that event at Cassell.

“I grew up in Johnson City, and there was a guy who was the sports information director at East Tennessee State University, and he lived with my grandparents, kind of as a boarder,” Burleson said. “When I started high school, I became the official statistician for ETSU. I kept all the stats. We had a guy who was actually leading the nation in rebounding, and they came in to check and see if I was padding the stats. I would call all the newspapers, and I ended up with bylines in the Knoxville paper and all these other places.

“I came up here [to Blacksburg] and met Wendy, and told him I had done that. So I kept stats for all the basketball games. One year, we had the NCAAs here and Virginia Tech was playing somewhere else. I ran the press box for that. It was just a way to make some money.”

He also became friends with players in other sports. In those days, the tennis and basketball teams lived in a part of Miles Hall. So he became friends with guys such Glen Combs, Tommy Trice and Allan Bristow.

He remembers those basketball teams fondly. Combs led the Hokies to the NCAA Tournament in 1967, and Tech won its first two games in that tournament, beating Toledo and Indiana. But with a Final Four appearance on the line, the Hokies fell to Dayton in overtime.

A controversial call in that game hurt the Hokies. Tech got whistled for a 10-second violation, even though there was no halfcourt line in those days, and the rule rarely got enforced.

“We went to the final eight that year and got shafted,” Burleson said. “That’s my story anyway.”

After graduating from Tech in 1970, Burleson worked for his dad’s construction company for a couple of years, and then in 1972, he moved to Roanoke to work for Wiley Jackson Company, a major road builder in the Southeast. Burleson was married to Jackson’s granddaughter, who also happened to be the sister of Burleson’s tennis teammate at Tech, Jack Burrows. Together, the family ran the company until 1987 when they decided to sell it.

During that 15-year span, Burleson remained involved in Tech athletics as the president of the Virginia Tech Athletic Fund at one stretch. He went to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1979 to watch the Hokies participate in the NCAA Tournament under Charlie Moir and saw them lose in the second round to an Indiana State team led by a guy named Larry Bird.

“I flew out there, and Coach Moir and I went to dinner,” Burleson said. “The Indiana State coach thought I was a coach. Larry Bird [former Indiana State player and Boston Celtics legend] and all their players were at the table next to us, having a big time. After we got behind 10-0, we tied them the rest of the game. But we couldn’t catch up and lost.”

Burleson also became friends with Bill Dooley, Tech’s football coach in the late 70s and early 80s. In fact, Burleson was the president of the VTAF during the Dooley controversy that led to his dismissal.

In 1986, Dooley guided the Hokies to an inspiring season that led to a Peach Bowl berth and win. Early in the season, the Hokies stunned Clemson in Death Valley, and Dooley later gave Burleson the game ball.

“I had a brother who went to Clemson, and Coach got the word [that he was being fired] right before the team went to Clemson for the game,” Burleson said. “I was telling him how much it would mean to me to beat Clemson and all that. He called me after that and told me, ‘I’m coming to Roanoke tomorrow and bringing you the game ball.’ He did, too, and that was really neat.”

Burleson has many great memories of Tech. He remembers the Liberty Bowl that featured current head coach Frank Beamer and former Ole Miss great Archie Manning. He remembers a basketball game against a great Houston squad on a night when it snowed 15 inches in Blacksburg. The Hokies got down by 20 and rallied to win.

But his best memory came when he met a pretty young lady named Beverly Burrows outside of Miles one day.

“That was my freshman year,” he said. “I didn’t know she was the one. I figured she was way too good for me. I thought, ‘Man, I’d really be reaching if I went after her.’ But that worked out pretty well.”

The two have been married now for 41 years and raised three sons.

Burleson and his wife left the Roanoke area in 1989 and moved to Tallahassee, Fla., where he became president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association. He currently remains in that position and spends a lot of his time traveling to Washington, D.C., where he lobbies members of Congress for funding to improve and build roads in Florida. The American Road 8: Transportation Builders Association and the Transportation Development Foundation selected him as one of three members for induction into its inaugural ARTBA/TDF Hall of Fame for his 40-plus years of work in the transportation construction industry.

“I really love what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m 63. I’m basically my own boss. I really enjoy it. And Tallahassee is a great place. There is nothing around it. It’s a great place to raise a family, and the weather is good.”

Burleson has traded his tennis racket for golf clubs these days, and spends a lot of time on the golf course – even once playing with former FSU quarterback Chris Weinke a few weeks before the Tech-FSU national championship game in the Sugar Bowl.

But he makes it back to Blacksburg for one or two football games a year. Rest assured, he won’t be trading those loyalties any time soon.