He’s navigated Majerus and recruited with sci-fi. Now Chris Burgess hopes to help rebuild Utah basketball

The former Ute returns to his alma mater with a reputation for building relationships

(Utah Athletics) New Runnin' Utes assistant Chris Burgess helps run a practice on campus on April 19, 2022. Burgess left BYU for his alma mater this spring, bringing with him a reputation as a recruiter who builds lasting relationships.

When Chris Burgess needs some recruiting advice he sometimes looks to an unexpected source: his teenage daughters.

“I’ve got a recruit with a similar personality as you who doesn’t like to open up,” Burgess says. “How would you go about it?”

His daughters tell him which Marvel superhero movies they currently like. They’ll ask if he has asked the recruit about his favorite Netflix shows.

Burgess writes it all down. He knows that in order to entice a player to sign with his college basketball team — whether that was with Utah Valley, BYU and now Utah — he needs to connect on a deeper level.

“To me, it’s all about the relationships that you have,” Burgess said. “And when you do that and things are cohesive, then you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have a good culture.”

Utah recently hired Burgess to be the lead assistant coach under Craig Smith, who just finished his first season as head coach of the Runnin’ Utes. He signed a two-year contract that will pay him $265,000 per year, per documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune. The team finished just 11-20 overall and 4-16 in the Pac-12, and Burgess could help bring some much-needed talent.

Burgess spent the previous seven years as Mark Pope’s lead assistant, first at Utah Valley University and then at BYU. One of his main priorities was recruiting transfers.

And when it comes to his coaching and recruiting philosophy, Utah fans need to look no further than the importance Burgess places on relating to each and every player on their own terms.

Recruiting style

Britton Johnsen wasn’t all that surprised to hear Burgess asked his children for tips. Burgess has asked him as well. It’s a testament to his recruiting approach and the importance he places on diligence.

“I love the fact that he displays a lot of humility by asking questions of people because he wants to be really good at what he does,” said Johnsen, a close friend and former teammate of Burgess.

(Utah Athletics) New Runnin' Utes assistant Chris Burgess helps run a practice on campus on April 19, 2022. Burgess left BYU for his alma mater this spring, bringing with him a reputation as a recruiter who builds lasting relationships.

Johnsen recalled a pit stop to his then-girlfriend’s house on a trip to Lake Powell when he and Burgess were in college. Burgess ended up getting Johnsen’s future father-in-law on the floor and teaching him stretches for his back pain despite never having met him before.

It was an early glimpse at how quickly Burgess makes people feel comfortable and creates trust, and he’s taken that skill and applied it to recruiting.

“He told me he landed a kid once by never talking about basketball with the kid,” Johnsen said. “He only talked about ‘Star Wars’ and sci-fi movies because he knew that’s what the kid loved.”

With the prevalence of the transfer portal, Burgess said, it’s now even more important to find players who are the right fit for a team and to forge that strong bond.

“I think that is a top priority — building relationships and empowering your current players, making sure that they feel that this is the best place for them [and] they’re getting everything they can out of this place,” Burgess said.

Burgess was the main recruiter at BYU, and was instrumental in getting former Farmington star Collin Chandler to commit to the Cougars. Although Burgess is no longer with the program, Chandler had nothing but positive things to say about the assistant coach.

“He’s an amazing guy,” Chandler said. “He’s one of my favorite coaches that I’ve ever talked to and been able to hang with. It sucked losing him for sure, but it’s definitely what was best for him, what’s best for his career aspirations and his family.”

Gavin Baxter, a former BYU player who committed to Utah for his final year of eligibility, valued Burgess’s attention to detail while coaching, and said he is not scared to get out there and show you the move exactly how it should be done.

While Burgess didn’t recruit Baxter to BYU, the chance to be coached by him again at Utah was difficult to pass up.

“After he got hired, a couple of days after, the idea of transferring there didn’t seem too crazy, especially coming from my standpoint of ‘true blue BYU all the way through’ since I was young,” Baxter said. “But if he wasn’t there, then I really don’t think it would be an option. So having him there was a big factor in my decision.”

Why Burgess chose Utah

Burgess started his coaching career as a graduate assistant with Utah before getting hired at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa. He also worked as a volunteer assistant with Salt Lake Community College during the summer before starting at IHCC.

The bulk of the coaching lessons Burgess learned, though, came under Pope. He was immediately influenced by the now-BYU coach’s passion and energy for his players, helping them improve both on and off the court. He was influenced by how much Pope wanted the program to succeed. He was influenced by making “joy in the gym” a priority.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Burgess during a game against BYU in 2001.

But the allure of coaching with Smith proved too much to turn down for Burgess, despite feeling immense gratitude for his time with Pope at BYU and UVU and finding it difficult and anxiety-inducing to make the change. The two got to know each other over the years since Smith arrived in Utah and started coaching at Utah State. They recruited many of the same players, attended many of the same events.

And there was mutual respect between Smith and Burgess that led to their eventual union. Smith said he felt an “instant connection” when he met Burgess.

“At the end of the day, he’s a very good coach, he’s a very good recruiter and he’s a phenomenal person,” Smith said. “Everywhere you go — and I’ve been in this state now for four years — his name gets brought up. He’s not transactional. He’s a relationship person. And that matters.”

Johnsen said Burgess going to Utah was not at all about the money. Instead, it was about Burgess adding to his “learning reservoir” and also having the opportunity to be close to his daughter who will play volleyball for the Utes.

Burgess doesn’t see himself as the second in command to Smith, but more just part of a staff that has one collective goal: win basketball games. But in making the move 40 miles north, he feels like it could be the next step to his ultimate goal.

“My goal is to be a head coach of a college basketball team,” Burgess said. “And I know that listening and learning from another voice, and the personal development that it would help me with was a great opportunity — for me to work and learn under coach Smith, to be at my alma mater.”

Burgess the mentor

Lance Allred felt like a little brother to Burgess during their time as teammates with the Utes.

Allred is two years Burgess’s junior, and the pair spent the better part of two seasons together with the Runnin’ Utes — from 2000 to 2002 — being coached by the late Rick Majerus. They became close during that time, with Burgess having an impact on Allred that the now 41-year-old author and speaker still cherishes to this day.

Allred, a former NBA and international player, credits much of his success — not just in basketball, but in life — to Burgess. That’s why he believes Burgess will someday soon be a successful head coach.

(Utah Athletics) New Runnin' Utes assistant Chris Burgess helps run a practice on campus on April 19, 2022. Burgess left BYU for his alma mater this spring, bringing with him a reputation as a recruiter who builds lasting relationships.

“Any kid who gets to be coached by him is incredibly lucky because even though he was my teammate, he coached me,” Allred said. “Not only did he coach me at Utah, teach me some tricks and skills here and there. But without being jealous or petty, he pointed me in the right direction for me to go and have the career that I did.”

Burgess once was a McDonald’s All-American and the top-rated basketball recruit in the country. He played at Duke for legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski. He played on summer league squads with NBA teams, and had a professional career with several overseas teams all over the world.

Allred said Burgess’s college career was filled with trying times, going as far as to say he dealt with “chaos and BS” while at Duke. Burgess also dealt with several injuries while with the Runnin’ Utes, including a bulged disc in his back, a broken left ankle and a torn right plantar fascia.

Playing under Majerus was difficult for the Utes when Burgess, Allred and Britton Johnsen played at Utah. Allred, who is legally deaf, has said his former coach once referred to him as “just a deaf dumb f---” and said he “weaseled” his way through life using his hearing “as an excuse.”

But Johnsen said Burgess knew how to alleviate some of the tension.

“When we were playing for Majerus, it was a lot of stress. There was a lot of verbal abuse,” Johnsen said. “And it was great having a teammate like him that knew how to sort of get your mind off it and think of other things. That’s probably the best strength I would say he brought as a teammate.”

Burgess took all his adversity in stride. He didn’t let himself become bitter. He remained unapologetically himself, collecting “Star Wars” memorabilia that to this day remains in its original packaging, watching Disney cartoons on team flights and impersonating Kronk from the film “The Emperor’s New Groove.”

“It’s what made you like him so much,” Johnsen said. “He didn’t care what anybody thought about stuff like that. It was kind of refreshing to have somebody that wasn’t just only addicted to basketball all the time.”

Allred knows personal growth and development intimately with what he’s gone through in his own life. And when he sees Burgess, his friend and big brother, navigating his career of molding and helping young players, he sees someone who knows what matters in the long term.

“He knows that life throws enough curveballs our way, that we can’t control all the variables. All we can do is do our best in each moment and how we respond to them,” Allred said. “And because he accepts that he can’t control all the variables, he then does not attach his worth or his players’ worth to all the immediate outcomes. He is able to see the larger picture.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.