by Bill Traughber
Vanderbilt fans will remember former tight end Barry Burton (1973-75) bringing excitement with the old end-around play. But, Burton was also one of the top punters in the SEC, which brought the All-American some undesired attention against one particular opponent in all three of his varsity seasons.
Burton was born in Nashville and was a three-sport athlete at Hillsboro High School. He played center field in baseball, running back in football and guard in basketball. On the gridiron, the senior rushed for over 1,000 yards and earned All-District, All-Regional and All-State honors while deciding that football was his sport and Vanderbilt his college of choice.
The six-foot-two, 220-pounder was on the freshman football team when he arrived on the Vanderbilt campus. Freshmen were ineligible for varsity play in this era of college athletics. Burton had various nicknames by his teammates - Daddy, Mad Russian and Buzzard.
In 1973, Steve Sloan was hired to replace Bill Pace as the Commodores’ new head coach. Burton would become a prominent player for the new Vanderbilt offense. The '73 Commodores improved under Sloan’s guidance with a 5-6 (SEC, 1-5) record, bettering the previous 3-8 (SEC, 1-5) mark.
In his sophomore season, Burton grabbed 22 passes for 308 yards (14.0 avg.) with five touchdowns the longest play for 30 yards. As the team’s punter, Burton booted the ball 39 times for a 38.3 average. His longest punt that season was a 79-yarder against Georgia that currently ranks tied for third longest in Commodore history.
The final game of the season was in Knoxville against the No. 19 ranked Gator Bowl bound Vols coached by Bill Battle. This would be the first of three straight UT games that Burton would line up in a crucial punting situation late in the fourth quarter.
With the score tied at 14-14 and less than three minutes remaining, Burton lined up awaiting the snap with the line of scrimmage at the Vanderbilt 24-yard line. Barry took the snap, hesitated and tried to run the ball for a first down. The Vols defense stopped him short of a first down. Vanderbilt’s defense held, but Tennessee kicked the eventual game-winning field goal for a 17-14 victory. Burton had eight catches for 108 yards that day against the Vols.
“It looked like we were going to have a tie, and I was talking to Barry on the sideline,” Sloan said in a 2006 interview. “I told him, all he had to do was kick the ball and we were going to tie this game. I don’t know why he ran the ball, but he did. Then after the game everybody was asking me why I called a fake punt. I said, ‘No, I don’t think I’d call a fake punt in that situation. I liked ’ole Barry a lot. I just hate that happened to him.”
Burton had a breakout season as a junior hauling in 22 passes for 378 yards averaging 17.2 yards per catch and three touchdowns (longest play 54 yards). He rushed 31 times for 307 yards and one touchdown (9.9 average per carry). The genuine triple-threat playmaker punted 54 times for a 40.2 average. Burton completed the only pass he attempted off the end-around for a 38-yard touchdown. For his effort, he was named First Team All-American by Football News and First Team All-SEC as a tight end.
The Commodores finished the season with a 7-3-2 (SEC, 2-3-1) record and a 6-6 defensive battle in the Peach Bowl against Texas Tech played in Atlanta Stadium. A few weeks earlier Vanderbilt had a chance to defeat the Vols for the first time since 1964. In the regular season finale on rain drenched Dudley Field, the Commodores were down 13-0 after 10 minutes, but surged ahead in the third quarter to a 21-13 lead.
For the second consecutive year with the line of scrimmage at the Vanderbilt 22-yard line, Burton dropped back to handle another pressure punt that would hopefully lead to a Commodore victory. However, the snap into Burton’s hands was mishandled and the hard-rushing Vols defense gained possession of the ball at the Commodores’ 11-yard line with 47 seconds left. The Vols scored a TD with seven seconds remaining in the game. A controversial two-point conversion by Tennessee put the final score at 21-21.
Sloan said after the game that he considered punting on third down having concern about the wet conditions in the game. Burton did an outstanding job of keeping the ball away from the dangerous Tennessee punt returner (Morgan Stanley) kicking the ball out of bounds twice in the last period and lofting the ball high for a fair catch.
Said Sloan in 2006, “When something like that happens to a player, I usually say something to them the next day. He was really upset about it. Barry was a good athlete. He made a lot of plays for us. We used Barry in a tight end reverse and a pass off it for big gains. We liked to throw to him. I don’t know what happened to him on those punts. We had a hard time.”
After the Peach Bowl Sloan bolted for Texas Tech to become the Red Raiders new head football coach and was replaced at Vanderbilt by Fred Pancoast of Memphis State. In his senior year, Burton was seeing mostly double coverage on every play.
A Vanderbilt press release dated November 3, 1975 stated: “Vanderbilt tight end Barry Burton has a flair for drawing a crowd. Take Monday, for example. Barry parked his brand new black and gold jeep in front to the athletic dining hall and immediately several teammates and even a coach gathered around to take a look at it. Locate Burton at lunch on almost any day and he will be at a table with a cluster of teammates around him. And, more often than not, it is Barry who is initiating the conversation.
“The senor geology major also draws his share of crowds on the football field, although those who seek him out on Saturdays have less than sociable thoughts in mind. Opposing players, however, have learned that, like his jeep, Burton is a heavy-duty model. The 6-2, 220-pounder catches passes (21 for 216 yards this year), is deadly on the end-around (where he has rushed for 161 yards and a 8.9 average per carry) and is a fine punter with a 38.3 norm.
“What’s more, he seems to enjoy the less glamorous aspects of his trade. Like blocking and making tackles on punt coverage. ‘I enjoy getting a good block as much as I do catching a pass,’ says Burton. ‘If I get a block that sets up a touchdown, I get just as much satisfaction as if I scored myself.
“As for his tackling, Vanderbilt coaches and players are still talking about the clothesline stop he made on an unsuspecting Ole Miss player who had the fortune—or perhaps misfortune—to pilfer a Commodore pass.
“‘I was afraid Burton had killed him,’ noted Head Coach Fred Pancoast after the game. A Vanderbilt player added, ‘Barry would make a heck of a linebacker.’ Let the record show, as one might have guessed by now, that Burton does not shy away from contact. Nor is he any worse for wear because of it, never having missed a game due to an injury.
“‘A lot of guys on offense get a lot grief about supposedly not liking to hit,’ says Barry. ‘Football does require a lot of finesse, but I enjoy running over defensive backs and trying to punish them instead of them punishing me.’”
The Commodores finished the season 7-4 (SEC, 2-4) without a bowl invitation. Burton caught 31 passes for 306 yards for a 9.9 average and two touchdowns. He rushed 23 times for 176 yards for a 7.7 average. For the third consecutive year, Burton led the Commodores in punting 62 attempts and a 39.8 average. Burton boomed a 78-yard punt into the wind against Kentucky, which is the fourth longest in Commodore history. Burton was named First Team All-SEC tight end by the Associated Press.
In the final game of his career, Burton faced Tennessee in Knoxville and again was glaring into a pressure and critical punt late in the fourth quarter with the Commodores leading. Vanderbilt took a 17-14 lead on a Mark Adams fourth quarter field goal with nine minutes left in the game. Both defenses held as the Vols punted the ball out-of-bounds at the Vanderbilt six-yard line. The Commodores playing conservatively was unable to advance the ball. Burton ran on the field to punt the ball while standing in his own end zone and a slim three point lead.
Adding to the drama the Tennessee PA announcer told the stadium crowd, “Back to punt from the end zone—and its Barry Burton.” The partisan UT crowd roared “Punt Barry Punt!” Burton got off a 41-yard kick that Morgan ran back to the Vandy 30-yard line. The Commodores’ defense was relentless as the Vols faked a field goal on fourth down and a pass attempt fell incomplete. Vanderbilt had won over the Vols for the first time since 1964.
The player to receive the most attention after the game was Burton who was given the game ball by Pancoast.
“I would have kicked the ball farther except I tried to burst the football,” Burton said after the game. “I tried to kick it 90 yards. It was the greatest feeling of my life to look over at Battle in those last moments when the victory was ours. I could not help yelling at him, ‘the pressure’s on you now.’”
Burton is listed 10th on the Vanderbilt career punting average record with a 39.7 average (155 attempts). He played in the East-West Shrine and Maui Hula Bowls and was selected by Pittsburgh in the seventh round (209th overall) of the 1975 NFL draft. The tight end was released early in the Steelers’ camp.
Burton once said that when he was in the Steelers camp he witnessed veteran linebackers Jack Lambert and Jack Ham (both Pro Football Hall of Famers) fighting each other in a practice. He realized right then that he wasn’t going to make it in the NFL.
Barry Burton died at age 40 in 1995 after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis.
If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.