His first season with the Blue Devils, in 2010, ended with a 2-8 record, and his defense was lit up for more than 50 points on three occasions.
It wasn’t Marietta football — it was a period of stripping a program down to its foundation before it could be rebuilt.
When Burton looks back at how far he has brought his team since, it makes messages like the one he got before last week’s game against Lowndes from Dansby Swanson — the former Blue Devils baseball and basketball standout — all the more special.
“It said, ‘Good luck coach. The whole city of Marietta is behind you,’” Burton recollected. “I still get chills thinking about it.”
Burton gets those chills because it’s that kind of community support he envisioned when he moved his family here from Richmond, Va., three years ago. He wanted to be in a place where his program was the only show in town, and where the success of the football team is an interwoven part of the community fabric.
“He gets it,” Burton said of Swanson. “Here’s a 19-year-old kid at Vanderbilt teaching me something about Marietta. He gets it because he grew up here.”
After Marietta’s 30-27 upset victory at Lowndes, Burton found out just how right Swanson was.
“I had turned off my phone before the game,” Burton said. “When I turned it back on after the game, I already had 42 messages or texts saying congratulations.”
That number continued to grow over the weekend — topping out with well over 100 well-wishers — and he said nearly all had some kind of tie to the program — alumni, booster club members, former players.
To Burton, it’s a sign that his plan is working.
“Any program worth having is enormous in scope,” he said. “And you build that program by helping each person become their best.”
That didn’t just mean the high school players. Burton said his first year focused on the middle-school program.
An investment was made to replace old and worn-out equipment with new items. And then came a change in how the coaching staffs at the seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade levels worked. All would run the same offensive and defensive systems used by Burton’s varsity roster.
The following year, Marietta started a new youth league to help the youngest of potential Blue Devils prepare for high school success.
“The feeder program was a huge point of emphasis,” Burton said. “You really have to reach down to the younger ages and water the seeds. They are as important as the seniors.”
It’s a plan that builds continuity and it allows each coach along the way to understand what the standards are. With that, they can now coach what has become the Blue Devil way.
All the while, the future Marietta players were being taught, but Burton still had to be a salesman to the current batch of varsity players. With the recent success of Walton, Lassiter, McEachern and Hillgrove — among others — in Cobb County, Burton had to convince up-and-coming players like Anthony Jennings, Tyree Harris, Jordan Mathis that the Blue Devils’ program could get them where they wanted to go.
Burton said it took a lot of relationship-building — not with only the elite players in the program, but with everyone. He’s shown tough love when he needed to, and he’s offered structure and discipline that players have responded to.
In addition, the coaching staff instituted a character education program, which has helped players make real-life decisions, and on the football front, Burton said Marietta has something that other schools may not.
“Half of the staff has coached in college,” said Burton, himself a former assistant on the staff at the University of Richmond. “We run practices, meetings and film sessions like they may see at the next level. That way there aren’t any surprises when they get there.”
Now three years into his reconstruction project, Marietta is 8-3 and coming off an upset of the No. 6-ranked team in the state. They also have a quarterback in Jennings who will be heading to LSU and a receiver in Harris bound for Wake Forest.
When the Blue Devils take the field tonight at Lovejoy, they know a win would mean the program’s first trip to the state quarterfinals since 1994. It would also be another step in the reconstruction of Marietta football, but Burton cautioned, “You can’t make an aircraft carrier make a hairpin turn.”
There are still a lot of wins — and a long way to go — before he would be willing to say the program is where he wants it to be.
“When you can’t turn anywhere in the community and not see somebody that has been part of your program — when the guy writing your mortgage played at Marietta, or when it’s your doctor, your dentist or your coaches,” Burton said of his ultimate goal. “That’s when a program is successful — when you find a Marietta football player in every walk of life.”
John Bednarowski is sports editor of the Marietta Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.twitter.com/jbednarowski.