Wally Burnham is content with his family time and daily walks around his Gainesville neighborhood where’s he’s called home with his wife, Barbara, since retiring permanently in 2017 from college football coaching.
He’s traded in the grind of coaching college football for the more tranquil lifestyle where they live on Lake Lanier.
No more moving trucks, new schools for the kids and long hours in the coaches' meeting rooms.
Now, it’s peace and quiet with the breeze coming off the water in the backyard.
“This is a great area,” said Burnham, who made 12 stops during his career, while they raised a daughter, Allison, and sons Patrick and Shane. “We have a pontoon boat, a fairly new dock and two boat slips.”
During his career, Burnham worked his way up from a state championship coach at Decatur High (Alabama) in 1971 to being part of the National Championship winning staff at Florida State for the 1993 season.
Along the way, they moved back and forth around the southeast before retiring in the midwest with Iowa State.
Now, the Burnhams can enjoy family time in Gainesville with their daughter, son-in-law and triplet granddaughters (Avery, Anna and Lexi) who attend Gainesville High.
Since retiring as defensive coordinator after the 2015 season with the Cyclones and then two seasons as a defensive analyst at Arkansas, they decided to make Northeast Georgia home permanently in 2017 after finding a house on the market they couldn’t pass up.
Burnham is not overly boastful about his background and accolades.
However, he’ll freely open up about what it was like to play for the immortalized Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant at Alabama, working for the legendary Bobby Bowden at Florida State and being on the staff of 18 teams that played in a bowl game.
The highlight was earning the National Championship ring as the linebackers coach at Florida State for the 1993 season.
During his career, the 78-year-old native of Pell City, Alabama produced 10 NFL linebackers with the Seminoles from 1985-1993, then found sustained success as defensive coordinator at South Carolina (1994-98), South Florida (1999-2008) and Iowa State (2009-2015).
He quips that the two years at Arkansas (2016 and 2017) were great because he was just there to answer questions and was allowed to sit in the press box during the games.
However, all good things must come to an end. And, for Burnham, it was a career that exceeded his wildest expectations.
“I knew it was time to hang it up when I did,” said Burnham. “I knew I had lost the edge and didn’t want to stay too long.”
He’s happy to have traded in gamedays for time with the grandkids.
“I’m really enjoying retirement,” said Burnham, who coached five years of high school in Alabama before getting into the college ranks. “You’d have to pay me $1 million a season to come back and coach.”
The key to lasting so long in the profession, he said, is having an understanding wife and lots of good players along the way.
“Coaching football is a 24/7, 365 days a year profession,” Burnham said.
He said the other main highlight was getting to coach his son, Shane, at South Carolina. The younger Burnham is now an assistant defensive coach at Central Florida.
At Florida State, Burnham’s group at linebacker was stocked every season. Between 1985-93, when Burnham was on the staff, the Seminoles played twice in the Orange Bowl, twice in the Fiesta Bowl, and in one Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl.
In the early 90s, he had the honor of coaching NFL legend Derrick Brooks and Marvin Jones (both first-round draft picks), Sam Cowart, Jesse Solomon and Todd Rebol. Even though he said the talent may have been better on the 1992 Florida State squad, it finally got over the hump with the National Championship in 1993.
The scene was one he’ll never forget.
At that time, Florida State was slapped with the moniker ‘wide right’ for all the missed field goals at the end of the game.
On Jan. 1, 1994, the Seminoles put it all together — but not without some last-second drama.
Trailing 16-15 in the final minute, Heisman winner Charlie Ward drove Florida State down to the Nebraska 3.
Scott Bentley chipped in the go-ahead field goal to put the Seminoles ahead, seemingly locking up the championship. Burnham remembers getting out of the press box and hustling with other assistant coaches and graduate assistants to the field to celebrate, only to see Nebraska with a 45-yard field goal attempt to win the game and the game clock at :01.
They all stood silently.
The kick went wide left.
It was time for the Seminoles to celebrate.
“It was crazy, just hysteria on the field,” Burnham said. “To win the national championship is very special.
“There’s a lot of great coaches that never win a single championship.”
And for the national championship ring? He keeps that securely tucked away but will break it out for special occasions.
“Nobody wants to know what I did 20-something years ago,” Burnham said with a laugh.
Burnham got a great start with the Crimson Tide where he was a linebacker for one of six national titles for Bear Bryant.
There, he played with a defensive back/running back Mickey Andrews, who also went into the coaching profession, spending 26 seasons as defensive coordinator at Florida State (1984-2009).
Both would reconnect in the USFL with the Arizona Wranglers in the early 80s. Andrews left for Tallahassee one year before Burnham.
A lot of his success, Burnham said, was being at the right place at the right time.
He got to Florida State during ‘lean’ years with 6 or 7 wins a season. However, he was stacked at linebacker.
When Burnham arrived in Tallahassee, he got to coach Butkus Award winner Paul McGowan and a talented young sophomore, Fred Jones.
From there, Florida State and Burnham’s career both flourished. The Seminoles found a way to reload every season.
After the championship season, Burnham made the decision to take the promotion and become defensive coordinator at South Carolina. He had a top-25 ranked defense at least once with the Gamecocks, South Florida and Iowa State.
Also during his career, he made stops at North Alabama, East Tennessee State, Lamar, Memphis State and Richmond.
In 1984, the Arizona Wranglers played for the USFL championship.
The following season, Burnham got his big break with Florida State.
He said one of the greatest examples was set by Bowden, during his long and successful run as the Seminoles' head coach.
“Coach Bowden is a very strong Christian, always treated his coaches well,” Burnham said.
And the players, in turn, gravitated to his motivation on the field.
The constant for Burnham was having to work hard to get where he wanted to go in coaching.
“Back when I started, you had to earn your way up,” Burnham said. “The more responsibility you had, the more money you made.”