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Hancock native Burcar relishing time as Division I basketball coach

Northern Arizona University men’s basketball head coach Shane Burcar looks on during a game last season. Burcar, a 1991 Hancock High School graduate, was named interim head coach at NAU before last season. The interim tag was removed in March. (Courtesy Photo/Northern Arizona University)

Just like the sign in Copper Harbor pointing to the start of U.S. 41 in the Keweenaw that ends after 2,000 miles in Florida, the journey can be just as long for most people from the Copper Country aspiring to a career in Division I college or professional sports.

It especially wasn’t a short journey for Hancock native Shane Burcar.

It took nearly a quarter century, but Burcar finally achieved his childhood dream in the past year.

He was named the interim head coach of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball program at Northern Arizona University before last season. In March, the interim tag was removed, making him the 26th head coach in program history.

While in high school at Hancock High, he told his coach Doug Heinonen that he was going to be a Division I coach someday.

“He said you probably will be, Shane,” Burcar recalled of Heinonen’s response. “The feeling of doing that, when you say it as a teenager, you’re probably talking more than really believing it. I always wanted to. As you grow up and keep coaching and figure out how to, it took 22 years, 23, to sign a contract. The feeling of satisfaction of making a goal is great, but you have to become a doer sooner or later, too.”

The road to NAU

After coaching briefly at various places, Burcar landed as an assistant coach with the boys basketball team at Mesa High School, Arizona’s second-largest high school. He became head coach and later won the 2016 Arizona Division 1 championship.

Burcar compiled a 277-110 (.716) record across 12 seasons at Mesa. His teams won seven regular season region championships and qualified for 10 state tournaments, reaching two Final Fours.

An assistant coaching position opened before the 2018-19 season. Burcar found his opportunity to sit on the bench just a seat away from his dream of the Division I head coaching seat.

After then-head coach Jack Murphy left after the season to become an assistant at the University of Arizona, Burcar was named the interim head coach.

Burcar, a 1991 Hancock High School graduate, was named the interim head coach before the 2019-20 season and guided the Lumberjacks to their best season in program history, a 16-14 overall record and 10-10 in conference play. In March, NAU removed the interim tag from his title.

Before coaching at Mesa High School, Burcar also coached at Westwood High School in Mesa and was an assistant coach at the JUCO level at Mesa Community College and Fort Scott Community College (Kansas).

Burcar said he didn’t notice much of a difference in the basketball between Mesa and NAU.

“I say this being humble, there wasn’t that much of a difference. Basketball is basketball to me,” he said. “Strategies are basically the same. We competed at a high level at Mesa. I think the quality of life was a little bit different because I didn’t have to teach anymore, I could just coach basketball.

“When you go to (University of) Arizona against 13,000 fans, it’s like OK, this is different than high school when you’re coaching in that kind of a building. I was never overwhelmed by it. I’m humble about it because I have a lot of respect for the high school coaches.”

Hall of Fame guidance

Last fall, while the “interim” tag hung on Burcar’s title as head coach, a fellow Yooper reached out to Burcar with an invitation to visit and talk shop.

Burcar took up the invitation and spent two and a half days in East Lansing, observing Michigan State basketball practices and day-to-day operations run by the Hall of Fame head coach of the Spartans, Iron Mountain native Tom Izzo.

Izzo gave Burcar full access to the MSU program and facilities during his visit.

“The thing that I really took away was he said hey Shane, come into my office tomorrow, I have some time for you and I to talk,” Burcar said. “We sat there for a hour and a half and the first thing he said was how are we going to get you this (NAU) job. He gave me some advice and how to get through the profession. What really meant a lot was how a Hall of Fame coach was helping me make it. I’m not afraid to say he was really my inspiration as a young coach being from Iron Mountain. I told him that — I didn’t hesitate to say it.

Burcar said he and Izzo remain in contact and Burcar has also brought his Lumberjacks team to East Lansing for a team camp — after flying into Detroit and catching a Tigers game.

Nurturing his roots

Burcar is a Yooper through and through. His ongoing group text with friends from the Copper Country, most of whom still reside in the area, help keep Burcar up to date on what’s happening back at home in the U.P.

Burcar said he and his family, including his wife Julie and their four children Bella, Brisson, Brooklyn and Bennett, make the trek each summer to the Copper Country after a weeklong stay in Julie’s hometown of Des Moines, Iow, to see her family.

Burcar’s group text with childhood friends also keeps him somewhat informed of local sports happenings during the grind of the NAU basketball season.

“I know Dollar Bay was pretty good a couple years ago. Playoff time I follow it,” Burcar said. “I’m always talking to my friends. They’ll say hey Houghton-Hancock tonight in the regional finals, or Hancock basketball is doing good. I always root for the team from the U.P. when they get back downstate.”

The group text is also how Burcar found out one of his childhood friends, Houghton High School head hockey coach Corey Markham, who Burcar said is also in the group text, was selected to the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame class of 2020.

Navigating the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into Burcar’s offseason program.

Burcar, working from home, said some positives have come from adjusting life in isolation.

“I talk to the players, we have meetings twice a week and talk for an hour,” Burcar said. “I make a point to talk to our players, text them once a day. You see the guys more individually just to see how they’re doing. When you can see them, it’s a quick hey how are you doing. Now you can actually talk to them. We have to be different and come out of this in a good way. There’s nothing good about the virus, I’m just talking about the coaching part.

“Obviously we’re studying like crazy with our game film. The unknown: are we going to have a season next year? I think with the spring sports it’s really hard. You have an incoming freshman next year for baseball and you might have a senior who’s staying.”

Despite the pandemic, Burcar has added a few players to next year’s roster.

Burcar said when it comes to achieving dreams (and winning basketball games), hard work beats talent.

“I think it’s really important that young kids in the U.P. and Copper Country, be dreamers because you absolutely can reach your dreams,” Burcar said. “We’re all proud Yoopers and let’s go.”

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