Bruce Ely/The OregonianPortland State coach Nigel Burton talks to his players this week in practice. Nigel Burton takes his underdog Portland State team to Seattle Saturday to play a Washington team spoiling for a fight after being trampled at LSU. On paper, the game at CenturyLink Field is a mismatch. There is no betting line. But Burton, 36, has beaten tough odds before. "I expect him to come in expecting to win," former Washington coach Jim Lambright says. "I think he's preached that all week long." Burton excelled during three seasons for Lambright in the 1990s as an undersized defensive back whom the Huskies listed at 5 feet 9, 180 pounds. He survived with brains, guts and an ability to make the players around him better – all qualities that have turned him into a bright, young head-coach. His listed height and weight on the UW roster were complete exaggerations. "I didn't weigh 180 until I was 30," Burton says. In fact, Burton says he was 147 coming out of high school, and so tiny that Pac-10 schools wouldn't give him a second look. He tried to talk University of the Pacific recruiters into weighing him in his clothes, hoping to surreptitiously slip weights in his pockets. They wouldn't, but signed him anyway. Burton started at safety as a 153-pound freshman against Nebraska, made 13 tackles, intercepted a pass and knocked the football loose from All-America running back Ahman Green. After the season, UOP dropped the sport. Nike Air Max 95Washington was dealing with probation fallout, and the Huskies were looking for players. The UW coaches couldn't stop watching the UOP-Nebraska game film, in which the smallest guy on the field made the most plays. They brought Burton in for a closer look. "He was so bright," Lambright says. "That was his best quality." Burton spent three seasons as what the Lambright defenses termed a rover, a player who was part safety, part linebacker, part cornerback and always in the middle of what was happening. "As I became better acquainted with him as a player, he became more of a coach on the field," Lambright says. "He was so important to what we were doing as far as our multiple defenses, and being able to run them. He got better and better and better at running the defense from his secondary position." It was clear then that Burton had a future as a coach if he wanted one. But he had options, and coaching wasn't at the top of the list. He graduated from Washington as a business major – he has an MBA from South Florida – worked for a while as an accountant, spent time in the NCAA's central office in Indianapolis, and in the student life department at the University of Florida. But the office jobs didn't give him the charge he received from the football field. So when a graduate assistant position became available at South Florida. Burton jumped at the chance, even if he was starting at the lowest rung on the coaching ladder. Burton jokes that one day South Florida coach Jim Leavitt handed him $2.00 and told him to get the vans washed that USF used to haul around recruits on official visits. "I said, 'Coach I don't think this is going to be enough to go through the car wash,'" Burton says. "He said, 'No, I want you to get soap and a bucket and wash them yourself.'" Burton was a quick study, who not only knew the game but could handle himself in almost any situation. He was brilliant as a recruiter in coaching stops at Portland State, Oregon State and Nevada, where he ran the Wolf Pack's defense as the coordinator. Former PSU coach Tim Walsh gave Burton his first full-time assistant's job. "I saw a guy with a tremendous amount of experience as a player, and loved the way he presented himself," Walsh says. "I knew we would only have him a couple years, because he was that talented." So the people at PSU knew all about Burton when the Vikings' head coaching job opened following the 2009 season. He was only one of several strong candidates, including Al Borges, now Michigan's offensive coordinator, and former Willamette coach Mark Speckman. PSU athletic director Torre Chisholm says Burton separated himself in the interview process, where he blew away the search committee. "He impressed us with his vision for the program," Chisholm says. So far, Burton is turning his vision into reality. The Vikings followed a 2-9 season in 2010 by going 7-4 last season, the second-best turnaround on the FCS level. Chisholm loved the way the Vikings improved on the field. But he is at least as happy with the way Burton raised the football team's Academic Progress Rating from 921 his first year to 940 out of a possible 1,000, and handled being the public face of his program. "The boosters and alumni enjoy being around him, hearing about his vision," Chisholm says. "He does a wonderful job of that." Maybe the most visible sign of Burton's touch with the community is the $350,000 facelift he gave to the football coaches' office suite. He didn't spend a penny of university money. The materials and work were donated by local businesses. "When he came here, we had the space," Chisholm says. "But it was all cubicles and it was pretty run down. He felt it was an important part of making a first-class presentation to the student athletes, so they understand we have a first-class program and they need to act in a first-class manner." There have been hiccups in the Burton regime. The Vikings lost last week at North Dakota, where the defense gave up 401 yards, 294 and six touchdowns through the air. Burton was furious after the game, fuming "about an utter breakdown in discipline on every single front." On Wednesday, he fired defensive coordinator Eric Jackson. Burton's relationship with Jackson goes back nearly 20 years, since Jackson tried to recruit Burton to Cal Poly-SLO. Burton said Thursday he felt he had no choice, which made the decision that much more difficult. "You're looking at your friend, and it's tough," he says. "But I do understand what we're asked to do here, and what the expectation level is." Nobody's expectation level is higher than Burton's, and there aren't many people with a stronger will. PSU linebackers coach Lester Towns played with Burton at Washington, and roomed with him there for two years. "He always liked it his way," Towns says. "Always. Even if you came to him and said, 'I disagree with that,' he still wanted it his way." The thing is, Burton's way usually has been a good way to go. Towns says he tries to tell current Vikings how good their head coach was as a player. They look at Burton, who tops out at, maybe, 5-7 and shake their heads. But Towns thinks if the Vikings follow Burton's lead on Saturday, well, who knows "Coach B brought a lot of punch," Towns says. "He is a small guy. But he played like a big guy." Ken Goe: 503-221-8040;

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