(Left) Leroy Burrell coaches for the University of Houston; (Right) Cameron Burrell competes at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships on July 25, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Olympic gold medalist Leroy Burrell still wonders what kind of attorney he would be today.
The thoughts creep into his head as it’s been 22 years since the University of Houston alumni and head track and field coach deferred law school to take over the Cougar program.
“When I look back, I say, ‘man, I've been at it (coaching) 22 years,’” Leroy said. “In a word I would say ‘blur.’ 22 years went by really, really quickly.”
After a career that saw him win numerous NCAA championships, and twice set the 100-meter record and win gold alongside Carl Lewis, Mike Marsh and Dennis Mitchell in the 4x100m relay at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992, Burrell was ready to move on from track and field.
“I had no inkling, no desire to be a coach at all,” Leroy said. “When I was getting close to the end of my career, I had started planning my exit from the sport, and I was planning to go to law school.”
It took a little convincing from his predecessor Tom Tellez as well as 10-time Olympic medalist and fellow Cougar Carl Lewis, but since then Burrell hasn’t looked back. Since 1998, Burrell has racked up 41 team conference titles and is an 11-time American Athletic Conference Coaching Staff of the Year recipient.
Despite 22 seasons at the helm, this season brought challenges he has yet to experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Burrell is using it as a reset button for many of his athletes, who now get an additional year to train.
One of those athletes is his son, Cameron, a 2018 Houston graduate, and hopeful for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team that will compete in Tokyo next summer.
“Just the reality and the finality of it has been the challenge of it for some of our athletes,” Leroy said. “It really didn’t set in hard for many of them until just recently.”
Cameron, who recently finished his first year as a professional, ended his collegiate career as an eight-time All-American. He set school records in the 60-meter, the 100-meter, the 4 x 100-meter and 4 x 400-meter, won consecutive NCAA titles in the 4x100-meter relay and became the first Cougar to win an individual outdoor title since 1994.
“There are not a whole lot of people who can say they didn’t have to go away from their hometown in order to be successful, or win a championship or two, and to be coached by a parent,” Cameron said.
Cameron looks to follow in the footsteps of many of his Olympic family members. His mother Michelle Finn-Burrell was an Olympic sprinter at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992, and his aunt Dawn Burrell competed in long jump at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000.
He says the extra year to prepare for a potential spot in Tokyo has been a positive for him.
“I’ve been self-reflecting, planning and have had some time to really strengthen my weaknesses,” Cameron said.”
Cameron also had the opportunity to be coached by Lewis, who joined the program as a full-time assistant coach in 2014, largely in part to help Leroy coach his son.
“I just wanted to be dad, and I still want to be dad,” Leroy said. “I think there is a huge burden being a dad and coach. As a coach, I can kind of separate myself a little bit emotionally and not allow my emotion to cloud my judgement, but it’s a lot more difficult as a dad.”
Cameron said the greatest takeaway he took from his legendary Houston coaches was to develop his own identity.
“Not to try to follow in their footsteps or try to be like them is the biggest thing they instilled in me,” Cameron said. “It’s to focus on my own capabilities and my own career.”
Despite Leroy receiving offers throughout the years to coach elsewhere, Houston is home for the Burrell family.
“The couple of opportunities that came my way – and I really thought about them – were excellent opportunities,” Leroy said. "But I would never be the alma mater of whatever that university is. I would just be the track coach that was hired to do a job; here my job is a little more all-encompassing as a director of a program, and as a part of the history of the program it just means a bit more.”