Six years ago, Jesse Burnette tried to retire from coaching. Besides coaching state championship teams at Delta (1995) and Carroll (2002) and being a part of several NCAA Tournament teams as an assistant to Mike Vining at ULM, Burnette had influenced the lives of countless young people and made numerous friends along the way. In every aspect, it had been a successful career.
Stepping down after four years at Sterlington following the 2007 season, Burnette only thought he had closed the book on his professional career.
Acting quickly, Roger Stockton lured his former college teammate at Northeast Louisiana University (now ULM), to River Oaks as an assistant for the 2007-08 season. Stockton, the former Bastrop boys coach and ULM women's coach, and Burnette coached against one another while Burnette was at Delta during the heyday of the rivalry between Morehouse Parish's two public schools (the two schools merged in 2006).
"Roger felt like he needed somebody to come help him and for some reason, he chose me," Burnette said during a Thursday night press conference, shortly after his Carroll Bulldogs downed Farmerville 68-64 for the Class 3A state championship.
Of course, Stockton's reasons for bringing Burnette on board had little to do with their longtime friendship or the fact that Burnette lives within walking distance of the River Oaks campus. Stockton, who now coaches the girls and boys teams at River Oaks, brought Burnette on board because the man can flat-out coach. It's the same reason Carroll enlisted Burnette for a second stint with the Bulldogs in 2009.
During his first tenure at Carroll, Burnette guided the Bulldogs to the 2002 Class 3A state title. He left for Sterlington the following year. Meanwhile, the perennial power Bulldogs experienced a dropoff.
In a move that has worked out well for both parties, Burnette and the Bulldogs were reunited for the 2008-09 campaign.
After a building season in 2009, the Bulldogs have reached the state finals in three of the last four years. Carroll was state runner-up in 2010, with state championships in 2011 and 2013.
During Thursday night's press conference, Burnette reflected on one of the most painful losses of his storied coaching career. Carroll's bid for a repeat state championship last season ended with an inexplicable 35-33 homecourt second-round loss to Eleanor McMain.
"We lost to McMain last year — I don't know how, but we did — and it left a sour taste in our mouths," Burnette said.
Burnette made sure his 2013 team didn't forget the McMain game.
"Every time we had a bad start to practice, we would stop and talk about how everybody felt after the McMain game," Burnette said.
With 10 seniors on the roster, there was a sense of urgency for the Bulldogs to get it done this year.
Playing in what is unquestionably the toughest 3A district in the state, it would not be easy. Carroll finished third in the district standings behind defending state champion Richwood and Farmerville.
Page 2 of 3 - After marching through the first two rounds of the playoffs without being seriously tested, the Bulldogs beat Brusly 51-42 in the quarterfinals, setting up a semifinal date with No. 1 seed Bossier High. In what was essentially a road game, Carroll won an epic 53-51 triple overtime thriller over Bossier at the CenturyLink Center in Shreveport to set up an All-District 3-2A showdown with Farmerville.
On to the finals, the Bulldogs found themselves down by 11 at halftime and 13 early in the third quarter.
Tapping into his skills as a master motivator, Burnette had the Bulldogs' undivided attention during the locker room between halves.
"These kids don't think I care about them until we have one of our talks like we had at halftime," Burnette joked.
As anyone of his former players can attest, it's highly likely that Burnette did most of the talking at halftime.
From a tactical standpoint, the Bulldogs made no major adjustments.
"We've been in this situation plenty of times," Carroll senior forward Devonta Johnson said.
Indeed they had. For instance, the Bulldogs were down 12 points early in the fourth quarter, before rallying for a 59-49 upset victory over Abbeville in the 2011 state championship game in Lafayette.
"There was no panic," Johnson continued. "We knew what we had to do — pick it up on defense — and that's what we did."
Seizing the momentum early in the third quarter, the Bulldogs dominated the boards and seemingly came up with every loose ball the rest of the way.
"When they turned up the intensity, we didn't match it," Farmerville coach Johnny Simmons said.
In typical fashion, Burnette deflected the credit for the Bulldogs' success.
"All we tried to do was speed them up a little bit and use our athleticism," Burnette said. "Once we were able to tie it up, I thought we did a very good job. But I can't take credit for that. Coach (Antonio) Howard and coach (Adrian) Wilson work on those things every day in practice."
For Burnette, Thursday night's game was bittersweet as it marked his final game with a senior class which helped Carroll advance to the state finals three times.
In the interview room after the game, Burnette remembered a conversation with Robert Pratt from a couple of years back. Pratt was named MVP of the state championship game after putting up 15 points and 10 rebounds.
"This is a group that has been with us a long time," Burnette said. "When Robert Pratt first came here, I told him, 'If you stick with us, I guarantee you that we'll play for the state championship. After the game, I said, 'I told you, didn't I?' And he 'Yeah.'
Page 3 of 3 - In spite of the disappointment, Simmons was able to find a glimmer of consolation Thursday night.
"If we couldn't win it, I would rather Jesse win it than anybody else," Simmons said. "That's how good of a friend he is."
In hindsight, Burnette would have left two state championships on the table had he followed through with his retirement plans. While coaching isn't just about wins and losses, it's still more fun to win.
These days, Burnette is having too much fun coaching to talk about retirement.
"I feel real good, health-wise," Burnette said. "As long as you feel good, you might as well come back and coach some more."
Burnette, who attended high school in Rayville, has had a monumental impact on northeast Louisiana basketball as both a player and a coach. Some of his most memorable coaching moments occurred during two separate stints at Delta.
"The most enjoyable times I have had were at the old Delta High School," Burnette said. "That was just what I needed at the time. It was the best of times."