Burmeister, Wacker reflect on an NCAA dream season

Texas Lutheran coach Mike Wacker (left) and UIW’s Ken Burmeister. (Soobum Im / The University of the Incarnate Word)

Quietly, and with very little fanfare, the 30th anniversary of an iconic moment in San Antonio’s college basketball history is approaching.

Not much has been written or said about it, outside of a few whispers among friends who experienced it first-hand.

But it’s hard to forget the 1987-88 season and the memories of UTSA’s first wild ride in March to an NCAA tournament.

Ken Burmeister. The Incarnate Word men's basketball team opened the season with an 87-71 victory over Southwestern on Friday night. (Joe Alexander / theJBreplay.com)

Incarnate Word’s Ken Burmeister coached UTSA to the 1988 NCAA tournament. (Joe Alexander / theJBreplay.com)

Show the UTSA team picture from that year to Ken Burmeister and Mike Wacker, for instance, and the nostalgia starts to flow freely.

Burmeister, now in his 12th season at Incarnate Word, served as UTSA’s head coach at the time.

Wacker, now leading the program at Texas Lutheran, worked under Burmeister that year on a staff that included Gary Marriott, Glynn Cyprien and David Oliver.

Burmeister and Wacker talked at length about the good times Tuesday night, before UIW hosted and defeated Wacker and Division III TLU, 91-63.

“It was just a dream come true for me, being part of coach Burmeister’s (UTSA) staff, and working with (assistant) coach (Gary) Marriott,” Wacker said. “I mean, those players were just so much fun to be around.

“They worked so hard, and for them to achieve that, under coach B’s leadership, I was just happy to be along for the ride.”

Tournament time

In only the seventh season in program history, UTSA finished third in the Trans America Athletic Conference regular season standings, behind both Georgia Southern and Arkansas-Little Rock, who tied for first.

But when the Roadrunners arrived at Daytona Beach, Florida, for the TAAC tournament, something clicked.

High-scoring forward Frank Hampton got hot, and UTSA won three games in three days at the Ocean Center, knocking off No. 2-seed Little Rock in the semifinals and No. 1 Georgia Southern in the finals.

The sweetest moment may have arrived on the day UTSA played Little Rock.

The Trojans, under Mike Newell, had been a nemesis of the Roadrunners for two seasons, winning all five games they had played.

That’s before Hampton, a UTSA senior from Chicago, erupted for 42 points in a 101-75 victory to eliminate Little Rock.

Another moment in time came a few days later, when No. 14 seed UTSA traveled to Cincinnati to play in the NCAA first round against third-seeded Illinois.

Battling against future NBA first-round draft picks Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson, the Roadrunners played the Big Ten school on mostly even terms before falling 81-72.

Even with those highlights, Burmeister said his most vivid memories of the season centered on the coaching staff’s chemistry and on a senior class that never gave up on itself.

“The staff got along really well together, and we had a really good, experienced team,” the coach said. “We had some older guys. We had four seniors that, when we got to the (TAAC) tournament, they all stepped up for us.

“Every one of them (including Clarence McGee, Lennell Moore and Todd Barnes) contributed to a victory.”

Players bought into a disciplined approach from the start.

Burmeister inherited the approach from his days as an assistant under Lute Olsen at both Iowa and Arizona.

Leaving Arizona, he arrived at UTSA in 1986 stressing attention to detail in practices and in the classroom.

Stressing discipline

Wacker, a former all-conference power forward at Texas, lived in the Chase Hill student apartments so that he keep close tabs on the players.

“When I was there, that was my job, to get ‘em up (in the morning),” Wacker said. “You know, they couldn’t be in their apartments after 8 o’clock.

“I know (coach Burmeister) has got similar stuff in place now (at UIW), and that means he cares about these guys after basketball stops.”

Flanked by his trusted assistants, Burmeister posted a 72-44 record in four years at UTSA. His .621 winning percentage remains as the highest in the school’s 37-year history.

Almost inexplicably, he was fired following the 1989-1990 season after finishing 22-7.

The end of his tenure has been traced to a falling out with Bobby Thompson, the school’s athletic director at the time.

“If our staff had stayed intact, we’d have gotten into the top 20,” said Burmeister, who is 180-138 at Incarnate Word. “We’d have gotten to the (round of) 16 (in the NCAA tournament).

“Unfortunately, there were administrators over there that didn’t want success, and they made a change.”

Hurt feelings aside, nothing will take away from the pride in what the coaches and players accomplished three decades ago.

“We were literally doing it on a shoe-string (budget), as you well know,” said Wacker, who coached 26 years at Judson High School, before taking over at TLU in 2016. “I just think we all had the right attitude for it. Coach B was driven, driven to push us to be the best we could be.

“Really, that’s what he’s always done. It’s what he’s doing here (at UIW).”

Thirty years ago, in the 1987-88 season, the UTSA Roadrunners reached the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time. (Courtesy, UTSA)

Burmeister (bottom row, fourth from left, kneeling) and Mike Wacker (bottom row, far left) pose with the team that made history as UTSA’s first NCAA tournament squad.

Texas Lutheran coach Mike Wacker fist-bumps his players before Tuesday night’s game at Incarnate Word. Video: theJBreplay.