One-on-one with Matt Burke '98

21 years after walk-on safety Matt Burke '98 won an Ivy League title with the Big Green, he takes the reins of the Miami Dolphins defense

by Max Zhuang | 5/15/17 2:00am

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by Dave Cross / The Dartmouth

In January, Matt Burke ’98 was promoted to defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins after serving as its linebackers coach in 2016. Burke, a walk-on safety with the Big Green, is entering his 14th year working in the National Football League after getting his big break from defensive guru Jim Schwartz in 2004. Now at the helm of the Dolphins defense, with six rookie defensive draft picks in the 2017 NFL Draft this past April, Burke is at a new peak in his career.

Tell me about your Dartmouth experience — what were you like as a student and as a college athlete?

Dave Cross

MB: I loved Dartmouth, I had a great college experience there. I was not a great athlete to be honest with you — I walked onto the football team — but the experience in itself was out of this world for me.

What was your favorite part of attending Dartmouth?

MB: What stands out for me is the people that I met up there. I thought it was really awesome, and there were a lot of people who changed my perspective. I’m still really close with a lot of guys I’ve played with back there, and they still come to the games that I coach in. The lifelong friendships I’ve formed playing with those guys, I’m not sure anything can get better than that.

How did you feel after being promoted as the Dolphins defensive coordinator this past January? How have you adjusted to the change in responsibilities?

MB: Obviously this is a very exciting time for me. It’s interesting because it’s a tough profession to make your way in, and it’s a milestone being promoted to a coordinator; the achievement is a rewarding justification for all the work. I’m really proud, and it’s a lot of work, a different type of work nonetheless. With more of an overseeing and supervising role, I’ve been tweaking my schedule and learning how to handle new things. For example, organizing my staff from a top-down perspective is much different from when I was a coach, when I just had to worry about where linebackers were. The role contains more bigger-picture items. It’s been incredibly busy even though right now is the offseason, which is not as demanding as the regular season. Still, this is a transition for me.

What did you study at Dartmouth and how has your Dartmouth experience impacted you?

MB: I was a psychology major at Dartmouth, and I probably use my degree here for work more than anything else. Coaching at this level is more motivation and how to get guys to play and how to do things. It’s such a diverse group of guys we’ve got, and part of it is figuring out how guys tick and what motivates them. I’d like to think some of my actual scholastic work has an impact on that. I joke it’s probably the best use of my psychology degree.

Did you know what you wanted to do after Dartmouth? How would you describe your path to professional football?

MB: When I went to Dartmouth, I wasn’t sure. I thought about the medical school route, but I wasn’t really committed to that or dedicated. When I graduated, I took a job at Bridgton Academy, a preparatory school in Maine, where I taught English and coached football. I figured, “I’ll coach and teach to give back now to figure out whatever it is I want to do in the future.” I took that job as something to do for a couple years, somewhat altruistically. And I just really took to the coaching part of things. I was there for two years, but then I got a graduate assistant job at Boston College, so I got my master’s in education while I was coaching. The coaching, again, wasn’t motivated by career ambitions. I was young, 24 at the time, and it was a way to get into college coaching in exchange for them paying for your schoolwork. Even at that point, it’s a way to get a free master’s degree. At some point, I just was really honest with myself, and I really enjoyed coaching. I did three seasons at Boston College, so I made a commitment to give it a shot to see if I could make a career of this. When I finished there I got a job at Harvard [University], coaching in the secondary for one year. It was just cool for me playing in the Ivy League and being around that again. I got hired in May and worked that season in 2003 and immediately after, February or March in 2004, I got a call from Jim Schwartz from the Tennessee Titans at the time looking for a young coach who could come down and do some stuff. One of the ways Dartmouth helped me transition into professional coaching was through digital and technical skills. Transitioning into a much more digital age, I used my laptop to watch any college game from the last 10 years. Jim was a Georgetown [University] graduate, and he was looking for someone with that background and he had the foresight to know that that was where things were heading. He wanted to know he could hire someone to handle those kinds of tasks. Now it’s a much more common position in the NFL as a way for young coaches to break into the league, in exchange for breaking down the film and presentations. It wasn’t as common to have guys that work to perform those kinds of roles — when I started, I was the only one. I think Jim saw Dartmouth on my resume and figured that was close enough. It was lucky, I can’t really frame it any other way than that, just getting the break. I believe I want to work hard and really do a good job because you never know when your break is going to come. As long as I did the best job I could, it would work.

What are some of the things that you learned from the school that have helped you professionally? Who were people that helped you ultimately pursue your career as a coach?

MB: A lot of the coaching staff were good mentors helping me make contacts. A lot of the career is getting to know people and having coaches that branch out and put me in touch with other people, so they’ve been the most direct influences for me, especially first breaking into the business. They helped me network and get my feet on the ground. Some people say, “Why would you get into coaching? It’s a hard career path to get established in,” so I did have a couple coaches sit me down and try to talk me out of it. Once I said it was really something I wanted to do, those guys were helpful and good to me.

Coolest thing you’ve experienced as a coach?

MB: Sundays and game days are such a unique experience. We work a lot of hours and put a lot into this every week. There’s not another profession where you experience Sundays when you’re getting screamed at by 70,000 people. The whole experience is great, and I don’t ever take it for granted. I love that I can wear shorts to work every day, and I don’t think I could match the emotional swing in a good way winning a big game. I’ve been fortunate to be on a few different places where we could turn the program around. Seeing teams that we could build into playoff teams is really cool to be a part of.

How would you describe the culture in professional football and how does it differ from college football?

MB: I only coached in college for four years, while I have coached in the NFL for 14 years. Although college football has a lot of different range of cultures — like playing at Dartmouth is very different from playing at some of the big time colleges — every place is different culturally. I think establishing culture is part of the coaching staff’s job. When Adam Gase first got here, “culture” was one of the buzzwords we used, talking about how we wanted to establish the culture of the team. I think every job I’ve had has a unique culture. Every organization is different. Every coach, every team, they kind of take on the personality of the whole group of people for the year, and it’s very different. That’s what I love about coaching, and football is that it’s never stale. Every game is different, and every season is different — it’s a very organic and fluid process for the identity of the team. I really enjoy deciphering what that will be, influencing and pushing it to somewhere we do want it to be.

What advice would you give for someone playing football for the Big Green or for athletes considering a career in coaching?

MB: In terms of playing, I’ll always say this in terms of playing for a longer career: The NFL will find you. There are no secrets anymore, and we have Division II players and Ivy League players playing in the league. Every time we have a prospective player here like for the draft I always ask them, “What do you love about football?” To a tee, almost everybody I talk to talks about the camaraderie. One piece of advice for those up there in Hanover, don’t take for granted the close friends you make and the stories that you share. It’s where a lot of people’s careers in football end, in college, and what everyone misses is the camaraderie. It’s just natural when you’re in such close proximity, and you’re working hard, playing hard. That’s what everyone always remembers. Considering a career in coaching, it’s a hard profession to break into. It’s tough to break into and tough to grind through, not that I would discourage anyone from it — I love it. Having that awareness, you need to realize the commitment that it takes and the work you’ll have to put in. It’s the most rewarding career I can think of on a lot of levels.

Where do you see your own career trajectory? What are your short-term and long-term goals?

MB: Trying to get better today. I’ve always found if I’m chasing career goals or worrying about my own career trajectory, I’m not focused on the right things, and in return, I won’t be successful. Short term, I want to have a good season because it’s more pressure — the higher you go in your career, the more you’re viewed as responsible for your team’s performance. Hopefully we will continue building. Obviously long term, I think the next step would be a head coaching job for me. It’s the highest level, and it’s what everyone aspires to. Again, I think if I’m actively working to achieve that, it’s going to be detrimental to me, and I’m just going to do my coordinator job as best as I can do. Right now, I’m trying to get some more good players in this draft — that’s the shortest-term goal.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.