Burgess McSwain '66, the Heart of Carolina Basketball

Burgess McSwain ’66, academic adviser to UNC’s men’s basketball team since the mid-1960s, died July 9 after a long illness at age 60. Typical of the comments about McSwain was that of former Coach Bill Guthridge: “No one associated with Carolina basketball through the years was loved more than Burgess.”

This story originally appeared in The Chapel Hill News in February. It is reprinted by permission of the author.

by Thad Williamson

Michael Jordan was born to fly, Antawn Jamison was born to rebound, Phil Ford and Raymond Felton were born to play point guard.

Burgess McSwain '66

Burgess McSwain ’66, in February 2004, cheering on the Tar Heels as they take on Miami. McSwain was the program’s primary academic adviser for the past 20 years. (Photo by Shawn Rocco / The Chapel Hill News)

Burgess McSwain ’66, on the other hand, was born to teach.

“I loved to play school when I was a little girl,” recalls McSwain, now in her fifth decade of providing tutoring and academic counseling to UNC athletes. “I was always teaching somebody something and didn’t realize I was doing it.”

This love of teaching eventually led McSwain to cross paths with Jordan ’86, Jamison ’99, Ford ’78 and Felton – as well as every other Carolina men’s basketball player over the past two decades. For a generation, McSwain has been a driving force behind the historically high graduation rate at UNC, a figure revered by players (and their parents) yet almost invisible to the general public.

“She’s just an institution,” said recent graduate Will Johnson ’03. “She is an integral part of the program. Anybody that came here and played here or coached here knows Burgess and knows how important she is.”

“She’s demanding, she wants us to be in class each and every day, and to study when we’re not playing ball,” added junior guard Melvin Scott. “She’s like a mom figure, and to have that while you’re in college when you’re away from your real parents, you can’t go wrong.”

“I wouldn’t have made it through college without Burgess,” said former center Kris Lang ’02. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have made it through without her – she helped me in every single class. She’s a very smart lady, and she looked out for us a lot.”

McSwain, a native of Morganton, got her start working with athletes in the early 1960s, when a friend suggested that she tutor Carolina football players for $2 an hour. McSwain, who received an undergraduate degree from UNC and went on to do graduate work in education at both UNC and Duke, has seen the evolution of Carolina’s academic advising system for athletes from ad hoc tutoring arrangements to a well-staffed, highly professional operation.

“It was different when I started,” noted McSwain. “Anyone could get a football ticket for $2 and sit in the first five rows. All I did was tutor. Carolina didn’t have such a thing as academic counselors, the coaches just provided tutoring for those who needed it.”

McSwain enjoyed the tutoring and continued to assist athletes, primarily the football team, throughout the 1960s and 1970s while also teaching history at St. Thomas More Elementary School and in area public schools. During the 1970s she started tutoring members of the basketball team, working with such players as Charles Waddell ’75 and Ford.

In 1982, Waddell, who was running the basketball study hall while working toward a master’s degree, recommended McSwain to coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge. McSwain soon began working with the basketball team on a full-time basis.

Or more accurately, a more-than-full-time basis. During the season, McSwain expects to be on call virtually around the clock. “Sunday always used to be my hardest day – there was usually no practice and no game, and you had to make hay while you could,” McSwain said.

Not infrequently, McSwain met players with pressing academic needs late into the night. “I remember in 1987, we played Notre Dame away and Ranzino [Smith ’88] had a biology exam the next day,” recalls McSwain. “So I watched the game, took a nap, and then went to the Smith Center, where I waited until 2 a.m. for them to get back so we could study.”

“She’d work any hours,” Guthridge said. “She’s given so much time – I don’t know how else to describe it other than devotion and love of the players and of the basketball program. You couldn’t pay her by the hour.”

Late-night cramming is often necessary, given the players’ hectic schedule. McSwain and the other academic advisers aim to keep players as organized and as aware of their academic responsibilities as possible to keep panic situations to a minimum. “I make a master calendar at the beginning of the year showing when every class has a test or a paper due, and then who is in that class,” McSwain said. “I make all the players turn in all their syllabi; then they each make their own calendars with their own dates, and I go through those with them.”

During the year the core of the advising program consists of a study hall that meets for at least two hours a night every “school night” – that is, Sunday through Thursday. During this time, players study on their own or receive individual attention from a tutor.

McSwain says a pragmatic approach to helping players learn is necessary. “If you’re not getting through, if something’s not working, then you try something else,” she said. “I had one kid who could only learn if he was in motion, so sometimes we would drive around and learn, or he would come and sit on my swing and study. I had another player who had to learn all the capitals in Africa, so he made up a rap song and learned it that way.”

“Burgess understands the need to make the information accessible and use good examples that they can understand,” said Catherine Frank ’79, who has helped tutor basketball players in freshman composition for over a decade. “She knows how to take difficult material and make it relevant to them.”

But McSwain blends that pragmatism with several tried-and-true methods. First, freshmen players are told, as sternly as possible, that they must be at study hall on time. Second, players are encouraged to review their lecture notes from each class at least once a week. Third, McSwain usually begins study hall by asking the players what they learned in class that day, on the view that talking about the subject material facilitates retention.

“If you can get them to review their notes and talk about what they did in class,” McSwain said, “that makes all the difference in the world.”

McSwain’s efforts and skills as a teacher have won the respect of numerous UNC faculty members who regularly teach student-athletes.

“Most of the administration and faculty have found Burgess’ approach very refreshing in the sense that she does not baby-sit the athletes, but rather she pushes them to respond to the demands of the academic requirements,” said Julius Nyang’oro, professor and chair of the department of African and Afro-American studies. “Burgess has a clear sense of what a teacher needs to do to convey the key concepts that need to be understood. She is another transmission belt in the teaching process.”

Players say that McSwain takes a decidedly old-school approach to her job: She speaks bluntly, doesn’t hesitate to cajole or chastise when necessary to get a player’s attention, and lets people know where they stand.

“She just isn’t scared of anyone,” Johnson said. “If you weren’t doing what you needed to do, whether you were the star player or sat on the bench, she’d let you know it. She tells it like it is and doesn’t hold anything back, and I think anyone can respect that.”

McSwain is well aware of the widespread public skepticism concerning how much learning actually takes place among athletes at big-time schools. She is fiercely defensive of UNC’s approach.

“I tell people who ask me that it’s not a sham at Carolina,” McSwain said. “I can’t say what happens at other schools, but at Carolina, while we may spoon-feed them a little bit, they go in and take their own exams and write their own papers. We don’t do their work for them.”

At the same time, McSwain said, she will do anything it takes to help the players learn what they need to know.

“I don’t see how there could be a wrong way to teach them about the battle of Gettysburg, for instance. When you are trying to make them learn the material so that they can analyze it and give it back to the professor, there’s no wrong way to teach.”

McSwain credits former head coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge with establishing the correct priorities that allowed her to do her job successfully. “The players always came first with me and always came first with Bill and Dean,” McSwain said. “With the Carolina basketball program, the players came first, and I had 100 percent support with anything I wanted to do. Both of them wanted the players to graduate at all costs – you never know when they might break their legs and never be able to play again. If someone really needed to study, they would excuse them. Academics came first and practice came second.”

Guthridge says that having a trusted person as an academic tutor was in turn an invaluable help to the coaching staff. “It was very important to know that we had Burgess, that she knew the rules, and how devoted she was to the players. She knew what she could do and couldn’t do as a tutor, so we had more confidence in her than going hit-or-miss with a tutor here or there who might not know the rules.”

In 2002, McSwain had to confront a challenge of a different sort than helping student-athletes prepare for exams. In mid-December, McSwain was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening case of colon cancer and entered into chemotherapy.

“I cried when I heard the news. I made her upset because I made her cry,” Scott said. “It was very tough, because she is a big part of our college lives.”

Despite the illness, McSwain did her best to maintain her usual level of dedication to the players, and played an instrumental role in holding together a program that was too often splitting at the seams behind the scenes. When players came from practice to study hall frustrated or upset with some of the coaching tactics of former coach Matt Doherty ’84, McSwain was there to listen – and to make sure that the players didn’t do anything rash and didn’t fall to pieces.

“When we needed someone to talk to about problems on or off the court, someone you could trust, we went to her,” Scott said. “If we weren’t sure if you could trust the coaches or other people, we could go to her, and know that she was going to tell the truth and have our best interests in mind.”

“When she felt good enough to come around, the guys could talk to her – anybody on our team can go talk to her about anything, ” Johnson said. “I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t been here – she’s just unique. Our guys are her life, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.”

McSwain’s health reached a low point near the end of the season last March, with frequent trips to the hospital. Players visited as often as they could, and Doherty, who has stayed in touch with McSwain since his resignation, asked listeners on his weekly radio show to keep McSwain in their thoughts.

“I was by her house or visiting in her room at the hospital a lot,” Phil Ford said. “I’ve known Burgess for most of my life, and I wanted to try to support her any way I could. . We all know that if it was one of us she’d be there supporting us.”

Later that month, still weakened by chemotherapy, McSwain found the energy to comply with a request from Athletics Director Dick Baddour ’66 to discuss the climate in the basketball program with him as part of Baddour’s end-of-season review.

So close was the relationship between McSwain and the basketball team that the players consented to attending last year’s news conference announcing Doherty’s resignation only when McSwain agreed to sit with them.

“She’s my inspiration here. I don’t think anyone at that age would pull through that like she did,” Scott said. “But she lives for us. She felt like she couldn’t leave us, and that’s what I respect about her. She loves us for us, not because we can put the ball through the hoop, but for us.”

McSwain’s health improved steadily in the summer, though she required some more surgery this year. (She’s facing surgery in April.)

After completing a second round of successful chemotherapy last summer, she felt well enough to attend Antawn Jamison’s July 12 wedding in Charlotte and re-unite with numerous former players. McSwain says moments such as those provide her with the most gratification.

“Watching them succeed – there’s not enough money in the world that could replace that feeling,” McSwain said. “It’s a great feeling to see them get an A when they’ve never gotten one before, or when they graduate, or when their mothers find out they’re going to graduate.”

McSwain plans to continue tutoring and teaching with the basketball team as long as her health allows. Last fall the basketball tutoring operation underwent a re-organization with the arrival of Wayne Walden from the University of Kansas, who worked as an academic adviser for 15 years under Roy Williams in Lawrence.

McSwain hopes that the new arrangement will lighten her administrative load and allow her to focus more energy on teaching. No one expects that she could relinquish the role of “team mother,” however, even if she wanted to – and McSwain leaves little doubt that her passion for teaching and its satisfactions is as strong as ever.

“They come in here as little boys at 18 and leave as men,” McSwain said of her charges. “That’s the fun thing. To see them later doing well in their professions, as a minister, or selling pharmaceuticals, or playing pro ball, and then to see their children – those are the moments you treasure.”

Thad Williamson is a Massachusetts writer, the author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many.

The Burgess McSwain Fund has been established in her honor. Contributions may be made in care of the UNC department of geography, Saunders Hall, Campus Box 3220, Chapel Hill 27599-3220.

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