Mary Ellen Burt, the winningest coach in Union College history, returned for her 25th season at the helm of the women’s basketball program in 2019-20. A graduate of the University of Southern California, where she earned a degree in business administration and played basketball, she served as first assistant coach at the University of Rochester before coming to Union. The past executive director of the New York State Women’s Collegiate Athletic Association (1993-1999), she also holds a master’s in business administration from St. John Fisher. In September 2011, Mary Ellen was named the first head coach of the women’s golf program at Union.
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your career or volunteer activities?
Seeing former players when they stop by the office and attend a game is awesome. We catch up on their family and laugh about how hard practices were and some of the sayings I’m sure they will never forget. I think the four-year graduation rate for women’s basketball and women’s golf players during my tenure is 100%. The fact that both golf and basketball are two of the top academic teams is extremely rewarding, along with the fact they are competitive and successful on the court and course.
Who inspired/inspires you, both professionally and personally?
My main mentor for almost 30 years has been Susan Bassett, associate vice president and director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreational Sports at Ithaca College. Susan was an associate athletic director and swimming coach at Union when I was hired. She told me the basketball program was going to be a gold mine and the College was ready to put monies into women’s athletics. I’m so glad I followed her advice and her words were spot on. In return, I sparked Susan’s interest in golf and I always enjoy whenever we play a round or two.
What advice would you offer today’s women students, not just at Union, but across the country?
Don’t get so focused on one pathway to your future. So many students come to college and think they know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Then it’s always interesting to watch them change their majors a few times and learn what their passion really is in life. College is about how to learn and understand complex issues. That’s the thing I like most about Union, it really takes learning to the next level both in the classroom and in extracurricular activities. I really believe that athletics plays an integral part in the development of our leaders on campus and then into the workplace.
What was your most formative experience at Union?
My most formative experience at Union was serving on the Gender Equity Committee in 1997. For close to two years the committee worked on a proposal to increase funds for women’s athletics. The budget on the women’s side was increased by $350,000, which saw a significant elevation in coaching salaries, recruiting budgets, uniforms, locker rooms and additional sports like women’s hockey, crew and golf. The difference in the first 25 years of women’s athletics at Union College and these past 25 years has been stunning. I’m thankful for all the pioneers who started the programs and competed in those early years so that today the student-athletes have no idea what inequities existed. “They lowered the ladders so others could climb” is a quote I like by Robin Roberts. That is exactly what the women playing and coaching in the early years of coeducation at Union College did for the athletics department.