Darrel Burnett: How to Succeed at Both Broadcasting and Business

Burnett2016A life-changing interview

In the space of one short interview, Darrel Burnett ’78 LAS became known throughout the sports world.

Darrel was 24 and a freshly minted sports director at WLUK in Green Bay. While covering the Super Bowl in Detroit, he attended a huge event in a ballroom crowded with everyone who was anyone in sports broadcasting. Across the room, he spotted Dick Schaap, well known sports writer, broadcaster and author.

While at SSU, Darrel had covered a speech Dick Schaap gave in downtown Springfield, and Darrel thought perhaps Dick would remember him and grant an interview.

“Of course I remember you,” Dick said.

But when Darrel suggested they go over to a corner for an interview, Dick said, no, they would do it right where they were.

And when Darrel called over his lone camera man, Dick again said, no, and called over his own ABC 20/20 crew.

“We had eight lights,” Darrel says. “We had reflectors. We had boom mikes. We had a full production crew. Right there, in the middle of this ballroom, we did the interview.

“When we were finished, Dick gave me a small smile because he knew exactly what he had done. I went, in that moment, from being less than nobody to everyone in the sports world knowing who I was.”

Darrel gives Dick a lot of credit for that experience, but if you were to meet Darrel, you would realize pretty quickly that it’s Darrel’s own ability to create lasting relationships—many of them friendships—that has contributed most to his success.

Busy days at Sangamon State (now UIS)

For a farm boy who grew up in Fairview (“population 600”), sports broadcasting may have seemed like an unexpected ambition, but Darrel says from the time he was seven it was all he wanted to do (“that and play second-base for the St. Louis Cardinals!”).

When it came time for college, he had already enrolled at Southern Illinois University and chosen his class schedule when Sangamon State (now UIS) offered him a WSSR Radio Scholarship.

“That changed everything,” Darrel says. “I was given an opportunity to work with state of the art equipment and incredible individuals—Rich Bradley, Jim Grimes, Brad Swanson, Ray Schroeder at WSSR, and I had wonderful professors like Rich Shereikis, Larry Smith and Dave Viera. I never had one bad day on campus.”

One of his best memories? Becoming the first sports broadcaster in University history doing play-by-play for Aydin Gonulson’s Prairie Stars soccer team.

“I was on a magical ride that very first year,” he says, “with the team qualifying for post-season play and then going to the nationals.”

His schedule during his second year was even more crowded:

  • Up at 4:00 a.m. to do morning television in Springfield,
  • Classes in the morning,
  • Noon radio at WSSR,
  • Classes in the afternoon,
  • Three nights a week doing play-by-play for the local cable station in Springfield.

“Looking back,” he says, “it seems like an insane scheduled, but I couldn’t get enough. I ate, slept and drank in everything that I was learning.”

He was also building lasting friendships. In fact, the relationships Darrel created at the radio station were so strong that after Darrel graduated News Director Rich Bradley began investigating a permanent position for Darrel as sports broadcaster at WSSR if Darrel couldn’t find a job.

 His career in sports

Following graduation, knowing nothing yet of Rich Bradley’s plans, Darrel agonized through what seemed like an interminable delay before getting his first job.

“It was the day of the gas crisis,” he says, “and our national economy was in terrible shape. When you’re young, the minutes and seconds click by as if they are months and years. I kept thinking, Am I ever going to get a job?”

In fact, he had a job within 30 days. He says, “I was blessed to be connected with Mary McCarthy who was news director at WIFR-TV in Rockford and was able to become weekend sports caster there. So my career took me away from WSSR.”

Burnett embarked on an extremely successful career in broadcasting that included:

  • Hosting nationally syndicated radio shows “Inside College Basketball” and “Inside College Football” from network radio studios in New York City
  • Doing play-by-play and hosting duties for the Indianapolis Colts,
  • Covering and hosting duties for the Green Bay Packers,
  • Network studio host for the National Hockey League,
  • Play-by-play for NCAA basketball and football, the European Basketball Championships, Pan American Games and World Figure Skating Championships.

Darrel also covered Super Bowls, the World Series, NCAA Final Fours, NBA and college basketball, the U.S. Olympic Trials and four years as a pit reporter for the Indianapolis 500.

But it isn’t this list of events that means the most to Darrel. “The people I met along the way, like Dick, are the moments that stand out for me,” he says.

A second career in business

In the mid-90s, at the height of his broadcasting career, Darrel left the field to enter the corporate world.

“I was traveling 300,000 miles a year,” he says. “I had a very young family, and being a great father became more important than being a great broadcaster.”

Darrel continues to do some television work and narrates programs, documentaries and commercials. “But it’s not my vocation now,” he says. “It’s my avocation.”

His business career started in the field of interactive technology and then moved into medical technology, with Darrel becoming COO of Healthcare Concepts. But he once again found himself traveling constantly, so he joined instead the Hoffman Corporation, a large architectural construction management company.

Under Darrel’s management, the Illinois division of Hoffman Corporation achieved a top 50 U.S. ranking from Engineering News Record.

In 2002, he co-founded Revere Hoffman, which specialized in housing for senior citizens; and in 2005, he became Corporate Director for the Mid-Northern Group, a Senior Living real estate investment corporation

In 2009, he returned to the tech field, becoming president of a water technology company which led to founding KSI International in 2011. He holds one patent and has a second pending.

Currently, he is involved in the O-Pen, a device the size of a ballpoint pen that will purify water in a glass, and in the development of a powerful cleaning and sanitizing liquid called PathoSans, which is both effective and environmentally responsible. Darrel describes it as an alternative to the caustic chemicals in many other cleaning products.

The same important skills in both careers

According to Darrel, when he first made the switch from broadcasting to business, he didn’t think any of the skills would transfer, and he actually thought the years he spent in broadcasting would be a handicap in his new career.

“But then I realized that communication is at the core of every business relationship,” he says. “Knowing how to treat people, knowing how to speak in front of people—those are all tools that were naturally part of my initial profession of broadcasting that I use each and every day in my new career. I could not have had the success I have had post broadcasting had I not been taught those tools and how to use and refine them.”

So what he initially thought was a handicap turned out to be a tremendous gift. “Sometimes life works that way,” he says.

His proudest achievement

The man who has had such two such successful careers says that his proudest achievement is raising more than $2 million for the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation.

Brian was a young man of 15 who lost his life in a swimming accident. Through the foundation named in his honor, 725 deserving and needy students have received assistance in achieving their dream of a college education. To receive a scholarship, each must in some way serve the public.

Darrel is on the Foundation Board of Directors and Board of Advisors.

He says, “I like to think that all of us have been touched in some way by one of these graduates over time because they have now spread across the United States and are accomplishing great things of their own.”

If this is true, it’s because the lives of these scholarship recipients were first touched by Darrel himself, by his commitment to people and his ability to create lasting relationships—and it’s no wonder that our University is so proud to call Darrel Burnett one of our own.

Next month–

We’ll be posting a story about Cheryl Peck, recipient of the Alumni Distinguished Service Award, next month.