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PNG native Matt Burnett stands out in front of Mauriceville Elementary School where he currently teaches PE and coaches Mauriceville Milddle’s football team. (Brad Robichaux/The News)

WHERE ARE THEY NOW — Passion still burns as Matt Burnett coaches in Mauriceville

MAURICEVILLE — Matt Burnett is hailed by a half-dozen students sitting at tables in the cafeteria as he travels through to get to the Mauriceville Elementary School gym.

He draws attention from several others as students ask if their PE teacher is “up and about.” The 63-year-old coach from Port Neches finds his current teaching duties at the elementary school some of the most challenging he’s faced, requiring him to draw upon all the skills he’s learned throughout his life, from religion to coaching to organization.

That’s coming from the man who led the 1999 Port Neches-Groves Indians all the way to the 4A state championship game as head coach.

“The No. 1 challenge is, at that age, they’re so excited when they come to PE, it’s hard to get them to concentrate,” Burnett said. “You’ve got to be very strategic with what you do with them because any least little thing will get them excited and flare them up, and it’s hard to get them back down.

“You can’t just throw a ball out there and let 40 of them fight over it. You’ve got to have a plan, make them do it and make them listen. It’s education at its best. You’ve got to constantly keep them alert and occupied, but it’s gratifying. It’s a lot different than the high school deal.”

It’s also considerably less pressure than heading the coaching staff at a major football program. He’s still coaching, this time with the Mauriceville Middle School football team, but now his games aren’t in front of 12,000 people.

“It’s all relative to what you’re working with and who you’re playing,” he said. “You still have to have them ready and prepared, but we’re a very small school. It’s all working out good.”

Burnett was honored this weekend at the Southeast Texas Coaches Association, which inducted him in the class of 2020 at the Christus Sports Medicine/Beaumont Bone and Joint Institute Hall of Honor.

Burnett was honored because of a career he says he never considered “work.” Instead, it was Burnett’s dream to coach at his alma mater in Port Neches, with the 1999 championship trip another cherished goal of his. Burnett led the Indians to 96 wins while he was the head coach, along with five district titles.

“It just was more of a passion,” Burnett said. “Every day I enjoyed going work, getting it all lined up and putting in as many hours as I did young, but it was really fun. My coaches, I pushed them to go as hard as I did. I appreciated all the time they put in because it’s different being the assistant than the head coach. The head coach always has to be going and pushing, and the assistant coaches are doing their jobs, but they’re not getting the big pay and they’re not in charge. I appreciate all the years I was able to keep good coaches.”

Realizing the dream

To get to his dream job, Burnett worked his way up in the coaching world. He got his first taste as a part-time graduate assistant at Lamar University, where he attended college, then went on to coach at Vidor and Klein Oak High School in Spring, Texas. His goal was always to get back to PNG.

He had to make a stop in Nederland first, though. There had been no availabilities at PNG when Burnett decided it was time to come home after spending three years at Klein Oak, so Burnett, a former Indian, went to coach for PNG’s archrivals, the Bulldogs. He says it was a fascinating experience, being on the other side of the intense rivalry.

And even after all these years, he insists an incident that occurred during the Nederland-PNG game wasn’t his idea.

“It was my first time back there from being a player in 1975, and there I was — a coach,” he said. “When I walked out with the Nederland boys at the goal post through the run-throughs, Nederland has theirs on the right and PNGs were on the left. All of a sudden I heard the Nederland crowd just go totally crazy, fired up. I looked over and Nederland hadn’t run through our side they ran through PNG’s side. They didn’t go right they went left, down PNG’s sideline in front of 12,000 people. The PNG people were booing but the Nederland was cheering. To this day everybody thinks I told the boys to do that.”

Burnett joined PNG as defensive coordinator in 1991 after spending a year at Nederland. In 1994, Burnett ascended to head football coach and athletic director, along with all of the peripheral responsibilities.

Interim PNG superintendent Earl Jeffries seemed intent on making sure the 37-year-old Burnett understood being a head coach and athletics director wasn’t the same as being an assistant coach.

“We needed a head coach, so he was the guy that interviewed me, and it was the most fascinating interview because he took me to an undisclosed place and for four hours he interviewed me and talked to me mainly in parables, stories of morals,” Burnett said.

Burnett recalled Jeffries told him about various problems he’d faced as a school administrator, like whether to replace a bunch of water fountains or spend less money and replace some parts, or how he’d disciplined a student for getting caught smoking behind the school one weekend.

“What’s he telling me? Watch your budget!” Burnett said. “When you’re AD, you’re in charge of money and people. You’re not just a coach. Be careful with your discipline; kids make mistakes. Years later, he said he was nervous about hiring me because he knew I knew about the football but he wasn’t sure I knew all the things that went along with it, handling people, handling coaches, handling budget, and handling discipline.”

Five years after stepping up as head coach, Burnett found himself standing in the midst of the Astrodome in front of 39,000 people facing Stephenville High School for the state championship. The Indians lost 28-18, but being there and contending for the state title was yet another dream that Burnett had achieved.

After the dream

After 15 years coaching, Burnett found he’d run his course and wanted to step down. He became the coordinator of student services in 2008, overseeing management of school and athletic facilities, including the brand new PNG stadium. After six years he retired and spent a year and a half dabbling in real-estate before joining Mauriceville Elementary.

“My whole plan was to go back and coach but not in such a stressful situation, so here I am,” Burnett said. “I’ve been here for two and a half years. These are good people here, very good place, very family oriented, very organized. They take care of the kids. Not all school districts hire retirees, and this fit me. It’s a little bit more rural than Port Neches. It’s kind of a small town atmosphere school district that I like. I was looking for a place to tuck away and not get in anybody’s way.”

Burnett isn’t out of the game yet, though.

“I’m 63 but I still have a lot of tread on my tires, and this may not be my last stop, but it’s where I am right now,” he said. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m happy right now. These are good people and they’re taking care of me.”

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