Two weeks ago I put up a piece making a case for Mike Burns, or at least for giving him some slack in the coming months as he puts on the coaching search. I let everyone know that a lot of the criticisms we level at him for the construction of the squad might actually be misplaced, and while I can't say he's going to be great now that Stevie Nicol is gone, I also can't say there's a lot of evidence to say he'll be catastrophic.
Frank Dell'Apa reinforced my position not long after with a good piece about the inner workings of the Revolution organization in the aftermath of Nicol's departure (apologies, it's behind a paywall, and there's nothing I can really do about that). Without going into too much detail, he outlined the varied responsibilities of Jonathan and Robert Kraft, Sunil Gulati, Mike Burns, and Steve Nicol under the previous regime and it matches up just about the way I laid it out. So, from a pure operational standpoint, the jury remains out.
From a media and fan relations standpoint, however, Mike Burns was, is and will remain an unmitigated disaster.
Brian O'Connell from New England Soccer Today recently caught up with Burns to have a quick conversation about the season that was, his role with the Revs, and steps to improve in the future. By the looks of things, Brian could have sat down and had a conversation with a brick wall and gotten just as much out of it.
Burns starts by saying a whole bunch of nothing about his role with the team. Nevermind that the entire Revolution community could have read my piece or Frank's piece to get a much more accurate idea. Obviously, the thing to do is to try and keep that damned veil of total opacity over the inner workings of this organization. An organization, by the way, presiding over one of the very worst teams in the league, that lags behind the rest of the field in most categories both on and off the pitch.
The funniest part about that exchange, though, is when Brian asks Mike about the misconceptions concerning his role with the team. This is Mike's verbatim response: "What are the misconceptions? Because I don't know what they are..."
Look, I understand that in this business you have to kinda turn a blind eye to what's said about you in the media. Otherwise, you're likely to go crazy. But all sports figures, from the most revered to the most hated, have at least some idea of the public opinion and the pulse of the fans and writers. Burns has no freaking clue. What's worse, it seems like he doesn't care. It's not his concern. The peasants will make their complaints; "let them eat cake," says Burns.
Brian then asks about how the league has changed during Burns' 6-7 as a VP, and naturally he skirts the question by talking about obvious stuff like expansion, the reserve league, and academies. Not that those aren't legitimate answers, but I think everyone realizes that Brian was getting at changes in talent level, roster rules, competitiveness, and all the things that go along with MLS 2.0. Mike follows that up by discussing the Academy, something with which, I will concede, he does a good job, and seems to be up front about it. That's the lone bright spot in the entire interview.
Brian then nails down Burns on a major bone of contention - the idea that Milton Caraglio was signed after being scouted only by DVD highlights. True to form, Mike stutters, side-steps, contradicts himself and denies it without really denying anything. In fact, here's the full sequence:
In terms of bringing in some international players, like Milton Caraglio - there were reports that Caraglio was brought in based upon there being a DVD submitted of his highlights.
Burns: That's inaccurate...
Burns: That's true, we also had people that we trust see him in person and live and so that's a little bit..it's not entirely accurate that he was signed solely off of a DVD. That's not entirely 100% true.
Who are "people that we trust?" Agents? Independent scouts? I can tell you with full confidence that it wasn't a Revolution scout. Why? Mike goes right ahead to answer that for us in the next breath.
Along the lines of that, of the front office receiving a player's DVD reel like with Caraglio, instead of waiting for that DVD, wouldn't it be better go down there and scout him in person?
Burns: Well, listen, I think if you look around the league, us included, listen, we're an 18-team league. There aren't scouting departments per se. So I think if you asked any team, and I'll speak for us, it's very, very challenging during the season and if you remember in Milton's case, he was a summer signing as was (Monsef) Zerka, it's very challenging for coaches to take time away from the first team during the season to go see people live. I'm not going to say it's impossible, but it's challenging.
What the hell does being an 18-team league have to do with anything? And why, if other teams don't have a scouting department, do the Revs suddenly feel they don't need one? So many recent league standards have been set by teams willing to forge ahead and break new ground. Columbus built Crew Stadium in 1999 when no one else was playing in their own ballparks. Other teams broke down the press barrier to bloggers very early, and still others have revolutionized the league's policies on social media interaction just by experimenting with it ahead of everyone else. Imagine the competitive advantage if the New England Revolution becomes the first MLS team with a large, dedicated scouting department? With the capability to travel to Argentina and scout a Caraglio mid-season? Would that not be instrumental in catapulting the Revs back to the top?
That answer made me sick.
His next one made me laugh.
Brian asked about a European player the Revs were supposedly close to signing. Burns, in typical one-word screw-you-if-you-want-to-know-anything fashion, refused to reveal the player's identity.
That's ok, though, because Frank Dell'Apa already did! I'll quote if you can't read because of the paywall: "Nicol went to Istanbul to sign Turkish striker Semih Senturk, who agreed to terms with the Revolution, according to multiple sources." Again, if Mike had any clue as to what was going on outside his own insular little world, he would have realized this information was public knowledge and could have opened up to the fans about it. Perhaps this would garner him and the organization some understanding, if not some sympathy. Instead, he just sounds hard-headed and difficult.
The last few questions serve to highlight perhaps Burns' biggest problem in this realm. It's not so much the substance of his answers to fan and media questions as it's the manner in which he answers them. Brian asks about why Caraglio is a DP despite making just $54,000 in base salary. No one, least of all me, expects to get concrete numbers. That's just not how this league operates, let alone this organization. All Mike had to do was say "listen, salary is only part of the equation," and then waffle around for another line or two from there. He's not really saying much, but it's a softer answer and it's something. Instead, Mike takes the hard line, refuses to say anything about it, and makes his answer sound like a chastisement of Brian for even asking.
Brian then asks how far they are in the coaching search, and Burns has the audacity to say "That's a fair question." Of course it's a fair question, Mike! Did you think any of these weren't fair questions? You're the VP of the worst team in the East, possibly the worst in the league! A team that has been declining in spectacular fashion for three or four years now, that shows no signs of moving ahead with the times, has a dwindling fan base, plays in a cavernous void, and is becoming the butt of more jokes than Toronto FC in this league! There is no out of bounds anymore, Mike. If we asked you whether you prefer boxers or briefs, you had damn well better answer the question, because public opinion on you, your staff and the whole front office has hit rock bottom, and all you insist on doing is digging the hole deeper and deeper.
Finally, Brian asks about who has been interviewed so far. That's a shot in the dark question; you know the guy isn't going to answer it. No one will. It's an ongoing job search. Again, though, Burns shoots himself in the foot not in what he answers, but how he answers.
"Yeah, I'm not going to comment on the people that we're interviewing. I'm not going to comment on which direction we're going to go in. We're going to try to hire the best candidate we can."
That last part is funny, just because you have to figure that's always the goal. Does it bear repeating? But again, here he just sounds irritated, like Brian is an annoyance to him and he shouldn't have to answer to anybody but himself and his superiors. That can be a great attitude to have in some industries, but in sports, it's important to remember you answer to fans. And if you lose the fans, you lose your job, because the team dies.
I don't want to sound like a guy with a vendetta against Burns, but what ticks me off the most is that this is nothing new. Wind the clocks back to July 2010: I'm writing for ASN, and both Brian Bilello and Mike Burns do Q&A sessions with fans via email through the team website. You can read my breakdown of Burns' answers here. He regurgitates - almost verbatim - all of his answers from the season ticket holders' summit that February, and in the process he infuriates everybody.
What has become obvious here is that Mike Burns is a PR nightmare. He doesn't seem to care about the fans, at least not about what they think or want. He obviously has no respect for the media, or at the very least the independent media, and doesn't want to lower himself to their level to give illuminating, or at least tactful, answers to their questions. And it's not like he's the norm: go around the league and read interviews with guys like Dave Checketts, Merritt Paulson, even Kevin Payne or the guys from Sporting KC. They get it. They want the fans involved, rabid, and informed. Mike doesn't want to be bothered.
For all I've said about giving him a chance, letting him prove himself competent or otherwise, he still manages to let his myopia hinder his own cause. All I can say is this: either Burns needs a PR coach like a starving man needs a cheeseburger, or he'd better get this team winning yesterday. Because given his terrible track record and image with media and fans, I don't think he's going to get anywhere near the kind of leash guys will get anywhere else in this league.