Zohn Burden was among five assistant coaches Bobby Wilder hired in 2007 to help build Old Dominion’s football program from scratch.
Foreman Field hadn’t been renovated, there was no L.R. Hill training complex and ODU didn’t own one piece of equipment. And within two years, the Monarchs would need 80-plus players to begin playing.
Wilder and his staff settled into tiny cubicles in a spare office and began selling a start-up program to recruits. Burden and Ron Whitcomb – now ODU’s quarterbacks coach – hosted hundreds of players on official visits.
Two years later, the Monarchs made their debut and went 9-2.
“We shed a lot of blood, sweat and tears in those offices,” Burden said. “I feel like I’ll always be a part of Old Dominion’s program because I helped start it.”
Saturday, Burden will face off against players he coached and former colleagues when ODU makes its first trip to Virginia Tech. Burden moved to Blacksburg in 2015, more than doubling his salary, and is settled in as the running backs coach on Justin Fuente’s staff.
Burden was only a year removed from VMI, where he was a standout wide receiver, when hired at ODU. He quickly established a reputation as a superb recruiter.
“Kids respect someone who’s done it as a player at a high level,” Whitcomb said. “And Zohn is just a likable guy. People like being around him.”
ODU has landed only three recruits with offers from ACC schools: defensive tackle Miles Fox and defensive backs Jamez Brickhouse and Christian Byrum. All were recruited by Burden.
At Tech, he has rejuvenated recruiting in Hampton Roads, where the Hokies traditionally recruited well but had lost ground to Virginia and other schools.
In 2016, Tech signed two players ranked among the top seven in South Hampton Roads by The Virginian-Pilot. In 2017, Burden landed a breakthrough recruit in Devon Hunter, a four-star safety from Indian River who was rated the state’s best recruit by 247Sports.
Hunter turned down offers from Alabama, Clemson, North Carolina and Florida, becoming the highest-rated recruit from the 757 to sign with Tech since quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
“That was a great recruit for Virginia Tech, not for me,” Burden said. “Our staff talked to him about starting his own legacy, about staying home. He turned down a lot of SEC schools.
“That was what I sold when I was at ODU, starting a legacy. I never dreamed I’d be selling the same thing at Virginia Tech.”
Burden grew up in Norfolk and, later, in Virginia Beach, dreaming of the NBA. He was a star guard at Salem High School who helped lead the Sun Devils to a state championship.
But Salem coach Bill Cochrane pulled him aside late during his sophomore year and told him although he might have a chance to play college basketball, he’d have more chances in football.
So Burden moved to Salem’s football team, then coached by Chris Beatty, who recruits Hampton Roads for Maryland.
He was an All-Tidewater pick as a senior, and as Cochrane had predicted, had scholarship offers.
Norfolk State and Hampton asked Burden to commit early, but he declined. On signing day, his choices were a partial scholarship to Virginia State or a full ride to VMI.
He signed with the Keydets, even though he wore a classic, 1970s-style Afro in high school . “I waited until the last minute to cut my hair,” Burden said.
Burden didn’t know anything about VMI’s rat line: the physical and emotional challenges first-year students face from upper classmen for about six months.
“My dad was in the Navy, so I knew about military discipline,” he said. “But I wasn’t prepared for the rat line.
”Things were already difficult during preseason practice. Then right before school started, they introduced us to the rat line.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into. It was hard. There were times I wanted to leave.”
Privately, Burden contacted the coaches at Norfolk State and asked about transferring.
Latrell Scott, now the head coach at Norfolk State, recruited him to VMI and would later become his best friend. Scott counseled patience. If you stay at VMI, the brotherhood here will take care of you.
“At Salem, a lot of people told me how great I was,” Burden said. “It was very humbling to go through the rat line. You learn to do things you didn’t know you could do.
“You learn that integrity is everything. You can leave a $20 bill on top of a vending machine. You can leave it the whole year and it will be there. I saw that with my own eyes. It’s a very different place.”
A three-time All-Big South receiver, he caught 162 passes for 2,101 yards. He graduated with a degree in finance and took a job with a financial investment company in Richmond.
“The guy who hired me was from VMI,” he said. “At that point, I realized it was a brotherhood.”
Scott called him shortly after he took that job and said Fork Union Military Academy needed an assistant coach for its postgraduate football team. Fork Union coach John Shuman, also a VMI graduate, offered him the job over the phone.
”I asked if it was OK if I came to see the place first,” he said. He did and accepted.
Burden coached there a year and was hosting a recruiting event in 2007 when he met Wilder just after he’d been hired at ODU. Wilder was impressed with how well organized the event was, and doubly so that a guy a year out of college had put it together.
“We hit it off right away,” Burden said.
Weeks later, Burden joined Wilder at ODU.
When then-Tech coach Frank Beamer called and asked Burden to interview in 2015, “I didn’t hesitate for a minute,” Burden said. “I’ve been watching Virginia Tech since I was a kid. I watched Frank Beamer and (defensive coordinator) Bud Foster on the sidelines.
“To stand on the sidelines with them was a dream come true.”
The dream nearly turned into a nightmare early during his first season, when Beamer announced his retirement.
“We carried on day by day as if he wasn’t retiring, but my office was packed,” Burden said. “I had no idea what was going to happen. Nobody did.”
After Fuente was hired, he and Burden talked first by phone, then in person.
“Most of our conversations were about getting to know each other,” Burden said. “We didn’t talk much about football until the end. Most of it was just learning what his plans were, getting to know his values, his core beliefs.
“Coach Fuente and coach Beamer are very similar. They have a lot of honesty and integrity.
”The one thing I’ll never forget about coach Beamer is that he came by more office every day to see how I was doing. He didn’t have to do that.”
Fuente, who came to Tech from Memphis, had a Rolodex full of potential assistants but said he was blown away by his interviews with Burden.
“What impressed me the most was how he carried himself,” Fuente said. “I felt like he’s somebody we really needed on our staff.”
Burden retains close ties with ODU’s staff. He worked at ODU summer camps and often drops by to see Wilder when he’s in town recruiting.
“He’s one of our favorite sons,” Wilder said. “We all have a great relationship with him. Zohn played a big role in our early success. He was here when we put the bricks down on the foundation.”
Burden sent congratulatory text messages to ODU’s coaches after the Monarchs won the Bahamas Bowl last season.
“Every Saturday, after I check out the ACC scores online, I go to Conference USA to see how ODU did,” he said.
“I’ll never forget that I came from ODU. What we did there together can never be erased.”