PORTLAND, Ore. — Randy Burbach admits it was never supposed to be like this.
Is it normal for a middle school football awards dinner to be conducted with television cameras around to capture the moment? These are boys ranging in age from 12 to 14, after all. Are journalists usually camped out to note what happens?
Burbach knows the answers, and he knows the answers might be different if the venue were virtually anywhere else — anywhere but a Hooters restaurant. Yes, that's what the Corbett (Ore.) Middle School players wanted, so that's why they arrived Saturday at the establishment that touts its wings, shrimp and burgers but is known for much, much more. They arrived in a limousine, 20 miles from home but giddy as can be, sporting spanking new black-and-white jackets as they waded through a sizable media presence, a few working waitresses and just maybe some moral outrage.
"Our goal was to give them the best experience," Burbach told USA TODAY Sports.
It was certainly memorable. District athletic director J.P. Soulagnet rebuked Burbach in a letter posted on a school website, saying he asked Burbach to change the location of the banquet. But the coach declined, which meant Soulagnet could no longer support Burbach.
HOOTERS CONTROVERSY: Coach loses position
To Burbach, he was making a point. He was sticking to his guns: He made a promise and was keeping it. About 15 players came, and a few didn't show Saturday, but their absences were expected. There will be another, all-inclusive event next week, minus the "circus" as the coach bills it, an official finish to a season in which they went 6-2 and won all the games in their division.
About 15 years ago, Burbach went through something similar with his two sons. They, too, went on an athletic-fueled trip to Hooters, and Burbach was apprehensive. So the coach and his wife went on a scouting trip ahead of time, to see if their fears were legitimate.
He decided they weren't.
"It was fine," he said. "It was totally appropriate. … If my boys hadn't had this experience when they were 12 and 10, I might have done differently. But they had fun. … I'd done my due diligence. I went there. My whole thing was, 'Let's make a decision based on more than the name.' "
Hooters, of course, couldn't be happier. That was clear by the reception — waitresses cheered the players, most of whom shuffled sheepishly into the restaurant — and by their generosity. A cynic would suggest it was essentially in exchange for all of the national attention, but Hooters donated $1,000 toward the party and also 20% of the day's proceeds to Corbett Youth Football.
"The only thing that's abnormal about this — other than the check that we'll present them — is the media attention," said Adrian Oca, Hooters regional manager.
All of that attention, of course, has made Burbach a celebrity of sorts. Several Hooters employees took his picture Saturday. Strangers shook his hand. He bristles at being known as "the Hooters coach," but he wouldn't mind meeting Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden, who appears in commercials for Hooters. Oca confirmed Gruden is aware of Burbach, but nothing definitive has been scheduled.
"The spotlight gets turned on me, and I can't shirk what I've been teaching them the last few months," Burbach said.
Otherwise, he's fine. The backlash hasn't bothered him, and it likely won't affect him moving forward.
He's a 55-year-old garbage man. It's important to remember that — he is, indeed, still employed. As he clarifies, it's not as if he has lost his livelihood. He might no longer coach the team, but the truth is he was a volunteer coach who received a small stipend — his status was never meant to be permanent. Even before this episode, Burbach said he probably wasn't going to return for another season. He only coached this season because his nephew, a member of the team, asked him to do so.
His only regret?
"I should have told the parents myself," he said.
That's the same thing Verne Van Horn said. He's one of the Corbett Middle School football players' parents.
"I think it wasn't put out there for the parents soon enough," said Van Horn, who watched as his son, Keith, was swarmed nearby by television cameras. "To a certain degree, they might have felt ambushed and put in a position where their kids were hyped up about going and then the parents have conflicting views. … Every parent has the right to parent their children the way they feel is appropriate.
"I can understand why this is controversial."
The fact Van Horn uttered all of this while standing inside Hooters, with plenty of other supportive parents, was telling.
"I think it should have been where the kids got to choose two or three places they wanted to go, bring the parents in and then make it a vote," he said. "(Burbach) still could have chosen what he wanted. But I don't find this place reprehensible at all. But I fully understand if you have religious beliefs or have feelings about exploitation of women, but I don't think any of these women are under indentured servitude situations.
"I think they're here under their own volition, they're having a good time and there's nothing scandalous at all about what's going on."
Contributing: The Associated Press