O'FALLON — O'Fallon High School cross country coach Jon Burnett usually shies away from personal accolades and honors, choosing instead to give credit to the athletes.
But not this time.
Now in his 18th season of leading the highly-successful Panthers boys program, Burnett has been honored as the 2012-13 Illinois High School Association Boys Cross Country Coach of the Year.
Nominated for the award by O'Fallon Athletic Director Todd Moeller, Burnett's Panthers program has been among the best in the state in recent years and last season earned its second straight second-place finish in the Class 3A State Cross Country Meet.
"I'm deeply appreciative of the O'Fallon High School administration's support for myself and girls cross country coach Neil James' and our programs and helped us get support for a sport which often times doesn't get a lot attention,'' Burnett said.
"It takes a special athlete to be able to compete in cross country. There aren't a lot of kids who will get up at 7 a.m. five or six days a week during the summer and run seven or eight miles when its already 80 degrees and humid. They are great kids.''
Burnett's record speaks for its self. In addition to second place in Class 3A the past two years, the O'Fallon harriers placed fifth in the 2010 state finals.
Burnett, 46, has led the Panthers to five IHSA sectional titles, six regional titles and eight Southwestern Conference championships.
O'Fallon entered the 2013 season ranked in the top five in every state cross country poll and are led by one of the nation's top runners in senior Patrick Perrier and also one of the state's best in junior Dorrian Gordon.
Burnett said he received the news in a letter from IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman last week.
Burnett said he didn't know what to think.
"I was a little apprehensive when I saw the letter from the IHSA. You never know. When you get something from the governing body your mind races different directions on what it could be,'' Burnett said. The first word I read was congratulations. It cleared my mind and raised a few questions at the same time.''
Burnett began his coaching career at O'Fallon in 1995 when he took over for the late Foz Ryan. Not yet 30 at that time, Burnett has benefited greatly from the help of many coaches and assistant coaches over the years.
I'm very proud of what the kids in this program have been able to accomplish. But there have been a lot of people who have been major influences in this program. People like Alan Elfrink, Bob Nesbit, Neil (James), Candace Caveny, the late Foz Ryan and countless others,'' Burnett said.
"Foz (Ryan) was the coach when I started teaching here. Bob Nesbit was the coach for 13 or 14 years. I can't tell you how many conference titles he won. The success of this program started with Bob (Nesbit)."
The son of Woody and Rea Burnett, John Burnett is a 1985 graduate of Belleville West. A three sport athlete, Burnett was coached by his dad and Norm Armstrong in both cross country and track and field and played basketball under coach Roger Mueller.
Burnett attended Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville where he was an NCAA Division II All-American. Burnett placed fifth in the nation in the 3,000 meter steeplechase in 1988.
After teaching and coaching at Edwardsville High School for four years, Burnett has been at O'Fallon ever since.
Burnett said the development of a junior high program and the tradition of excellence are two of the main factors in the Panthers recent success.
In recent years, the talent level has been a little different and it's taken some getting used too. But since they started the junior high program a few years ago I've noticed a change as well.
"Kids are coming in with more experience. They have a better grasp and understanding on what cross country is about. The freshman now are more like my juniors used to be.''
Burnett said he still has many goals to accomplish as the Panthers coach.
"A state title. That would be nice. But it's not the ultimate for me.'' Burnett said. "My goal is to help these kids set goals and then work on reaching those goals.''
Burnett and his wife Jennifer have one son, Aidan.