DAHLONEGA — Buffie Burson vividly remembers the advice Vic Mitchell gave her before she took the helm of the University of North Georgia women's basketball program in 1994.
Mitchell, the head coach who she had worked with as an assistant coach for three years at Shorter University, told her play design was the easiest part of coaching.
She has spent the past 25 years proving him right.
Burson won her 500th game at UNG in a 68-63 triumph against Flagler College on Dec. 17, 2018. She has led teams to conference titles in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2018 and 2019. Her 2018-19 team won 30 games and reached the NCAA Division II Elite Eight for the first time.
For Burson, success at UNG has extended far beyond the basketball court and part of that comes from lessons she learned from her father, Jimmy Burson. Her father played college football at Auburn University and was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1963 NFL draft. He spent five seasons in the pros before he began his long career as a high school football coach.
"He got his players to really play hard without demeaning them or yelling at them," Burson said. "He was so smart in how he coached his players and how he loved his players and how his players loved him and the relationships they had. Even back then, I could recognize coaching was about relationships and building that trust."
Her family pedigree played a role in her career choice.
"It's the only lifestyle I've ever known, which is being around athletics and being around coaches," Burson said. "I grew up in that lifestyle."
Burson played softball, soccer and basketball as a child. But her hatred of rainouts in other sports led Burson to stick with basketball. She played basketball at the University of Montevallo and worked as a graduate assistant there for two years before the move to Shorter.
After three years at Shorter, Burson came to Dahlonega and has built a legacy of winning and community impact. Growing up in Alpharetta and playing against North Georgia in college gave Burson a comfort level.
"It always felt like home to me," Burson said.
Among her coaching highlights were the 1997 conference championship in her third season at North Georgia and the 2006 Peach Belt Conference (PBC) title in North Georgia's first season in NCAA Division II.
"North Georgia attracts great people," Burson said. "It's been amazing to coach them."
The past two seasons have been among Burson's best: regular-season and tournament PBC titles and an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in 2018 and another sweep of the PBC titles and an NCAA Elite Eight run in 2019. It marked the first back-to-back NCAA Division II tournament appearances in program history.
She credits a willingness to adjust for her program's continued success.
"If you want to be a great coach, you can definitely be one. You have to be authentic," Burson said. "Continue to have a growth mindset."
A recent highlight had nothing to do with wins and losses, though. Burson's team granted a Make-A-Wish to 5-year-old Hope Nix and her family at a Feb. 13 game. Burson said Athletics Director Lindsay Reeves always encourages UNG's teams to be a part of those kinds of moments. Burson is grateful that mentality is a focus at UNG.
"We're put on Earth to serve and help," Burson said.