Meet Zach Burk (’23), the secondary education major who rallied to raise his grades and find a passion for coaching and teaching.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories highlighting a few of Concordia’s uncommon May 2023 graduates. Faculty and staff submit candidates for consideration. Stories are posted in the days leading up to commencement. View more uncommon graduates here.

Sometimes, it takes a while to figure out what you want out of life, and what is the best path for you to take. For Zach Burk (’23), it was always about sports. But then it was the business of sports. And then it was coaching and teaching to go along with that. Now that he’s graduating, he may just give business a try after all. At least to start.

That’s kind of how it’s been for Zach. He’s following his passion, and following God, and using some of the principles he’s learned from one of his heroes to help figure things out: legendary former UCLA basketball (and devout Christian) John Wooden. He’s still not quite sure exactly where it will all lead—but he’s sure he’ll be successful.

Practice, practice, practice

In high school, Zach was all about playing basketball. In the fall, he played in his driveway, getting ready for the season. In the winter, he played on the varsity team for Lutheran Westland High School (he’s from nearby Livonia, Michigan). In the spring, he was back out practicing in the driveway. And the summers? Well, summers were for golf.

After high school he went off to play basketball Concordia University Chicago. But after a year of coming home nearly every weekend, he decided he really wanted to be closer to home. Next up, Concordia University Ann Arbor and the Cardinals basketball team.

Zach with head men’s basketball coach Ricky Yahn (far left), his mother (Paula), and father (Jerry), on Senior Night at the Cardinal Fieldhouse.

Though he didn’t stay in Chicago long, that one year proved quite consequential. It was there he formed a strong connection with head basketball coach Randy Rogers, who helped him see that becoming a college basketball coach might be where his future lay. At CUAA, Zach enrolled in the sport and entertainment business program, even as his heart was pulling him toward coaching.

Eventually, after talking with his father, Jerry, and reflecting on things Coach Rogers had said, he realized he probably wouldn’t enjoy working in the world of sports on the business end, if the coaching didn’t work out. “But I would enjoy being a teacher,” Zach said.

So he changed his major to secondary education P.E. (now K-12 Health & Physical Education)—though he also kept a minor in history and business.

Figuring things out

It would be nice to say that things came easily for Zach from that point on, but that’s not the case. In high school, Zach is one of those guys about whom teachers would say, “You know, he would be a straight-A student if he ever really applied himself.” But learning to apply himself took some work.

“I would argue that I’ve never been a good student until recently,” Zach said. “I got decent grades, but they weren’t as good as they should have been.”

But as I was going through these things, I realized that this was just God’s plan for me. I needed to go through it to become the person He wants me to be.

Zach Burk (’23)

That continued in college—at least for a while. The decision to change majors came after a time of feeling a little lost and uncertain. He started to thrive once he got into the education program, but then struggled again when the pandemic hit. The online classes didn’t suit him, and his GPA suffered. It got to the point where he might not have been eligible to student teach if things didn’t change.

That, you might say, was the moment the fire was lit and Zach really started to “apply himself.”

All about process

In the meantime, Zach had also been throwing himself into various coaching opportunities. Last year, he was a student assistant for the Cardinals’ women’s basketball team. He is currently a volunteer assistant coach for the men’s and women’s golf team (he played on the men’s team for four years). He just completed his first season as an assistant JV basketball coach at South Lyon High School. And he’s finishing up as a student teacher at Whitmore Lake Middle & High School, where he’s teaching health and physical education classes. Somewhere in there, he also found time to be a part of CUAA’s esports team.

Zach, far right, with some of his golf teammates.

The end of that JV basketball season led to a moment Zach says he’ll remember forever. The team had been struggling, losing a bunch of close games in a row. He knew the team was discouraged, but was also better than their record would indicate. He also knew that many of the players were worried about making the varsity squad next year, even though probably only a handful would make it.

Zach had been reading a few books about success, including a famous one by Coach Wooden called, “The Pyramid of Success.” So he drew on a lot of what he had learned and gave the team a passionate, impromptu mid-season speech. You could say it went over pretty well.

“We ended up turning the year around,” Zach said. “We even beat some of the teams we had lost to the first time around.”

More importantly, he saw in some of his players—ones who knew they probably wouldn’t make varsity next year—encouraged to branch out and try new things.

“I wanted them to know that being successful is about the process, and not about the result,” he said. “And that they should always strive to be their best in whatever they want to do, whether it’s basketball, baseball, football, track, or in the classroom.”

As Wooden himself put it: “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

The meaning of success

Now here’s the twist: Zach has decided to take that advice to heart himself, but not in the way you might expect. Rather than jump right into teaching and coaching after graduation, he has decided to use his business training to try something else: commercial real estate. His hope, he said—after praying about it quite a bit—is that if he can make some money up front, it will open more opportunities down the line to be flexible with his time.

“My biggest dream one day is to be a dad,” Zach said. “And if I can set myself up through making a nice income and investing, if I have the ability to work less and coach more, I’d love to be able to do that.”

Whatever path God leads him down, one thing for sure is that Zach will “apply himself”—and then some. He’s learned the value of hard work and what it takes to succeed. And that every difficulty God gives you “is a chance to persevere and become something better.”

“I’ve had a lot of struggles through my college career, and I got frustrated with God that it’s taken me longer than most to graduate,” he said. “But as I was going through these things, I realized that this was just God’s plan for me. I needed to go through it to become the person He wants me to be.”

And that—to become the person God wants us to be—is truly the highest definition of success.

Want in?

The School of Education equips and inspires Christian servant leaders to pursue integrity and excellence in the delivery of educational services within professional and lifelong learning throughout the world. From the start, Concordia University Ann Arbor has been known for outstanding teacher education. Today, we continue that tradition; developing administrators and teachers to deliver exceptional education, while impacting the lives of students, families, and communities in a diverse array of educational settings.