Where Are They Now? Tonya Burns-Cohrs, Iowa State Basketball (1981-1985)
Former Iowa State player provides young women with a strong role model
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In all respects, Tonya Burns is an Iowa State legend. Burns is one of the best players in Iowa State history. She is the owner of a long list of program records and was a rebounding and scoring machine. Because of the era she played in — she graduated in 1985, 12 years before the WNBA’s inaugural season — her college career was one of the last times she played competitively.
Burns, now Burns-Cohrs, finished her Iowa State career with the most points and rebounds in school history and even got a chance to play professionally in the National Women’s Basketball Association (NWBA) in 1986, but the league didn’t last long and women were given fewer athletic opportunities than they have now.
“I don’t know if young girls or women now know exactly what we had to go through to even get a college scholarship,” Burns-Cohrs said. “It’s a lot different now than it was back then.”
The recruiting that was done by colleges in the 1980s was different than current day recruiting, starting off with how you got to the colleges. Colleges didn’t pay for recruiting trips at all, so it limited which schools people could tour, including Burns-Cohrs.
The thing that was the most different for her was the audition process. For a multitude of reasons, college basketball hopefuls do not have to do any sort of audition today to display their basketball skills, but for Burns-Cohrs, this was a necessity.
The reason she ended up choosing Iowa State, however, was because it was the only college she visited that she didn’t end up having to do an audition for. Although she loves Iowa State now, her first choice would’ve been Indiana, but they didn’t have any remaining scholarships. As soon as she stepped on campus in Ames, Iowa, she knew she would be going there.
After her career at Iowa State ended and her first chance at a professional team was cut short, she tried again as the WNBA was starting to form.
“When the WNBA started… there were three of us that decided, ‘What the heck let’s go try out for the WNBA,’ and I was 29 at the time and we trained for a year,” Burns-Cohrs said. “I was probably in the best shape, probably the second-best [shape of my life].”
Despite her eagerness to play, a collective bargaining dispute emerged and Burns-Cohrs couldn’t get her chance to play in the WNBA. She has kept a positive outlook on the situation even though she would’ve almost certainly had a lengthier career if she had begun later.
Burns-Cohrs turned to coaching and teaching, which worked well with the education degree she received at Iowa State. A high school in Fort Wayne offered her a job as a coach soon after, and just two weeks before the school year started, she was given a job as a reading teacher and a basketball coach.
In her 13 years there, Burns-Cohrs was the head girls’ basketball coach for the whole time while also coaching softball for two years and freshman volleyball for seven.
“I love teaching the game, and I love the whole team aspect and working with young women and watching them grow and develop not only as basketball players but as young women,” Burns-Cohrs said. “When you’re a coach and even a teacher, you’re more than that to the kids.”
Eventually, Burns-Cohrs became a physical education teacher after teaching reading and English. When she left her first school after 13 years, she had become a full-fledged physical education teacher and coach.
She left to go coach and teach at Woodlan High School near Fort Wayne, Indiana, and after 13 years, retired as a coach and transitioned to being just a physical education teacher. She also helped out at various programs, including becoming a varsity assistant at Fort Wayne Canterbury.
During her time coaching, she recognized that a lot of her field didn’t include women, so she wanted to become more than just a coach for them, but also a positive role model for young women.
“I hope I instilled a lot of different characteristics or things in them like work ethic, being proud, how you carry yourself whether you win or lose,” Burns-Cohrs said. “Things aren’t always going to be easy, things aren’t always going to be given to you.”
Something else that she felt she brought that was important was height. Not for basketball, but for helping with young women’s confidence.
She grew up being self-conscious about her height — it was only because her grandma told her she would have to wear a back brace if she didn’t stand up straight that she didn’t slouch and try to hide it.
The high schoolers that she was coaching looked up to her as both an athlete and a strong woman in their lives, and that is something Burns-Cohrs really wanted to focus on outside of just basketball.
“I had one player in particular that just comes to my mind right now that contacted me — it’s probably been seven years — and I didn’t know this but she went through breast cancer that was pretty tough,” Burns-Cohrs said. “She said, ‘I need you to know that you helped me go through this because you showed me what a strong woman is.’ … Talk about touching your heart.”
Throughout her career as a player and coach, Burns-Cohrs was a role model, first as one of the best players in Iowa State history, then as a women’s basketball player trying to become a professional in a time where that was difficult to do, and finally as a teacher and coach.
With coaching, Burns-Cohrs carried a weight with her that wasn’t just balancing the difficulties of coaching a game she knew and loved, but also the difficulties of how important she was to young women growing up in high school.
Burns-Cohrs knows this and still feels it to this day.
“I just hope I had an impact in more than just basketball.”
“Where Are They Now?” is a new series by the Her Hoop Stats team that spotlights former women’s basketball players, their athletic careers, and what they have gone on to do since retiring from the game. Players previously featured in this series: Kelley Hunt (UConn), Suzie Miller (Harvard).