James “Leon” Burtnett passed away peacefully on Tuesday, June 1, 2021 two days after celebrating his 78th birthday. Known as “Coach”, he was born to the late Dorothy & Kelley Burtnett in Fresno, California on May 30, 1943.
However, his formative years were spent in east central Oklahoma.

Leon was part of an extended family with an Indian heritage who spent much time together. He dearly loved his Morrow family. They were his foundation.

Leon attended Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas playing both football and tennis. Upon graduation, he began his coaching career at Mt. Hope High School in Kansas in 1965.

As a football lifer, his career stretched six decades including stints at Colorado State, Montana State, Washington State, Wyoming, San Jose State, Michigan State, Purdue University, Indianapolis Colts, Fresno State, Northeast Louisiana, Arkansas State, University of Houston, and the University of Montana. He spent 10 years at Purdue University where he made his mark in college football and became known for his “junk defense”. Leon was recognized as Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1984. Over the years, his teams were invited to multiple bowl games including the Peach Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Armed Forces Bowl, Liberty Bowl, and the Blue Bonnet Bowl. Leon was honored to be invited to coach at the Blue Gray game and the Hula Bowl. He spent 5 years at Indianapolis Colts, where he coached hall of fame running back Eric Dickerson. Leon recruited and coached many future NFL Players including Rod Woodson, Jeff George, Jim Everett, Cris Dishman, and Keena Turner. He also had notable names that learned under him who eventually got head coaching jobs of their own including Joe Tiller, Kevin Sumlin, Tim Brewster, Bobby Williams, and Brock Spack.

Upon retiring from a very successful career in football, Leon was an accomplished sales professional at Central Chevrolet Cadillac in Jonesboro, AR.

Leon was known for his deep love of his family, friends, and dogs. Professionally, he was credited with making life changing impacts on others and teaching valuable life lessons to his players and coaches. Leon was a player’s coach.

His competitive spirit, orneriness, witty personality, and daily phone calls will be missed by his friends and family. Leon was beloved and respected.
He is survived by his wife of 20 years, Karen Merryman-Burtnett of Jonesboro, His children Kyle (Shannon) Burtnett, of Southlake, TX; Ryan (Scott) Fisher of Indianapolis, IN; & Brooke Burtnett of Fishers, IN. Brother Tom Burtnett of Arkansas. Step-children Daron (Lindsey) Merryman of Little Rock, AR; Leigh Ann (Doug) Maglothin of Jonesboro, AR; & Drew (Kelli) Merryman ofJonesboro, AR. Grandchildren Tyler & Brady Burtnett; Lizzie Fisher; Riley, Maliyah & Maverick Merryman, Evelyn, Vivian & Dylan Maglothin, and Eli, Issac & Millie Merryman.

Leon is also survived by his friend and former wife of 25 years, Cecilia Burtnett (Ceewee Johnson) of Sonora, Texas.

Visitation was held at Emerson Funeral Home on Saturday, June 5, 2021 service followed with Chris Harrell officiating.
Pallbearers include Robb Akey, Jack Beery, Cris Dishman, Bill Doba, Craig Ebershoff, Hank Evans, Jim Everett, Randy Fichtner, Jeff George, Jim Jeffcoat, Robin Pflugrad, Kacy Rodgers, Ray Sherman, Brock Spack, Kevin Sumlin, Rod Woodson, Ray Wallace, Don Yanowsky, the team at Central Chevrolet Cadillac, Bill Keith, & Gary Loggins.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to be made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.