John Becker could have ended up being a lot of things other than a Division I basketball coach. A computer wizard. A part-time Division III coach. A longtime assistant coach. Someone who never played the sport, but one who coached tennis at Gallaudet.
Luckily for the Vermont Catamounts, he is nothing other than their head coach.
“I did coach tennis there (Gallaudet) for two springs,” Becker told FanRag Sports. “Trying to make a little bit of extra money.”
That’s where Becker’s story starts.
In 1994, he was an assistant coach for the D-III school in Washington, D.C. His roles as an assistant basketball coach and tennis coach were both part-time jobs. No one envisioned him eventually becoming a man who would lead a program to two NCAA Tournament trips … and counting.
“No. I never thought I would be in the position I am now,” the coach said.
Becker’s rise wasn’t lateral. Unlike many other Division I head coaches, it wasn’t built on some assistant stops, then a growing string of successes that resulted in him becoming the face of Vermont basketball. A series of personal decisions indirectly shaped the path he would follow.
“I wanted to coach. I though I’d be good at it,” Becker said while looking back. “It was a really challenging job.”
After being an assistant at Gallaudet, Becker took over the head coaching position for the 1997-98 season and held the post for two years. He wasn’t wrong about it being a tough job, either: The man who has won at least 20 games in each of his seasons with the Catamounts managed to earn only six wins over the course of two years with Gallaudet.
A variety of non-sports priorities began to take precedence in Becker’s life, causing him to leave the sport for a few years. His eyes wandered toward the information technology field, all while he was starting his family. A dream he once had was forced to the backseat in favor of being a responsible adult who put others’ needs and wants in front of his own.
“Didn’t have a lot of success coaching early,” Becker stated. “I realized (as I was starting a family) that I needed to focus on one thing. The computer business was more lucrative at the time. And I was starting a family. This allowed me to spend more time at home. So, I left coaching for a few years.”
That’s the funny thing about dreams, though: No matter how lofty, unrealistic or far-fetched some may seem, they don’t vanish simply because life happens.
“Then I realized I wanted to get back into coaching,” the two-time AEC coach of the year said. “(My family was) very supportive. My wife encouraged me to do it. She pushed me back into it. She knew it was what I wanted to be doing and should be doing.”
Still, we are a long way from Becker becoming one of the hottest mid-major coaches in the country.
In 2006, he joined the Vermont basketball staff as a director of basketball operations. He filled that role for two years before being promoted to an assistant coach. At the time, future George Washington coach Mike Lonergan was turning the Catamounts into an AEC power in a way that resembled the end of the Tom Brennan era.
It was in 2011, however, when things began to break in Becker’s direction.
Lonergan was a hot commodity. Schools around the country wanted him, and George Washington was able to secure his services. This didn’t inherently mean Becker was next in line to be the head coach at Vermont. One domino fell in front of him:
“It was (surprising),” Becker recalled. “There were some people above me in seniority, but one of those guys chose to go down to D.C. to be with Mike (Longergan). I was really surprised when they chose me, but I went through the interview process and I think they wanted some continuity.”
A former tennis coach who never played tennis competitively, and who won a total of six games over two seasons in Division III, was given the keys to a Division I car. Becker was going to take over at a program that was red-hot at the time. It could have, very easily and quickly, soured.
“For the first couple of years, I felt an amazing amount of pressure,” Becker said. “I didn’t want to be the guy that dropped the ball.”
Year one of the John Becker era at Vermont? He led the Catamounts to their second NCAA Tournament appearance in three seasons after winning 24 games.
In each season since the 2011-12 campaign, he has averaged 23 wins while Vermont has finished no worse than third in the conference.
The relative insanity of this hasn’t been lost on the coach.
“I have been (able to appreciate how far I’ve come),” Becker said. “I spent a lot of this year just appreciating how far we’ve come, and how big Vermont has come as a basketball program. Maybe you don’t get to appreciate it as much as you should, but maybe after the season we’ll look back on all we’ve accomplished.”
Having a sense of gratitude shouldn’t concern the Vermont faithful. Despite the craziness that is about to loom over the program when the NCAA Tournament officially begins, the task of playing well in the Big Dance is still important.
“This group won’t be distracted,” Becker said in reference to his surprisingly young roster. “These guys will be focused.”
As for winning the AEC Tournament, with Selection Sunday’s slate of games happening while being interviewed, and taking it all in:
“It’s been surreal,” he said. “We’ve had a great year. And there’s been some media. But when you get to the NCAA Tournament you get to the next-level. This is amazing.”
If nothing else, John Becker — during a time of hardship for many — is the embodiment of the sometimes cliched American Dream… or at least, what it should be, which is sometimes not all about oneself.
He held on to what he wanted to do, while finding time to sacrifice his hopes for others, and still found a way to obtain them.
Now, if only Andy Roddick gave him a call about getting some help with his backhand…