Head Men's Basketball Coach – Pratt Cannoneers
Just over a year ago as I got on a plane headed to Indianapolis for the Final Four, I was lucky enough to be seated next to John Becker, the head coach of the University of Vermont. It was a connecting flight from Detroit to Indianapolis, so a tiny little plane and Coach Becker was stuck shoulder to shoulder with me on the two-seat side of the plane as we bounced through about 45 minutes of turbulence.
Luckily enough, Coach Becker happened to be one of the all-time good guys in this business and not only dealt with my pestering him with basketball/coaching questions for the whole flight, but he remembered me and has been great when I see him out on the road at events.
He was kind enough to give up a few minutes of his evening the other night to answer my questions on Vermont’s season, coach at a college for the deaf and hard of hearing, his path through Division III and lots more.
Coach Sass: You’re currently the head coach at Vermont, but you actually have roots in Division III, which some people may not know. Could you talk about your rise in this business, because I think it’s a little bit unorthodox?
Coach Becker: I went to Catholic University and a couple of my classmates at Catholic were Mike Lonergan who’s now the head coach at George Washington and Jimmy Patsos, who’s now the head coach at Siena. We all ended up at the same college together and were friends there, but a couple years after graduating Catholic in 1990, I thought I wanted to coach and I started working University of Maryland camp. Jimmy Patsos was an assistant, kind of running the camp for Gary Williams, so he got me a job at the camp. And it was after my second summer of working the camp that Gallaudet University, their head coach there – which a Division III school for the deaf and heard of hearing in Washington, DC, where I was living – he was looking for assistants, so he reached out to Jimmy Patsos, because they knew each other and Jimmy recommended me.
I went over and interviewed with a deaf head coach. I didn’t know sign language, but we were able to communicate. I was able to get the job and ended up spending my first five years in coaching at Gallaudet University, three as an assistant and then the last two as the head coach at Gallaudet. Through my time there I learned sign language and became fluent in sign language and just had a really unique and interesting and what ended up being very beneficial first job in coaching. Then starting a family and getting out of coaching after five years at Gallaudet, for a couple years. I got my Masters at George Washington, then went back to Catholic University, where Mike Lonergan had been head coach and won a national championship and at that point had moved on to the University of Maryland for a year and then up here to Vermont. I spent two years at Catholic on the staff with Steve Howes, who’s still the head coach at Catholic University and has had a very successful 11-year run at Catholic following Mike Longergan, and I was his head guy for the first two years of that. After two years, we made the NCAA Tournament the second year and at that point Mike Lonergan had made his way up to Vermont as the head coach. After his first year at Vermont, one of his assistants took a head D2 job and he had an opening on his staff and he offered me the Director of Operations job.
So at 38-years-old, I packed up my wife and two kids and we moved up from Washington to Vermont for a $7,000 a year, no benefits job. After two years, I became an assistant for three years and then I was fortunate enough to be promoted to head coach of Vermont and kind of the rest is history. I guess it wasn’t until — I was Operations guy at Vermont for two years at 38 – so it wasn’t until I was 40-years-old that I coached full time and get benefits and have a salary. I think it was $40,000 a year salary that was my first paid full-time assistant gig at Vermont. All the five years at Gallaudet, two years at Catholic and the first two years at Vermont were part-time jobs and the whole time in Division III as far as coaching, I worked a full time job somewhere else and coached for part time pay, but we all know it’s a full time job work capacity. It wasn’t until I was making 40-something grand a year with benefits, then I could finally say I had a full-time job in coaching. So it’s all worked out great at this point, but a lot of sacrifice by me, and my family certainly, getting to this point.
Sass: The thing that really strikes me the most is your five years at Gallaudet. You mentioned it a little bit, but can you talk more about how challenging that experience might have been? How did you guys end up doing? And do you find that learning American Sign Language, and that experience over five years, has turned you into a better communicator as a coach now?
Becker: I think that was it. I think it didn’t really know what I was getting into; I was a little naïve taking the job. I was happy to just have a coaching job and right out of college. Once you get inside the walls of Gallaudet, there’s the expectation that everyone signs and speaks their language. It was challenging with the players, [my] not knowing sign language. Some of them would read lips, some of them wouldn’t, some of them would communicate with them if you were trying, but couldn’t sign, they would read your lips. Others would not communicate with you unless you really could sign, so it was interesting navigating that world. I could have used an interpreter to communicate with the guys, but I really felt it was important that I took the time and learn sign language. So I had a tutor [and] really tried to immerse myself in their culture, out of respect, to really make sure that I was meeting them at their level. I learned sign language and became pretty good at it and that enabled me, ultimately, to become the head coach for a couple of years.
It is probably the hardest coaching job in the country. You can only recruit hard of hearing kids, so your pool is much smaller. You play in a very competitive league, the Capital Athletic Conference, where Catholic was, at the time, a dominant team. Was a one, two, three bid league at different times with Goucher College and a lot of good schools in there in the mid ‘90s. There was a lot that we had to try to overcome, not just the communication and language barrier in playing against hearing teams, but the psychological – the belief that we could compete night in and night out with some of the better Division III teams in the country. The success, as far as wins and losses were never there, but it certainly made me a much better coach and appreciate communication and verbal communication much more.
Basketball is a game that is a lot easier, a lot more efficient when you can coach guys through things as they’re playing and at Gallaudet I couldn’t do that. I basically had to set up a play and tell the defense or offense what we were going to do, each guy and really let them go from there. You can’t really stop it once you started it from there and remember what 10 guys do and then set it back up and try to teach the good and bad that guys might have done. It really challenged you mentally, especially because the language wasn’t second nature to me, so it was really a lot of mental effort trying to figure out what I wanted to say and then figure out if I can use the signs to say that or change what I knew how to sign and then on top, trying to remember what each person did or didn’t do. And I was working a full-time job, so when I got home by 8 or 9 at night, I was exhausted mentally.
It was very challenging, but as far as communication, a lot of my plays now, I have signs for that are real signs. Part of the challenge of coaching is putting a name to the things you want to do, putting a name to the play, putting a name to the defensive coverage, coming up with something that isn’t completely obvious or the other team’s going to know by the play you call out or the coverage or whatever. Sign language has been helpful, because one thing at all levels that’s interesting, is a lot of times we are able to verbally communicate with the guys out on the court in places where they don’t have big crowds, but for half of our games that are in bigger arenas or louder environments, you have to have a sign for each one of your plays so that you can communicate with your guys what that play is when they can’t hear you. So that’s something that as I’ve gotten into this role, we’ve played in bigger games and Tournament games and championship games and wherever we’ve played we’ve taken the time to associate a sign with each play and it’s nice to know, for the most part, what the sign is for the name of our plays. I’ve had a lot more fun with my team delving back into my sign language skills and really teaching them a sign here or there for a play, but then explaining and teaching them a little bit about sign language. It’s certainly made me a better coach and it’s certainly made me appreciate the power of communication.
Sass: I want to go back to something you said earlier, which is that you didn’t get your first full-time coaching job in basketball until you were 40-years-old. I feel like the current trend has been with the young phenoms, the young head coaches. Do you think that being older and possibly wiser benefitted you on your path and what do you think of this new trend?
Becker:I certainly think that when I was coaching at Gallaudet, I was basically 25 to 30. So I was a head coach when I was 28, 29, 30-years-old. We all think we know more than we do. I was naïve enough to think that I could do the job at 28 or 29. So certainly I learned. That was a really important thing for me to go through and kind of learn and the thing that I took most from that experience, the first three years at Gallaudet, I worked for a guy named Jimmy Destefano who was my mentor. He was short – tempered, kind of volatile, kind of a screamer, intense and a great coach. And all of these are compliments. But when I got the head coaching job, I tried to be him and I tried to coach like that, because I saw how effective that was for him and I tried to coach like him. And I think what I learned by the end of those two years being a head coach was that I had to be me. I had to be true to myself and players and people can see through the BS and see through you not being authentic. So that’s what I really learned from that experience. I don’t think age really matters.
If you’re young, and there’s a lot of people that you’ll meet that are mature beyond their years and are ready and I don’t think age should necessarily be a delineator of when you are or are not ready. With my story, what I hope people can understand is that – especially in this business, the frustrating thing is that you never know when your opportunity is going to come and there is no path, there is no sure thing. It’s not A to B to C. You don’t know where or when your opportunity is going to come and you have to be able to take chances. Most people aren’t willing to put their family in a car and move 1,000 miles away for $7,000 and no benefits. People want a sure thing and especially coaching, you can’t chase the money. In life you can’t chase money. I tell my players that all the time as they go out after graduation.
I encourage them to try to find their passion and find what they’re good at and what they’re interested in and hopefully those things can be married some way and chase that. Chase what you’re good at and what you like doing or think you may like doing. Chase that and you’ll be good at it and the money will come. As opposed to too many people, and I’ve been there and I know the feeling, get caught up in what their peer group are doing and how successful monetarily or status-wise they’re doing and comparing themselves and trying to keep up with that in a certain level, instead of really trying to find out what you want to do and what you’re good at and all that other stuff will follow. I always had that approach and been fortunate that things could have ended very differently, but it didn’t and I encourage people to find their passion and love and something that they’re good at. It helps if you’re good at something. You’ve got to be good at it. I’d love to be the lead guitar player for a rock band, but I don’t know how to play guitar so that’s not something that I should go after. But anyway, that’s what has been my kind of M.O., my personal philosophy and was fortunate that I married a woman that kind of had the same philosophy and was willing to go along with this. It enabled me to stick with this and try to really make it happen. It helps when you have people around you, my family, that believe in you before I did and so that certainly helps and you have to be fortunate with the people you surround yourself with.
Sass: I want to ask you about Vermont. You guys had a great run through the America East Tournament and obviously it would have been great if you could have held on and gotten the automatic bid in the championship game, but it was a bit of a rocky ride throughout the season, wasn’t it?
Becker: Yeah, we had a growth year. We had a lot of young guys and we went through a lot of stuff as far as guys learning what it means to be a good teammate and learning to sacrifice and learning to identify a role, accept a role and execute a role. So we went through some ups and downs and it kind of came to a head in January when we really lost a couple in a row and lost to UMass – Lowell on the road and gave up 100 points. We really weren’t anything what we were, as far as the chemistry and the values and the things that we had established over a long period of time in the program. Some hard conversations and some real soul searching and to the guys’ credit we kind of came out through it a stronger unit and really won nine out of our last 11 games and really started to play really good basketball and just became a team. Like you said, we were up 15 with 13 minutes to go in the championship game on the road against Stony Brook and weren’t able to finish it off, but then were able to turn around and win a couple games in the CBI and make it to the semifinals of the CBI before losing at Nevada.
We really put ourselves in a position now moving into the offseason where we feel, as a program, really good with where we are – like we reestablished our identity and we only graduated one player that played. We had a grad transfer from Middlebury that didn’t play, but we have one guy starting, Ethan O’Day, that graduated and everyone else is coming back. We have two kids sitting out, transfer from Tulane, and we have a high profile recruit coming in from Rochester, so we think we are positioned pretty well to make another run at it. It was a really good year as far as growth for me and the whole program. Those are the years that you have to go through those things sometimes and the level of success that we’ve sustained as a mid-major program is really, really hard to do and have eight straight 20 win season and I think 11 out of the past 13 years have 20 win seasons. But eight straight postseasons and I think we’ve been in five of the last eight finals, championship games in our conference. It’s just been amazing and to go through all of that and still win 23 games and make the championship, it speaks to our program and to where we’re at and it’s good for me to just remember that you can’t take anything for granted. You constantly have to be working on relationships and constantly working on the chemistry and all those things. It was a real rewarding year as far as where we started and where we ended up, so I’m excited for the future.
Sass: I think a lot of people view the America East as a conference with a reputation for being more defensive minded and physical and rough. Do you feel that is something that fits your coaching style?
Becker: Yes and that’s a great question and you’re absolutely right. I tell our guys all the time that it’s a very, very physical league and a tough league and defensive minded is all the things it is. And those are all the things that I am. Because of our success we’ve continued to be able to recruit a little bit better player every year, a little bit more talented, beating out a Missouri Valley for a kid or beating out an Atlantic 10 for a kid. We’ve been able to do that as our success continues and we continue to establish ourselves and I continue to have a resume as a head coach. The thing that I worry about as we do that, is continuing to make sure we are attracting the same type of kids as far as blue-collar work ethic, toughness, team-oriented guys. I think that can be the challenge sometimes and you see it a lot with programs that have success and they kind of get out of their lane as far as the type of kid they want to have in their program. We’ve done a pretty good job staying in our lane with our profile of kid we like, but just getting a little bit more talented version of that kid every year. And that’s something that I really talk to my staff about all the time, making sure we stay true to who we are and what we are.
But I think as a league that’s what we are, but as time goes on and more rule changes happening, it’s just becoming more of an offensive minded game. I won in 2012, my first year, with a great defensive team. It was a struggle for us to score and certainly that can wear you down and your margin for error becomes very small, so we tried to get a little bit more offensive-minded players and a little bit more dynamic on that side of the ball. We’ve been able to do that, but this year at least our defense took a huge step back. Offensively we took a step forward, but defensively we took a step back. It’s constantly finding that balance and I think it’s still that type of league, but at all levels the hardest thing to find is really good bigs. Some teams are bigger in our league; some teams play four guard lineups. Even college basketball in general, Villanova won it this year with a 6’6” four-man Kris Jenkins that’s like a guard. It’s a fun league to coach in, because there’s a lot of different styles and it isn’t as kind of slugfest, grind it out, tough games like it used to be, but here’s something we talk about too. You look at the top four teams in our league the past couple years: Stony Brook, Albany, New Hampshire and us, we just happen to be the four biggest teams, the four best defensive teams, the four best rebounding teams. So that formula still seems to work in our league.
Sass: The last thing I want to ask you Coach is about recruiting. You mentioned that you guys have been able to continually recruit a more talented kid as you get better and better, what advice would you have for any coach reading this? In terms of recruiting advice you hear that it’s all about relationships, but I think sometimes you have to go out of the box and if you’re going to beat out an Atlantic 10 team sometimes you have to do something unorthodox. So what would your advice be?
Becker: I think what’s really important in recruiting is [asking yourself] ‘What are you selling?’ and ‘Who would be interested in that?’ When it comes to recruiting, a lot of it is, from a player’s perspective, what opportunity am I going to have to play early? Who’s at my spot? What does the depth chart look like? What’s my opportunity going to be to play right away? Because all kids want to play right away. Academically, is it a good fit? You’ve got to be careful about trying to take a kid that isn’t going to be able to be successful academically, because that’s going to drain your resources, cause a lot of anxiety and stress on that kid. They’re not going to be able to be successful in that capacity – it’s going to affect them in the basketball part no matter what. You’ve got to make sure that it’s a good academic fit and then from a basketball perspective, is that what they’re looking for and what are you selling them? The nice thing here is that I was able to – I was Operations for two years, assistant for three years and now I’ve been here 10 – plus years – I know exactly what we are at Vermont. I know the type of kids that are going to like Vermont; I know the type of kids who are not going to like Vermont. I know who’s going to be successful here, who’s going to be interested here and so it’s very important.
People think relationships, this, that and the other thing, but at the end of the day these kids, they have to know what you’re selling and it has to be what they’re looking for. And I think if you can figure that out you can be much more efficient in recruiting and you don’t waste your time on kids that you think, that kid’s a great kid and he’s a really good player, but you know what, no matter how much I want it to work, it’s just not going to. And be able to walk away from there. There are a whole lot of kids out there and there’s so many good players now. It’s finding the one that’s right for you and for them, providing the right opportunity for them. Really taking the time, figuring out who you are and what you’re selling and what kids are looking for, you can become very efficient. Now, we get to the point where I don’t recruit 100 kids, I don’t recruit 50 kids. If we have two spots, we’ll recruit five kids. We become very efficient, because those five kids I know are a good fit and I know that there’s going to be a chance we can get them. We become very efficient at the recruiting piece. Shoot, I’d like to chase a kid that called us back, but he’s got five Big East schools and two A – 10s. Yeah, he’d definitely be interested in us. It’s like yeah…no. If the kid’s from Newark, New Jersey – as much as I want to hang in there and hit the home run with that kid, it’s not a good fit. Even if they came here they’d have one foot out the door as soon as they got here.
So anyway, I think that’s something. You can’t do it all. I know a lot of programs that recruit hundreds and hundreds of kids. I also think it’s really important to find the kids you like and are a good fit and really just go hard at them and develop deep relationships with the kid and with the parents. As opposed to recruiting 100 kids and you talk to them once every month or once every three weeks or once every two weeks, it’s five kids that you talk to every day. That’s worked for us. We have a lot of good things to sell. We’re lucky. Kids want to go where they can go to the NCAA Tournament and we’ve done that a bunch and where they can win and where you can get a great education and where it’s a great college town. We’re blessed; we have a lot. Everyone’s got to figure out what they have to sell, because they’ve got something to sell and find the kids that you’re a good match for and don’t waste your time on stuff that’s not going to come to fruition. And I think that’s what experience gives you.