GREENSBORO, N.C. – John Becker still was working two full-time jobs in March 2005, although on the 18th day of that month, he wasn’t working at all.
Like much of America, Becker spent that day in front of his TV watching the first round of the NCAA tournament. And he clearly remembers sitting with his family inside his Washington, D.C., home when Germain Mopa Njila and T.J. Sorrentine hit back-to-back 3-pointers in overtime, and No. 13 seed Vermont scored the biggest win in school history with a 60-57 overtime classic against fourth-seeded Syracuse.
On Friday at Greensboro Coliseum, Becker and his Vermont team try to top that victory by becoming the first No. 16 seed to win an NCAA tournament game. As wild as a win over top-seeded North Carolina would be for the Catamounts, it would be just another chapter in one of the craziest coaching stories you’ll ever hear.
John Becker is an IT guy who took an $80,000 pay cut in 2006 to become Vermont’s director of operations for $10,000 a year. And now, in his first season as the head coach, he’s facing off against Roy Williams and one of college basketball’s heavyweight programs on the sport’s biggest stage.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride,” Becker said. “It’s surreal. I was talking to Roy Williams in the meeting we had and he had watched our game against Lamar. It’s unbelievable. Because of my background – I’ve been in the real world and didn’t come from a coaching pedigree – I certainly appreciate all this.”
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When Becker arrived at Vermont, he was a 38-year-old married man with two children giving up a solid income by suddenly choosing to live below the poverty line. Today, Becker is 43 and making $160,000 more than when he arrived – and he’s coming off the program’s first NCAA tournament win (Wednesday, over Lamar) since that wild one in Worcester.
“It’s an unbelievable story and it shows the character he has,” senior forward Matt Glass said. “That really trickles down. Going through all that shows his dedication and willingness to work hard, and it sets an example for this entire program. It’s something people respond to.”
Before Becker was a basketball coach, he worked in information technology. Actually, he was an IT guy while he was a basketball coach. And he was a tennis coach, even though he didn’t know how to play the sport, and he was a graduate student, and he was an Internet broadcaster, and all he knew is that he really loved basketball.
Becker earned a bachelor of arts in history from Catholic University in 1990 and a master of science in information systems, with a major in business technologies, from George Washington later. He played basketball at Catholic – “I wasn’t a great player,” he says – and began a regular life after it ended. He started a job as a data entry clerk at Optical Society of America, never considering coaching as a profession.
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Toward the end of his fifth year working at Optical Society, a friend who was a coach recommended him for an assistant coaching position at Gallaudet, the country’s only four-year liberal arts college for the deaf and hearing impaired. Becker did not know sign language, had no coaching experience and his future boss, who interviewed him, was deaf.
He got the job.
“We were able to communicate somehow,” Becker said. “After that, I taught myself sign language, had help from another assistant, got tutors in the summer. I took a lot of pride in learning sign language.”
He kept his day job, his real job (he left Optical Society for a gig as a computer support specialist at Georgetown), while coaching at Gallaudet every night. He even took on the school’s tennis coaching duties for two years.
“I was never on a [tennis] team, never took a lesson. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he said. “I drove the bus for the kids and that was basically it. The thing I was best at was getting them to the site.”
After three years as a basketball assistant, Becker accepted Gallaudet’s offer to become the next coach. Two years and 44 losses later – while still working his day job in IT – he went back to graduate school with coaching in his rear-view mirror. The basketball hunger was fed by broadcasting Division III games on the Internet.
But a master’s degree from George Washington wasn’t enough to keep basketball from tugging at Becker. So he landed back on the bench, this time as an assistant at his alma mater, Catholic University, in 2004. When the director of operations spot opened on Vermont’s staff in 2006, Becker had to make a decision: keep the day job or go all in on the coaching profession.
His decision initially cost his family $80,000 per year.
“My wife was great about it,” he said. “It’s never been about money. It’s been about being happy. She’s a drama teacher and went to New York City after college to try to get on Broadway. She never got to Broadway but that was her dream. She knows all about following your passion. When this opportunity came up, she understood.”
Becker had worked his way up at Vermont and put himself in position to take over when Mike Lonergan left for George Washington after last season.
But his debut season has been as unconventional as his path to get here.
The Catamounts struggled through the first half of the season, sitting at 4-7 after a home loss to Iona on Dec. 17. Ten days later, the team’s record was the least of Becker’s concerns. At 6 a.m. on Dec. 27, Becker and his wife, Kelly, were awakened by a construction worker pounding on their door.
Their house was on fire.
They quickly ushered their daughters to safety, minutes before wrapping paper and boxes from Christmas gifts went up in flames.
“It wasn’t so much the fire, but the smoke quickly engulfed the house,” he said. “Five or 10 more minutes, who knows what would have happened?”
The family was forced to move into a condo, with their salvageable belongings – which wasn’t much – in a storage unit and at neighbors’ homes.
“We don’t have time to find a new place right now,” Becker said.
No, sir, right now Becker is concerned with a beast called North Carolina. Vermont is hot, winning 15 of its past 16 games (with the lone loss being a head-scratcher against previously winless Binghamton). The Catamounts knocked off Stony Brook on the road for the America East tournament championship, and handled Pat Knight’s Lamar squad in a play-in game Wednesday.
Of course, none of this matters against the Tar Heels. Becker told his team that mathematically, it can’t beat North Carolina: A 16 seed never has won.
“But Murphy’s Law says it’s going to happen at some point, and why not us?” he said.
Crazy talk? Absolutely. But so was that talk in 2006 about walking away from a stable career in technology for a $10,000-a-year coaching job in Vermont.
Becker, apparently, can turn crazy into gold.
“When you get out in the real world and you have jobs you don’t love, you realize the years start going by and life is short,” he said. “I wanted to do something I was passionate about, and basketball is something I am passionate about. Once you get into it, you realize how difficult it is to get a job, move up, get into Division I. You have to make a lot of sacrifices and your family makes a lot of sacrifices.
“But it’s paying off now.”
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- John Becker