Becker's leap of faith pays off at Vermont

From where John Becker sits today, as the head coach of a Vermont team that has name-branded itself into the basketball consciousness, the view is pretty good.

Forgive him if he enjoys it for a while.

“Everyone has goals and to finally realize them at a place like this, I do find myself pinching myself,’’ Becker said.

Head coach in the America East Conference is a good job, but usually it's just the beginning, the stepping stone to bigger and better things. And in due time, who knows? Maybe that’s exactly how this all will play out for Becker.

But he is in no hurry to move on to greener pastures. After all, just getting to this point has been hard enough.

It is cliché -- not to mention easy -- to say that a person will do anything to succeed in a dream career. But how many people faced with a pot-holed path opt for the easy-paved detour?

Becker could have done Easy Street a million times. Armed with a master’s degree and a background in IT, cash and simplicity always lived around the corner. Becker just never turned it.

Instead, because of a love for basketball and a sometimes masochistic determination to make it, Becker chose the road less traveled. His first job? Assistant coach at Gallaudet University, the nation’s leading university for the hearing impaired.

“I went to interview with Jimmy DeStefano, the head coach,’’ Becker said. “He’s deaf. I knew no sign language.’’

His second job: assistant coach at his alma mater, Catholic University, a Division III school.

Third job? Director of basketball operations at Vermont. Salary: $10,000. Benefits: zero. Children: two. Wife: saintly.

“It didn’t make much sense to anyone but us,’’ Becker admitted of his career move to Vermont. “But I’d known Mike Lonergan a long time and I knew he was going to win wherever he went. So I said, ‘Let’s go do this and figure it out,’ and my wife, she was on board.’’

For one season, they could make it. They could use the money from renting their house in Washington, D.C., to help with the rent for their Vermont home and maybe take a small loan or two from their parents. Kelly would get a job. Their cars, each with 200,000 miles on them, could survive another year and the family could live without new clothes and fancy dinners out for a year.

“You learn to wrap things individually,’’ Becker laughed. “If my kids got a hat and a pair of gloves for Christmas, that was three gifts.’’

But in April, when the coaching carousel usually spins people in and out of positions, no one on Lonergan’s staff left and so the Beckers’ frugality stretched another season.

By the end of that second year in 2008, Becker knew he and his family couldn’t do it anymore financially. When April rolled around, he found himself in the weird position of hoping that his friends would leave town.

And then it happened. Finally a spot opened and Becker slid over to a full-time, better-paying job.

It didn’t take long for Becker to prove his worth. A tireless recruiter, he helped the Catamounts land Brian Voelkel, the America East rookie of the year last season.

When Lonergan left for George Washington this spring, Becker was tabbed interim coach but few -- including Becker -- expected him to get the head-coaching gig.

But for a program that has enjoyed such a steady run of success, the continuity made sense.

“John is a very good X and O guy and really helped me with special in-game situations and on-the-bench coaching,’’ said Lonergan, who first crossed paths with Becker when Lonergan was head coach at Catholic and Becker his league rival coach at Gallaudet. “He’s inheriting an established program that returns a lot of good players. I’m confident that he’ll keep it going.’’

Becker knows exactly what his charge is. Thanks to the care, success and booming personality of state icon Tom Brennan -- not to mention one epic upset of Syracuse in 2005 -- Vermont established itself as a mid-major player six years ago. Lonergan tended to the Catamounts with equal success, adding his own NCAA bid plus two NIT berths.

Now the mantle is passed to Becker, whose resume includes but one head-coaching gig.

“It’s already caused a lot of sleepless nights on the job without playing any games,’’ Becker confessed. “I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself. The expectations are pretty high here and the expectations also are to keep this thing going.’’

Somehow, in the middle of his whirlwind ascendency to head coach and the demands, both internal and external, that Becker has faced, he found time to breathe. He and his wife hopped in the car and drove down state a bit, choosing a nice, quiet restaurant in a far-off hotel.

There, the two raised their glasses for a toast to the past and the future.

“It’s been an amazing ride,’’ Becker said. “And it’s really just kind of getting started.’’