HARTFORD — At 38 years old, John Becker moved with his wife and two young daughters from Washington DC to Burlington, Vermont as he pursued a new job.
The job? Director of Basketball Operations for the men’s basketball program at the University of Vermont.
The pay? $7,000 a year.
“How am I going to do this?” Becker thought.
It was 2006 and Becker spent the previous two seasons as an assistant at his alma mater, Catholic University. The Fairfield native had also worked in information technology, but he was focused on a career in college coaching. Maybe, just maybe, as a Division III head coach.
That was the dream.
Thirteen years later, the dream has been more than surpassed. Becker has been head coach at Vermont for eight seasons, leading the Catamounts to 193 victories as he’s earned American East coach of the year three times.
Vermont (27-6) is at the XL Center for his third NCAA Tournament berth and a homecoming for the Connecticut kid. Becker’s parents and brother live in Easton, with another brother still in Fairfield. His nephew, Matt Becker, played basketball for Fairfield Warde.
John, a 1986 Ludlowe graduate, expects a large contingent of friends and family as his team faces No. 4 seed Florida State Thursday. He has coached in the state before, but this appearance comes at a time when Becker is being touted as a rising star in the business.
And Becker appreciates just being in this business. The road to mid-major coaching stardom has been long and winding for a guy who nearly abandoned his dream a few times.
Start with his start in Vermont. As Becker and his wife, Kelly, tried to make ends meet — she was working part-time in education — he was tempted to simply find a permanent IT job.
In fact, Becker began to make more money at Vermont by doubling as the athletic department’s IT guy while still holding the basketball operations job during his second season.
“I was going around fixing all the coaches and staff people’s computers in the morning and then doing basketball operations stuff in the afternoons,” Becker said.
The Beckers fell in love with Burlington and wanted to raise daughters Katherine and Ella there, so John searched for an IT job. “I got close to leaving,” Becker said.
But a $40,000-per-year assistant coaching job opened up in 2008. Becker felt like he was moving in the right direction — toward a Division III head coaching job.
But Mike Lonergan left Vermont for the George Washington job in 2011, taking his top assistant with him. Becker was named interim coach, but he only accepted the role with the guarantee he interview for the permanent job.
Becker spent two years as head coach at Gallaudet in the 1990s, so he saw the interview as yet another piece of his resume.
“I thought my experience before as a head coach … I wanted to at least get an interview so I could say I interviewed for a Division I job,” Becker said. “I thought that could help me get a [Division III] job.”
In fact, Becker interviewed for the Vermont job and for the head job at Division III Colby on consecutive days. He got the Vermont job.
“I guess the rest is history,” Becker said.
Vermont has won 27, 27 and 29 games the past three seasons. Becker’s name has been attached to openings in recent years and he is considered a candidate for Fairfield’s opening, although a source said the school has not yet reached out.
Will Becker eventually leave for a bigger and better job? It will have to be the right job.
“I fell in love with Burlington and the community and the program,” he said. “It really fits me. It’s been really fun.”
What Becker has built is a mid-major power, a program that seemingly competes for an NCAA berth each spring. He won his 100th conference game this season, reaching the mark in his 120th conference game. Only three coaches in history have reached 100 conference wins in fewer games: Mark Few (112 games with Gonzaga), Aloph Rupp (116 with Kentucky) and John Chaney (118 with Temple). Bill Self of Kansas also won his 100th in 120 games.
The secret of his success? Becker is known for his basketball acumen and, notably, his ability to relate to and communicate with his players.
“Coach Becker is a competitor, a great person to relate to off the court,” Vermont senior Ernie Duncan said. “He did a good job balancing the life off court and on the court.”
Becker’s communication skills were honed when he coached Gallaudet, a school for the deaf. Becker didn’t know sign language when he joined the program as an assistant coach in 1994.
He taught himself to sign as a means to communicate with his players. He was 6-44 in two years as head coach, but the experience was invaluable.
“I took that really seriously and [was] really proud that, was able to communicate there,” Becker said. “ And, we take for granted the communication piece. And I never have since then, and we over-communicate in our program here, and understand the importance of that and the value of that and how easy it is for us.
“And the friendships I made there, and just to be part of that culture and part of that community, gave me a great appreciation for a lot of things that I have and that we have. You know, I stay hopefully a little bit a part of that community I bring forward with me, and it’s made me a better coach.”
Becker said he relishes the opportunity to step on the NCAA Tournament stage in his home state. He figures the last time he was at the XL Center was for an Eagles concert with his daughter, but his last coaching experience was as an assistant coach in 2010, when Kemba Walker scored 42 points in UConn’s 89-73 win over the Catamounts.
Now he’s back with the national spotlight on him. Vermont tips off against Florida State (27-7) at 2 p.m.
“It will be really, really neat to be able to coach out here and be the head coach in a NCAA Tournament game in my home state,” Becker said.