Earlier this month, Vermont’s John Becker became only the seventh man in NCAA Division I basketball history to win at least 20 games at the same school in his first six seasons as a head coach.
That remarkable run has its roots in the leap of faith Becker took in coming to the University of Vermont and the school’s willingness to trust the leadership of a man whose professional resume was far from overwhelming.
Vermont is 22-5 this season, 12-0 in America East play, and is riding a 14-game winning streak following Thursday’s victory over New Hampshire. The Catamounts have arguably their strongest team since the 2004-05 squad that stunned Syracuse in the opening round of the NCAA tournament and are locked in on returning to that event for the first time in five years.
Becker, 48, came to UVM in 2006 as director of basketball operations for Mike Lonergan, a friend and colleague from their ties to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. It was a part-time position that paid a pittance and was the lowest rung on the Vermont coaching ladder.
“I don’t remember what we were paying John at the time, but it wasn’t much, because we hired him to do some temporary work that was double what he was making in his basketball salary,” says athletic director Jeff Schulman, who was associate AD under Bob Corran at the time. “I think John took a pretty incredible risk to come here, a risk many of us would not have taken.”
Becker had worked in the computer industry after graduating from Catholic University and been an assistant and then-head coach at Division III Gallaudet University in D.C. But that was a part-time position that, after five years, had worn Becker down. He had started a family with his wife, Kelly, and working two jobs was too much.
“I felt like I needed to do just one thing,” he said. “I started my master’s degree at George Washington and I continued to move up the IT ladder, but I really wasn’t fulfilled.”
When a full-time assistant position opened at Catholic University in 2004 (where Lonergan had won the Division III 2001 national championship), Becker jumped at the chance and spent two seasons with the Cardinals. Lonergan, who had become an assistant at Maryland, was hired at UVM when Tom Brennan retired after the 2005 seasons and a year later reached out to Becker.
“My wife believed in me and my ability to coach and she knew this was my passion,” Becker said. “She was very supportive and we were ready for a change. If I was going to be a coach, the opportunity to move up to the Division I ranks was too good to pass up, despite the pay and the position.”
The first time the Beckers (with daughters Katharine and Ella) saw Burlington was the day they arrived with a U-Haul at the house they had rented online.
“We knew we’d made the right decision as soon as we got here,” Becker said. “My wife and our kids felt at home right away. We knew it was a special place.”
After two years as director of operations, Becker moved up to full-time assistant. Lonergan continued the success that Brennan had built at the end of his 19-year tenure, winning 20-plus games in four of his six seasons and left to become head coach at George Washington in 2011.
“The program was really healthy and strong and Bob [Corran] and I felt a lot of pressure to keep moving things in the direction we were going,” Schulman said. “We had several associate head coaches from high major programs who were interested and several very successful Division II and III coaches.”
Becker accepted the title of interim coach on the condition that he would have a chance to interview for the position.
“For me it was just to get the experience of having a Division I interview and going through that process for my own professional development,” Becker said. “I prepared hard and thought I did a good job of presenting a good case for why I should get the job but Bob and Jeff took a chance on me. Let’s face it, it was a risky hire. I wanted to be a head coach, but I was shocked when they offered me the position.”
Corran and Schulman interviewed three or four other candidates while continuing to consider Becker.
“We had candidates with far more experience and better basketball pedigrees,” Schulman said. “But one of the things I’ve learned in this profession is that the right choice for the University of Vermont isn’t necessarily the person who jumps out at you with his resume. We look for a philosophical fit, someone who has the same values we do as an institution for the scholar-athlete model. We look for someone who cares about the well-being of the students but is also very competitive and as our conversations with John continued, we realized he was the right choice for this job.”
Brennan, who has remained close to the UVM program in retirement, thought Becker “was the luckiest guy in America” when he was named head coach. But Brennan, who has a syndicated radio program on Sirius-XM, is one of Becker’s biggest fans.
“I’ve had four or five guys on the show, guys like [defending national champion coach] Jay Wright and [ESPN analyst] Doug Gottlieb tell me that this guy [Becker] can really coach,” Brennan said. “He’s a straight shooter — guys always know where they stand with him.”
Even though Becker led the Catamounts to a 24-12 record and the NCAA tournament in his first season, he remembers that as a stressful time.
“I felt this huge responsibility that I didn’t want to be the guy who dropped the ball,” Becker said. “That was what kept me up at night in May and June and what still motivates me now. And I wanted to prove that I could do the job.”
Becker’s teams are known for defense and rebounding.
“One thing I know about myself is I definitely see the game from a defensive approach,” he said. “I always look at what the defense is doing. Who’s getting the loose balls? Who’s the better rebounding team?
“Offensively, I am more willing now to look at things through a new lens and I’m more open to changing how we do things. What we don’t ever want to chance is our culture of defense and rebounding.”
Sophomore guard Ernie Duncan arrived in Burlington with a feared outside shot but dubious defensive skills.
“Defense is Coach Becker’s bread and butter, and I found out how important that was to him at the first practice,” Duncan said. “That’s why he wins, because every one of his teams is focused on defense and rebounding.”
Under the threesome of Brennan, Lonergan and Becker, Vermont has won 20 or more games in 16 of the last 20 seasons. No mid-major in New England comes close to that sustained level of success.
“What Vermont has done is amazing, probably the hardest thing to do at any level of college basketball,” said New Hampshire coach Bill Herrion. “At some point you lose a great group and you think you have to bottom out a bit. Vermont hasn’t.”
Herrion had a run in the late 1990s when he was head coach at Drexel University, reaching three consecutive NCAA tournaments behind forward Malik Rose, who went on to win two NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs. The Dragons haven’t been back to the NCAA since.
“I think you have to have a player-of-the-year caliber guy on your team to get things started,” Herrion said. “That allows you to recruit other good players and you build a culture of winning. I think what John Becker has done is a great job of identifying talent.
Vermont’s foundation of program-lifting players can be traced back to the Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine tandem at the turn of the century. They were followed by standouts like Mike Trimboli, Marqus Blakely, Brian Voelkel and Sandro Carrissimo.
Duncan is a leader on this current team, and freshman forward Anthony Lamb looks as if he could be a special talent. But UVM doesn’t have a single scorer in the top 15 in the conference and has not won a player of the week award this season.
“It’s all about team with Vermont — what they have are 10 players who can really play,” Herrion said. “It is so hard to develop serious depth at our level, but there are times when they go to their bench that they get better.”
If Becker had to settle on one variable to explain Vermont’s ability to avoid falling off their high perch, it is the type of player they have recruited.
“I listen to what players say is important to them, and I’m drawn to guys who value winning over anything else,” he said. “To be in our program you’re going to have to be unselfish and be willing to sacrifice for the good of the cause.
“I think we do a good job of staying in our lane recruiting-wise. We’ve been able to get a Vermont-type kid while always trying to find a slightly better version of guys you’ve seen in the past.”
Vermont’s national profile has been steadily rising and with it, Becker’s stock as a rising coaching star.
“I know there are other administrators out there who are incredibly envious of the success that we've had and have targeted John in the past and will continue to target him,” Schulman said. “I would never sit here and say John will be here for the rest of his career, guaranteed. But John is somebody who values not only achieving at the highest level but values the rest of the balance in life. My responsibility is to make this an attractive place for him in the long term.”
Becker said money and ego have never driven his decisions. Vermont gave him a shot and he’s a loyal guy.
“This is a great place to live, I have a great life here and I hope I’m smart enough to understand that you don’t mess with happiness,” he said. “Those things, I have a very clear understanding of. I also understand that there’s a window of opportunity in your life and there are certain situations that can radically alter your life. I have no idea of what my value is to anyone else. I love it here, I love my players and I am so focused on helping them achieve their goals and basketball dreams. It would take lot for me to leave here.”