All in a Day
by Jon Reidel G'06
It’s a little more than twenty-four hours before the Catamount men’s basketball team welcomes Siena for an early-season home game. Head Coach John Becker stares at a video screen as Kyle Cieplicki ’08, associate head coach, delivers a detailed scouting report on tomorrow’s opponent. Becker, who listens quietly as his three assistants offer insights, clearly appreciates the input.
“I encourage my guys to have a voice and articulate their ideas,” says Becker. “The jobs I had in the computer industry and coaching taught me that top-down leadership models with one person making all the decisions don’t work. I prefer a horizontal culture where everyone has ownership.”
Not so long ago, Becker, called “J.B.” by players and coaches, was on the other side of the desk making $10,000 a year as part-time director of basketball operations. Since taking over in 2011 from his longtime college friend Mike Lonergan, Becker has become the first coach in America East history to win twenty games in each of his first four seasons—a feat not accomplished by Hall of Famers Rick Pitino or Jim Calhoun when today’s AE was the ECAC North Conference.
Becker’s formula for success starts with the aforementioned daily meeting, followed by a players meeting and practice at 11:15 a.m. On this snowy December day, former coach Tom Brennan, who led the Catamounts to three straight NCAA appearances from 2003-2005, strolls into the office wearing jeans, a long black coat, and a fedora. He gives Becker a bear hug.
“I love this guy,” says Brennan. “I told him when he first got the job to relax a little—that I barely won any games my first three seasons. He turns to me and says, ‘Coach, I’m not gonna be measured by your first three seasons, I’m gonna be measured by your last three (America East Championships).’ That’s when I knew we were buds. But seriously, no one cares more about his players than J.B.”
One of those players, notes Brennan, is 2014 recruit Josh Speidel of Columbus, Indiana, who, during his senior year in high school, sustained traumatic brain and physical injuries in a car accident that almost took his life. Whether Speidel, who Brennan asserts is the most talented recruit ever signed by UVM, plays basketball again seems inconsequential. Regardless, Becker is firm that a scholarship still awaits the young man. “A lot of coaches wouldn’t do that, but that’s the kind of guy Becker is,” says Brennan, who writes Speidel a letter every Monday. “J.B. is all heart.”
On the surface, Becker projects quiet intensity. In practice—depending on the effort and performance of his players—that intensity can get loud. Today, Becker is clearly frustrated by his team’s lack of energy and understanding of his defensive scheme. He lets it be known with a few strategically placed expletives weaved into a series of pleading questions.
“Do you have any idea what you are doing out there? When is this gonna change? We are not going to win like this; so, if you are good with that, then we’ll just go through the motions and won’t win any games. You gotta play harder with more attitude. You gotta be nastier, make people uncomfortable on defense. You are too smart and too good to play like this.”
Play continues, but so do the mistakes. “Why do I even bother? I can’t watch anymore,” the coach laments. But then things take a turn for the better. The intensity picks up and so does the defensive help. Becker dishes the praise. “Good job! That’s what I’ve been talking about!” Nice work!” Tough love.
The team’s lone senior, Ethan O’Day, has seen Becker’s full psychological/motivational arsenal. “He’s an intense guy, but he also likes to joke with us and have us over for dinner,” says O’Day at the team’s pre-game breakfast at the Windjammer Restaurant. “He really cares about his players, so when he gets on us we understand that it’s because he wants us to succeed while we’re here and after we leave the university.”
It’s fewer than twenty minutes before tipoff, and Becker, natty in a gray pinstripe suit, enters the locker room from a side door. His players perk up as he points to the keys of the game on a whiteboard: get back on defense, rebound, be physical. “I’ve been hard on you, because I know what we can be and it’s frustrating when we aren’t. I believe we have the guys in this room to win the rest of our games. I truly believe that, so let’s go out there and do that today. Play hard, play smart, play together.”
Becker’s speech appears to have fallen on deaf ears as the Catamounts quickly fall behind 12-5. But just like in practice, they respond to some constructive feedback and go on a 19-5 run to keep within 36-33 at the half. The remainder of the game is close with UVM taking a 44-43 lead off a Kurt Steidl three-pointer. But Siena won’t go away until Trae Bell-Haynes, scoring eleven of his game-high nineteen points in the final five-and-a-half minutes, helps seal a 73-64 victory.
At the post-game press conference, Becker is relaxed and pleased. “I’ve been on the kids pretty hard this week,” he says. “But it’s awesome when they do what they are capable of doing, and it’s what makes this job really, really cool.”
Moment’s later, Becker’s players surround him in the middle of the locker room celebrating the victory. Brennan and former players Jeff Brown ’82, a UVM Hall of Famer and current coach at Middlebury, and Clancy Rugg ’14, on a break from his pro career in Luxembourg, join the celebration. Cieplicki cues some hip-hop on the sound system, smiles all around. But, no doubt, Becker and his staff are already starting to think about the coming weekend’s match-up with Harvard and the conference opener just days after. It’s a long road to March.