One of the premier programs in the America East has filled its head-coaching vacancy.
Friday afternoon, Vermont made it official with the news it was hiring assistant John Becker to replace Mike Lonergan as head coach of the Catamounts. Becker, who signed a four-year contract (the money was not disclosed), is now the guy replacing the guy who replaced The Guy. Said Guy was Tom Brennan, the longtime coach of Vermont who took the Cats to their first NCAA tournament.
Lonergan did a swell job replacing a local legend, especially considering that legend, Brennan, still lives in the area and for years had a successful morning-drive talk-radio show. (Personal touch: I grew up in South Burlington, Vt., and remember my father listening to it frequently on 101.3, the Champ.) Once he learned Lonergan was close to signing with George Washington, Becker had a sense things could turn this way, though he was reserved until it actually came to pass.
“Everything happened relatively quick,” Becker said of the hiring process. I spoke with him over the weekend about what transpired, how his life is already changing, and why he can keep Vermont atop the America East.
He was named interim head coach, wasn’t given any guarantees — even as an assistant — by the Vermont brass, should someone else be hired. A week passed between Lonergan leaving and Becker’s interviews with the athletic director and associated athletic director. In that time, he stayed close to Lonergan.
“Coach Lonergan was awesome to me through the process,” Becker said. "He was helpful, and that goes back to even before [the hiring process]."
The two have known each other for some time, and in fact were once rivals. Both attended D-III Catholic University, though not at the same time. Before Lonergan took the job at Vermont in 2005 he coached his alma mater in the Landmark Conference. Becker coached at a rival school, Gallaudet, when Lonergan was at Catholic. The colleges are a couple miles apart in the greater Washington, D.C., area. After one of Lonergan’s assistants left Vermont in 2006, Becker was invited to join his staff. In fact, Lonergan wanted to bring Becker down as an assistant, but with the Vermont job open and a lot of uncertainty, Becker chanced staying in the Green Mountain State and taking over.
Becker was in his office when he got the call: the job was his.
“When we considered current needs and future goals, John Becker stood out as the most qualified candidate to lead our men's basketball program and student-athletes. He brings unquestioned integrity, experience, and skill to the position along with a deep commitment to the values and vision of the Athletic Department and University,” UVM athletic director Robert Corran said.
Becker was the leader from the outset, and now that he’s replacing Lonergan, is there pressure? After all, this is a man who spent the past three years in Burlington as an assistant but is now taking on his first job as a head coach in D-I.
“I feel an amazing amount of pressure,” Becker said. “Lonergan was able to keep it going, which wasn’t easy, but being part of Lonergan’s era, I feel very comfortable with our ability to attract high-character, highly talented basketball players. I feel comfortable with our niche, our recruiting profile.”
The 43-year-old Becker has a similar coaching philosophy to Lonergan, too. Defense and rebounding will be the cornerstones of Vermont basketball, which has led the league or been at the top in nearly every relevant defensive statistical category in the past four years. Offensively, Vermont did run the flex under Lonergan; Becker will go with motion, high-low offensive principles.
The best news for Becker at the moment, he hasn’t lost any recruits yet. He did admit there is still some uncertainty, but overall he’s still optimistic everyone he helped recruit to Lonergan’s team will be a part of his.