After a rocky start to the season, John Becker, in his first year as head coach, led the University of Vermont's Catamounts on a 10-game winning streak during conference play, capping the year with an America East Championship and a win over Lamar University in the First Four of the NCAA tournament. It was Division I Vermont's second NCAA win in 100 years. And for Becker, 43, it was validation of a risky career move five years earlier, when, married with two daughters, he swapped the security of his IT job for a $10,000-a-year position as the Catamounts' director of operations. It wasn't the first time Becker had switched gears or demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt. In the 1990s, Becker became the second-ever hearing coach at Gallaudet University, the country's only four-year school exclusively for the deaf. Here, he explains how two decades' worth of "real world" experience and risk-taking prepared him for Division I success.
FAST COMPANY: How did you end up coaching at a school for the deaf?
JOHN BECKER: I had a very uneventful college basketball career. After graduating from Catholic University with a degree in history in 1990, I fell into a job doing data entry and IT support at a nonprofit in Washington. After a few years there, I started coaching basketball at summer camp, and found out Gallaudet was looking for an assistant coach. The guy who interviewed me was deaf. He could read lips, but I didn't know sign language. Somehow we managed to communicate, and I was hired on the spot—$4,000 for a part-time position. I stayed there five years and was promoted to head coach in my last two years.
How did that experience inform your coaching?
One thing I prided myself on at Gallaudet was being really respectful of deaf culture. I wanted to become self-sufficient in sign language without needing an interpreter. It took me two or three years to figure out, but I did. It changed the way I communicate. Signing is beneficial in many situations—especially in basketball when it's loud and guys can't hear me yelling from the bench. I teach the guys a sign here and there, stuff I do instinctively now that were signs for plays I would call. When you sign, you're able to communicate. I'm able to be calm on the bench, which is sort of contagious with the players.
It also taught me to be a better teacher. A lot of teaching in basketball happens on the fly, while the guys are playing and you're barking out moves and correcting them. At Gallaudet, I had to sign each player what he needed to, with my limited sign language vocabulary, and once I started the play I had no control. At the end, you'd have to put everyone back in their spots and then sign them what they needed to change. What takes a half hour in hearing practice would take two hours. That gave me a really strong appreciation for communication—how important it is, and how easy it is now in comparison.
You worked in IT for years. Why did that appeal to you?
Working with computers is very logical. I liked solving problems and I guess I was pretty good at it. My whole time at Gallaudet, I worked full-time doing IT support at a couple of places. I worked from 7 to 3 and coached in the afternoon. After I got married and my older daughter was born, that was too much. I went to George Washington University's School of Business and got a master's degree in information systems and went on to run IT for a startup that did custom manufacturing of printed circuit boards, with six people working under me. Then I was IT director for a manufacturer of promotional products. We did some pretty innovative stuff for the time, and I had plenty of work opportunities. But I wasn't passionate about it. All of a sudden you're in your 30s with a wife and kids, peeling the months off the calendar—you realize life's too short.
How does your background set you apart from other Division I coaches?
People who go right into coaching and never work another job, I think they're not as well rounded and sometimes have a hard time dealing with people outside their sphere. A lot of days a coaching job is just an office job—dealing with people, the bureaucracy, your staff. Being director of IT at a couple places has really helped me with that. My players know what I've been through and I think I provide a different kind of perspective. Most of them aren't going to be coaches, or pro players—when I talk to them, I can tell them what a real job is like. That most days you're not going to have 3,000 people cheering for you, so you'd better be passionate about what you're doing.
I'm also the IT guy's favorite person in the building—I always try to fix my own stuff and never call him. There's also a lot of cool technology for coaches that's been useful to us, like video editing systems for breaking down game film. Usually the assistant coaches figure it out and prepare everything for the head coach. I think we're different from any other basketball office in the country in having the head coach install the software and teach everyone how to use it, and they come to me for help.
How have you benefited from risk-taking in your career?
Most people would not have interviewed for or taken the job at Gallaudet. Even though people are climbing over each other to get into college coaching, 99% of people would think they didn't want to learn sign language, or see too many reasons not to do it.
When I came to UVM, I was making about $90,000 a year and my wife and I combined made close to $150,000. I took a $10,000 job with no benefits. The only thing I was confident of was that if one of the assistant coaches moved on, I'd get that position. It worked out, and two years later I became an assistant coach. I had to borrow money from my parents and we had to tap into our savings—but the timing of the opportunity, regardless of the money, kind of made sense. It's really hard to get to Division 1 level in basketball. From coaching part-time in Division III, I knew I'd have to crawl through mud for a little bit. I try to ally myself with winning programs and people who share my values, even that meant less money. You can't just follow the highest-paying job. Don't take the easy path. It's easy for a reason.
[Image: Getty Images]