Becker has good DNA for coaching

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Becker has good DNA for coaching

Kurt Becker acquired his coaching mantra from two of the icons of college and professional football, Bo Schembechler and Mike Ditka. After being hired at East Aurora, his alma mater, he couldn't wait to expose his young athletes to a philosophy that they have never experienced before.

Winning.

East Aurora is to winning what the Chicago Cubs are to pennants. In the last 11 years, the football program has won six games. The Tomcats have lost their last 30 games. Oh-and-nine is as common as mustard on a hot dog. They haven't had a winning season since 2000. In fact, Becker played on one of the school's last winning teams in 1976.

Becker, 53, has a game plan to change the storyline. He outlined everything in detail last Monday when he met with all 75 returning players from all levels of the program. "They look hungry and they want to be coached," he said.

"My first message was that when the door closed, all that happened before was over and done and gone. I don't want to hear about it. The social problems that existed before don't exist in my world. Monday started a new day, a new program. Everybody started from the beginning. I have a vision and I shared it with my players. I'm holding it close to my vest. I'll let others figure out what we are doing."

But Becker promised one thing: "You won't see the ball being thrown all over the house." Becker was a two-time All-Big 10 and an All-America first-team offensive guard for Schembechler at Michigan. He played for Ditka's Bears for eight years, including the 1986 Super Bowl champion.

Becker's program will be based on tradition, not a shotgun offense or a cover-two defense. "My platform and what I will build my program on will be based on the fact that East Aurora was the first sanctioned school district in Illinois (1847) and our rivalry game with West Aurora is one of the oldest in the state (114 years)," he said.

"To me, those two elements add up to one thing--tradition. I came from tradition. I came from Michigan. I played for a school with tradition. I was captain there. And I was drafted by the Chicago Bears. (Ownercoach) George Halas was the founder of the NFL. That's tradition. I understand what tradition is."

Why did Becker decide to get back into football? When his son Garret was in sixth grade, he told his father that he wanted to try out for youth football. He made the squad. His father found himself walking on the sideline, watching his son play.

"I asked some of the other fathers: 'Have any of you coached football before?' I volunteered to help. They didn't know who I was. I wanted to be sure my son had a positive experience. As he progressed, I followed along coaching his teams in grade school and high school."

Garret, a senior at Marmion Academy in Aurora, will attend Miami (Ohio) as a preferred walk-on. He is a running back and linebacker. He isn't a blue chipper, like his father was, but Kurt is pleased his son had a good experience, played on successful teams, including a state runner-up, and has an opportunity to go to college to get a good education and play football.

"Sometimes it is difficult being a coach's son but he did a great job with it," Kurt said. "That's why I got into it, to be able to be a part of his career and enjoy it. It was special to me."

Becker enjoyed working on coach Dan Thorpe's staff at Marmion. When the job opened up at East Aurora, he hesitated. He liked what he was doing. He wasn't sure he wanted to assume the pressure of being the head coach at his alma mater. But people from the school district insisted. "You need to be the coach at East Aurora," they said.

"Everywhere we went, the subject came up," Kurt said. "Finally, my wife Gloria suggested that I start listening to them. I thought my direction was I wanted to coach in college. I wanted to be an offensive line coach in the Big 10. I pursued it a bit. I went to some campuses. But college football is a totally different world from the time I played."

In the end, Becker listened to his wife and longtime friend Steve Kenyon, an East Aurora graduate who had coached at East Aurora in the 1970s when Becker was a studentathlete and in the 1990s when school officials threatened to terminate the entire interscholastic sports program.

"He worked at Naperville Central for 19 years and just retired," Becker said. "He called and said I should apply for the head coaching job at East Aurora and he would be my assistant. He was the final piece to put it all together. Steve convinced me and I applied for the job."

Becker needed to be assured that he had more support than one dedicated assistant. And he was. School board president Annette Johnson, an East Aurora graduate, said: "We're tired of losing. The sports program has been neglected." She told Becker the the school district is committed to building a successful sports program.

"The district has given me oversight over the district's entire football player--11 grade schools, three junior high schools and the high school," Becker said. "All of them will be on the same page. We will create a feeder program that we never had before."

Becker pointed out that East Aurora has lost more than a few athletes to its eastern neighbors--Waubonsie Valley, Neuqua Valley and Matea Valley--over the years. But he insists he will create success and a winning attitude that will keep East Aurora kids at home.

His long-term vision includes the construction of a new multi-purpose stadium for football, soccer, track and field, lacrosse and youth football that will be for the use of the entire community. The goal is for the facility to be ready in two to three years.

"Usually I'd jump into things and wonder what I did to myself," Becker said. "But I took time with this. This is a serious matter. We are in Class 8A in football. If we want to operate at the Class 8A level, we must work 12 months a year. We'll have our own weight training room, meeting room and locker room in that facility.

"When success comes, bricks and mortar will follow. Part of putting together a successful program is bricks and mortar. The (current) stadium was build before the high school. We will build a new stadium that will be a landmark for the district, on the site of the old stadium. That is my ultimate goal, a facility that will attract kids who want to play on the field."

But Becker knows there are critics and skeptics and pessimists who haven't seen a winner at East Aurora since Ernie Kivisto's basketball teams of the 1970s and Scott Martens' basketball teams of the 1980s. They respect Becker's enthusiasm and they admire his pedigree. But that are keenly aware that a half-dozen previous football coaches haven't been able to finish above .500--or even above .000.

He has learned his coaching DNA from Schembechler and Ditka. He describes his coaching persona as "a no-nonsense guy, a disciplinarian, a teacher with high expectations." Just as Schembechler always referred to Ohio State as "those guys from the South," Becker always refers to West Aurora as "that school on the other side of the river."

From Schembechler, he learned organizational and motivational skills.

"Bo controlled everything. He ran practice with a finely tuned watch. We didn't do a lot but what we did we were good at. Perfection was the key. At the end of the day, we'd line up and people knew what we would run. Bo didn't care if they knew. 'My players are better than your players and my play will work,' he said. We outworked the competition," Becker said.

From Ditka, he learned how to be a fierce competitor, a level of toughness. His players may not be as skilled or as fast or as big or as strong as others in the conference, but they won't lack for toughness and competitive spirit. Old number 79 will see to that.

"People ask me: 'What has happened to the Tomcats?' Nothing has happened to them. Tradition never dies. But we have ignored it," Becker said. "My job is to re-ignite it with the kids, grab the Tomcat and shake him up and wake up the tradition. You can't buy it. You can't feel it or smell it. It isn't an entitlement. You have to earn it."

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Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.

When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.

“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”

This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.

Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.

Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.

“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”

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Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.

“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.

"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”

That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.

They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.

One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.

“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”