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."

Wake-up Call: Cubs surge into first place; White Sox continue slide

Wake-up Call: Cubs surge into first place; White Sox continue slide

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Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

Willson Contreras is playing his butt off right now for first-place Cubs

This really is becoming Willson Contreras' team.

The dude is absolutely on fire right now and has almost singlehandedly lifted the Cubs back into first place.

Since the All-Star Break, Contreras has crushed four homers and three doubles while driving in 11 runs in just eight games. 

The Cubs have won seven of those games, including Sunday night when Contreras' two-run shot in the sixth inning turned out to be the game-winner that pushed the Cubs into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers. (The Cubs also won the only game Contreras hasn't started since the Break.)

In the span of nine games, the Cubs have already erased the 5.5 game deficit they had in the National League Central entering the midseason break.

"He's just playing his butt off, literally, right now," Joe Maddon said. "Everything he's doing is pretty darn good. He plays with enthusiasm, also. You gotta feel that in the stands.

"There's some times he might get over-enthusiastic. I prefer toning people down as opposed to pumping them up all the time. He's doing everything. He's hitting fourth, he's catching, he's handling a really good pitching staff, he's throwing people out, he's blocking the ball really well and he's hitting homers, so God bless him."

Contreras' offense has been amazing, but Maddon credits the young catcher's block on a Wade Davis pitch in the dirt last week in Atlanta with helping to save the season. That play helped ensure a victory by not permitting the tying run to score from third base as the Cubs rattled off six straight wins to start the second half of 2017.

It's at the point now where Maddon cannot rationally find ways to get Contreras out of the lineup, even though the veteran manager is a huge proponent of rest and wants nothing more than to keep his players healthy and playing at a high level late in the season and into the playoffs.

Contreras is like the Energizer Bunny out there, hopping all around behind the plate to block balls, throwing guys out, pumping his chest, screaming obscenities at his first base coach after home runs. He even plays long toss (from the warning track in left-centerfield to about the spot the second baseman normally plays) before games with catching coach Mike Borzello.

The 25-year-old just does not turn down for anything when he's at the ballpark.

So does he ever get weary?

"I do get tired, but when I get home," he said. "When I'm here, I'm never tired. This is my job, this is what I love and you're gonna see me like that all throughout my career."

Contreras credits the Cubs coaching staff with helping him make the mental adjustments that has him in the conversation as one of the best catchers in baseball.

"He's growing up," Anthony Rizzo said. "He's really taking control behind the plate, which is nice. His at-bats just keep getting better and better and it's really fun to watch."

Contreras is on pace for 25 homers and 87 RBI, second only to Kansas City's Salvador Perez in both categories among catchers.

"He definitely has the abilities to be one of the elite catchers," Maddon said. "You gotta consider him one of the elite catchers in the National League already. Because he just does everything so well.

"The biggest next hurdle is just — without pulling him in too much — controlling his emotions a tad more without losing that enthusiasm that he has. Really understanding the game and calling the game and working his pitchers. 

"Mike Borzello does a great job with him. He started out this year and wasn't so good — missing his pitches, missing fastballs, fouling stuff off. But he stayed with it and now you see what he's capable of doing. He is really good right now and he's gonna get better."