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Becker's career gamble pays off with Vermont's victory in First Four

Dreams are a rote topic in March when the madness unfurls and buzzer-beaters fly, but sometimes reality is indeed almost too much to comprehend, as if ether has turned all to fantasy.

John Becker had that bug-eyed look Wednesday night, like a man who needed to be pinched, brought back to Earth from a fuzzy place where hope reigns supreme.

"I'm numb," the Vermont coach said.

His Catamounts had just won their First Four game in the NCAA tournament, 71-59 over Lamar (RECAP | BOX), and now Becker was being asked about having to play mighty North Carolina on Friday, and, well, it all just didn't seem real.

"It's just crazy," said Becker, a rookie head coach at age 43.

Four years ago, he was earning $10,000 as the Catamounts' director of operations, which at least fulfilled his soul if not his wallet by tethering him to the game he's loved since sleeping with a basketball as a child.

Becker had previously coached men's tennis, even though he didn't know how to play, and worked various information technology jobs just because he was good at them.

Yet his heartbeat always sounded like a dribble, causing him to hunt for basketball work, leading him to serve as an assistant coach for four seasons in the 1990s at Gallaudet University, the nation's top school for the deaf.

Becker even worked for a time as a weekend color analyst for Internet broadcasts of Division III basketball games.

"It's like a disease that doesn't get out of you," he said about basketball. "I had to get back in."

So he ditched his IT career, pursued his urge with a bloodhound's persistence, and ended up in Dayton on Wednesday night, leading Vermont to its second NCAA tournament victory in the school's 112 years of basketball.

The victory came less than three months after tragedy. His home in Burlington, Vt., caught fire Dec. 27. Becker, his wife and two daughters escaped only because a construction worker passing by at 6 a.m. saw the porch blaze and summoned the family. No one was injured, but much of their belongings were lost. They've since been living in a friend's condominium.

"If that construction guy hadn't knocked on the door, he wouldn't be here today," said Becker's father, John Sr.

Yet his son also wouldn't have been here, suddenly preparing for top-seeded North Carolina, if he had done what so many do and settled for less than he desired. It's always safer to not strive.

Becker couldn't keep himself from stepping out onto the high wire.

So much more than the house fire came to mind after Vermont's victory. There were all those prior jobs, all the longing for a night like Wednesday night, when a little school from the America East conference could earn a date with ACC royalty.

"It's like a little boy's dream," said Kelly Becker, his wife of 14 years.

Dreams can be so easily manufactured to fit moments in this endearing tournament, such as when South Florida basked in their own momentary glory last night in sweltering University of Dayton Arena.

South Florida radiated after its first NCAA tournament game in 20 years ended with the school's first victory, a 65-54 smothering of California (RECAP | BOX).

And dashed dreams were certainly evident among the night's losers, especially when Lamar coach Pat Knight choked up while discussing the end of the careers of his seven seniors, just three weeks after publicly ripping their heart and character.

"I'll be talking about them until the day I die, this group." Knight said. "I'm going to miss the 'under-the-bus gang', I can tell you that."

Passion existed in that raw moment of pain, and it was the type of feeling that grows between a coach and player.

Hurting is better than not feeling at all, something Becker could understand.

Twenty years ago, he was a data entry worker at the Optical Society of America. It wasn't enough.

Becker later worked as a computer support specialist while serving as an assistant basketball coach and tennis coach at Gallaudet. At the same time, he was pursuing a master's degree at Georgetown. Still not enough.

The beckoning of basketball landed him back at his alma mater, Catholic University, where he took an assistant coaching job at the Division III school. Not enough.

Becker ached to be in Division I.

"He'd go out every March and apply for [coaching] jobs," Kelly Becker said. "I had a deep faith that it was all going to work out."

Finally, Vermont called. The team needed a director of operations. Becker knew it meant taking an $80,000 pay cut for a job with no benefits.

"I had a flashback the minute this game was over," Kelly said. "I could see my husband sitting at the dining room table six years ago, looking up from a plate of spaghetti, and saying, 'What do you think about Vermont?' I'm a big dreamer, and I was ready to pack my bags and follow."

Becker wasn't so certain. They liked living in D.C., owned a nice house, had daughters ages seven and four.

"He was questioning it more than I was," Kelly said. "I said, 'Dude, you've got a long life ahead of you. You've got to enjoy it.' Life is too boring if you don't follow your dream."

The family moved to Vermont. Becker was 38 and had to borrow money from his parents.

"When I first helped him out, I thought I don't know," his father said. "I thought this might not be the best investment, but it's turned out to be the best investment I've ever made."

The payoff came last night in Vermont's victory. Becker had moved up to full-time assistant coach four years earlier, and then was named head coach in May when Mike Lonergan left for George Washington.

He cried at his introductory news conference.

"It's all coming up aces," Becker said Wednesday night.

The ante appears to be too high Friday against North Carolina. Vermont has won 15 of its past 16 games, but the Tar Heels are stocked with their usual NBA prospects. A No. 16 seed has never defeated a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Catamounts, however, were a No. 13 when they knocked off No. 4 Syracuse in 2005.

Sometimes dreams do become reality.

All they have to do is ask their coach.

"It's all gravy at this point," Becker said.

Todd Jones is a writer for the Columbus Dispatch.

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