Cubs

Becker has good DNA for coaching

725216.png

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."

Cubs' Jason Heyward on racial injustice: 'It feels like a broken record'

Cubs' Jason Heyward on racial injustice: 'It feels like a broken record'

Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward joined ESPN 1000’s “Waddle & Silvy” on Monday for a candid conversation on the unrest and tensions across the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of officer Derek Chauvin.

“It feels like a broken record and where we’re watching a rerun,” Heyward told Marc Silverman and Tom Waddle. “I feel like these things continue to happen over and over and over again and you have people continuously and helplessly trying to find a solution.”

Heyward, who grew up in McDonough, Ga. described how his father discussed racial injustice with him and his brother at a young age.

RELATED: Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts: 'We all need to step up to end' racial injustice

“He didn’t do that just to do it, that wasn’t something he was proud of having to do and having to explain,” he said. “That was something from experience that he could take and know that he went to one of the first integrated schools in South Carolina, integrated movie theaters, having separate bathrooms — things like that.”

Those conversations continued as Heyward committed to pursuing a professional baseball career while in high school, he said. As he was preparing to play for a travel team in East Cobb, Ga., his father told him of what he may face, such as being called the N word and people talking bad about his family.

Heyward noted how as a minor leaguer in the Braves farm system, he faced racism playing games in Savannah, Ga. — then home to a Mets affiliate. Silverman mentioned the racist messages Heyward received on Twitter after leaving the Cardinals in free agency to join the Cubs. Last year, MLB investigated racist messages sent to former Cub Carl Edwards Jr. on social media.

Although he said he experiences less of that today in the big leagues, Heyward added it still happens and that’s the message that needs to be shared. He described how the start to reaching a solution is people continuing to discuss racial injustice and being willing to listen and be aware of others’ concerns.

"While everyone has different views and different concerns and every ethnicity, race, gender, all these things — people have their own struggles, man," he said. "But I think at the end of the day, right now we’re seeing a lot of conversation about this that we’ve seen before but I think it’s being spread a little bit faster through social media, through LeBron James, through the rest of the NBA, through other athletes, through people who are starting to look around and say ‘I’m not African American, I’m not black but this affects me too.

"'This affects my kids, this affects them going to school, this affects my friends and their families and their generation.' So, I feel like everyone is a little bit more woke right now, regardless of how ugly things have been, how hard things have been on the people that are being affected most."

Floyd's death sparked week-long protests across the country that became violent. Heyward talked about looking into the future and what happens next as he sees some of the nation's more angry responses.

"I see confusion. I see anger, I see hatred, and these are all things people deal with as human beings on a daily basis. You have some people going out with a certain message that they’re gonna put out. You have other people going out there and following and thinking they’re doing it for the right thing, but they don’t exactly understand it."

Heyward sees both sides of the issue, expressing sympathy for the difficult job and "judgements" police face.

"To me, that’s the trickle-down effect and what sucks is there are a lot of good cops, there are a lot of great cops," he said. "I’m friends with some — close family friends — to where they’re gonna take a lot of heat for this as well."

The bottomline is this issue isn't new for the life many Americans live on a daily basis.

"When you have hatred, when you have anger, when you have people that dealt with this 40 years ago, when you have people that dealt with this 20 years ago, people that dealt with it 10 years ago, people for the first time dealing with it now, you got people at all different walks of life who have different emotions about it and different thoughts on how to handle it.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

Tim Anderson won't stick to sports: 'This problem is bigger than baseball'

Tim Anderson won't stick to sports: 'This problem is bigger than baseball'

Tim Anderson is a baseball player. It’s how he makes a living for him and his family.

In this moment in history, he affirmed that indeed he is finding it difficult to try to care about baseball.

“I guess you could just say take care of what really matters,” he said during a conference call Monday afternoon. “I think this problem is bigger than baseball at the moment.”

Anderson, the reigning big league batting champ and the only Black American player on the White Sox roster, sees what’s happening across the country, watching the thousands of protesters demanding an end to police brutality against and the police killings of Black people in the wake of the death of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis.

“Definitely witnessing something I only have heard about but I never have lived in,” he said. “It was definitely crazy. Just to see the things that are going on and how the world is reacting, I think there are a lot of angry people out there who feel like they are going unheard.

“I think that’s why it’s boiling down the way it is and things are happening the way they are. There’s a lot of angry people out there.”

It’s impossible to think about athletes and the issue of police brutality against Black people and not think of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who took a stand by taking a knee during the national anthem at NFL games. He enraged plenty in the process and has remained jobless despite being a Super Bowl quarterback in a league constantly searching for answers at the position.

RELATED: White Sox's Tim Anderson: 'You have to show the good, the bad and the ugly'

Anderson hasn’t gone that far. He said he hasn’t participated in any of the protests. His public response to the current climate can be summed up in a few tweets, the most striking of which featured four pictures of him posing in front of the aftermath of Saturday night’s protests and separate acts of destruction and vandalism in Chicago. Monday, he described “the good, the bad and the ugly” of that aftermath as a piece of history, as well as art.


But as he’s made clear before, he’s not going to “stick to sports,” the instruction often lobbed at athletes who dare speak about anything but their chosen profession. Fans are always hungry for a baseball player’s comments on baseball. A certain subset of them has zero tolerance for their comments on just about anything else.

It’s a ridiculous way to act, as if all people should reserve their thoughts to their job and nothing more. And in these times with sports on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Anderson perfectly explained why.

“We stand for more than just sports,” he said. “If you remove the sports, as you can see now, then what are we? We're human beings. We stand for more than our job title.

“People are trying to be themselves instead of just being ‘the baseball player.’ … I think it's just allowing more people to be themselves.”

Who knows how prevalent the tough conversations that lead to change are in clubhouses across Major League Baseball. Some players have spoken out on Twitter, including White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito. Asked about his conversations on these subjects with his teammates, Anderson singled out Giolito as someone he’s talked to before and someone who “gets it.”

“Gio is the person … we kind of conversate on a different level when it comes to certain things,” Anderson said. “You hear his perspective, and always using that as a learning tool. … He’s understanding it and kind of speaking out because we have talked about things, what it’s like growing up being black and how things are just not always what they are now.

“Definitely bold of him to speak out. Let me know he felt the love. I always knew how Gio felt about things and certain situations because that is a person I talk to. Just to see that, I definitely felt the love. He gets it and he understands it. So, I think that’s why he posted it. He wants what’s best, as well. I think we all do.”

Anderson isn’t even participating in the protests, and it's unfair to ask him to speak for Black America just because he’s the Black guy on his major league team.

But he’s an American citizen like the rest of us, and he’s choosing not to stick to sports and to act in a way he hopes can help solve what’s plaguing our country.

“We're at a moment where we need everybody's love, regardless of what race,” he said. “I think we're at a moment where we need to hold hands, every race, every color, it don't matter. I think we move better as one.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the White Sox easily on your device.