Bulls

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."

Bulls turn to Cam Payne as they take on Sixers

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USA TODAY

Bulls turn to Cam Payne as they take on Sixers

PHILADELPHIA -- The Bulls’ starting point guard missing the team’s season opener is less than ideal, but that is the dilemma Fred Hoiberg and company are faced with.

Hoiberg made the announcement during shoot around that Kris Dunn would miss the first game of his third NBA season for personal reasons, but noted that his absence is “excused.”

The Bulls will turn to Cameron Payne as they get set to play the Sixers in Philadelphia Thursday night. The 24-year-old guard out of Murray State will be tasked with running the offense against one of the better defensive teams in the league.

Because of injuries and the numbers game at guard, Payne hasn’t had a chance to show Bulls fans much since he came over from Oklahoma City in a trade that sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to the Thunder.

“I feel like I can be way better,” Payne said when asked about the opportunity to show what he can do. “I know I didn’t make a lot of shots but it’s really not about that. It’s about getting my team involved and make sure everyone gets the ball in their spots to contribute.”

Payne showed flashes over the last 22 games of the 2017-18 season (14 starts), shooting 42 percent from three and averaging 4.6 assists per game in that stretch. The shooting stroke didn’t show up early in the preseason for Payne.

He was better in the team’s final exhibition against Denver and has shown enough to Hoiberg to earn the starting nod. He’ll have his work cut out for him tonight.

“Obviously we’ve been working on different coverages based on having a full roster, but things like this happen,” Hoiberg said when asked what this does to his game prep. “It’s going to be electric in here. They’re going to come out and play extremely hard and extremely physical. That’s who they are and we have to be ready for that. It’s a little bit of shock and awe with (the Sixers). You have to weather that first storm and hopefully give ourselves a chance with great effort.”

After Payne, the Bulls will have Ryan Arcidiacono as the first point guard off the bench. They’ll also have the services of newcomer Tyler Ulis, who will be in uniform tonight. Hoiberg mentioned that he feels comfortable with Zach Lavine bringing the ball up as well. He also mentioned that Jabari Parker will have his hands on the ball an awful lot with the team’s second unit.

The season hasn’t even started yet and the Bulls are already missing several key players. After an impressive rookie season, Lauri Markkanen will start the season on the shelf with a high grade lateral elbow sprain. Denzel Valentine will also miss tonight’s game with an ankle injury. The team may have Cristiano Felicio, also dealing with an ankle injury, depending on his pregame workout goes.

“It’s not ideal but it is what it is,” Hoiberg said. “It happens at this level. You just have to go out and do the best job you can. It’s an opportunity for our guys to step up with two of our better players out of the lineup – really three with Denzel as a guy that can make plays in that second unit.”   

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

Bears return to Soldier Field as home underdogs against the Patriots

The Bears were getting used to life in the big chair. Chicago was favored in each of their last four games, but it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Osweiler in overtime last week.

The Miami Dolphins pulled off the upset, and now the Bears return home to take on one of the best teams in the league.

Even if they had won in Miami, Chicago likely still would have been underdogs to the New England Patriots on Sunday, but as it stands, Bill Belichick and company are favored by three on most major sportsbooks, according to Vegas Insider.

The line initially opened at Patriots by 2.5, but it would seem that money placed on New England pushed the spread a little more in the Bears’ favor.

Vegas is expecting another higher-scoring game for both teams, with the over/under sitting at 49. Given that the Patriots have scored at least 38 points in each of their last three games, the Bears’ defense may have some trouble keeping this game low on the scoreboard.

In Week 6, home underdogs went 4-1 against the spread and 3-2 straight up. According to Bet America, home underdogs have covered in 20 of their 30 games this season, which bodes well for a Bears team facing a tough task at Soldier Field.