How Does a 23-Year-Old Become an NCAA Football Head Coach?

Becker College head football coach Mike Lichten.
Becker College head football coach Mike Lichten. –Courtesy of Becker College

It all started with a letter from a freshman.

That’s the answer you’ll get from Becker College athletic director Frank Millerick when asked how he ended up hiring one of the youngest head coaches in NCAA history.

Becker, a Division III school in Worcester with an enrollment of 1,784, was looking for a new head coach for their football team back in 2010. The program was in desperate need of stability after going through three head coaches in the first six seasons of the team’s existence.

Millerick led a search committee to find the right person to take charge of the program, and immediately an unlikely candidate entered the fold. Mike Lichten, Becker’s 23-year-old defensive coordinator, put his hat in the ring for the position. Lichten had worked just one season coaching on Becker’s staff after spending two years as an assistant with Northeastern.

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“I knew he was young,’’ Millerick said of Lichten’s candidacy, “But I didn’t know what his age was, and I didn’t want that to be a factor. He was part of the staff. I thought it would be a good experience for him to sit through the interview process.’’

Lichten may have been a long shot initially, thanks to his age and limited coaching experience, but that changed quickly after a note arrived in Millerick’s mailbox.

“I got a letter from a freshman, Melvin Booker, who would go on to be the best defensive player we had here at Becker,’’ Millerick explained, “He took time to write this letter and he was endorsing coach Lichten, quite a bit. And I thought, jeez for a young man to take the time to write this letter about a coach that he only worked with for three and a half months [said a lot]. He had a profound impact on Melvin over that short period, and that carried a lot of weight for me.’’

Lichten continued to shine as the interview process progressed, advancing from a pool of 10 candidates to become one of the finalists.

Becker’s Sports Information Director Matthew Tittle was also on the Becker’s search committee.

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“There were people with a lot more experience than [Lichten] at the Division I and II levels,’’ Tittle, who also serves as a baseball coach for Becker, said. “It pretty much came down to the fact he had passion that I had never seen before out of a coach.’’

Tittle pointed to one particular pregame speech given by the young coach as a factor in considering Lichten’s candidacy.

“You could tell the kids sitting in that huddle were buying into what he said. You could tell by the look on their face, how intently they were listening to him speak and the passion that he had. That passion carried into the interview,’’ Tittle said.

“With each step in the interview process, Mike got stronger and stronger,’’ Millerick said. “I didn’t know how old he was. He could have been a seasoned coach for all I knew. He handled himself very well and had the right answers.’’

Two days before Christmas in 2010, Millerick offered Lichten the job and the Newton native became the fourth head coach in Becker history at just 23-years-old.

The Journey

Young head coaches at the collegiate level are not a new phenomenon. Bob Knight was 24-years-old when he got his first head coach job at Army in 1965. Tyler Summit, 23-year-old son of legendary Tennessee head coach Pat Summit, was just hired by Louisiana Tech to take over their women’s basketball program.

In those instances, young coaches usually have a track record of a strong playing career or proven family genes in the profession. Lichten had the benefit of neither before landing the Becker job.

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Lichten’s journey to the coaching ranks is more unexpected. His playing career ended at the high school level, after he tore his ACL during his junior season. [Full disclosure: I attended Newton North High School with Lichten] From there, Lichten moved on to the University of New Hampshire, where he remained away from the game of football for a couple years, before getting an itch to coach.

As a history major, Lichten figured he was headed for a life of teaching and coaching, but a life-changing discussion at a Steak and Shake in Missouri, of all places, with his cousin Tab pushed him to reach for greater heights. If coaching was what he wanted to do, why not try to make it his life goal?

He joined UNH football, a Division I-AA (FCS) program, as a volunteer assistant a year after now Philadelphia Eagle head coach Chip Kelly left the program. Partying on weekends was out, breaking down film and diagnosing opposing schemes was in. Sacrifices were made, but Lichten knew he had found his calling.

“That Thanksgiving…I told my dad I wanted to be a head coach before I was 30,’’ Lichten said. “He told me I had to be patient, since there were only so many jobs in the country.’’

Becker College players huddle on the field. —Courtesy of Becker College

Lichten continued to serve as a student assistant at UNH until graduating in 2008. He landed an assistant coaching job with Northeastern as a 21-year-old in the fall of 2008, but he became jobless after the entire football program was cut following the 2009 season.

Lichten found a new home as a defensive coordinator with Becker in 2010 and started his quick ascent to the head coaching ranks, all while entering the daunting world of Division III football.

Division III: Creating a Culture Beyond Football

Becker established a football program in 2005 as a way of boosting male enrollment to the small private school in Central Massachusetts. Starting a new athletic program isn’t easy, and Becker struggled to develop their fledgling team. The team failed to win a game until its third season of existence, experiencing a 20-game losing streak from 2007-2010.

The growing pains were evident beyond the team’s performance. The program had difficulty recruiting, students were transferring at an alarming rate, and discipline was an issue, as well.

Those things changed once Lichten entered the fold. With the help of a committed staff of assistant coaches — no assistant makes over $20,000 per year, and no benefits — the team’s culture has been transformed.

“I can definitely say the discipline of the program has changed,’’ senior fullback Rich Young said. “From where we started from, there were a lot of guys that weren’t here to play football because they loved it. The program itself has changed dramatically. It came from everyday where you had to lock your locker, to having a family of 57 brothers we all can rely on.’’

In that respect, Lichten’s youth has been an advantage in helping bring the team together. The coach’s office door is always open as a constant stream of players trickle in following workout sessions. Whether it’s homework issues, or life advice, Lichten has earned the trust of his players.

“[Mike] being young actually helps out,’’ offensive lineman Tim Farina declared. “He knows exactly what we are going through and he’s able to connect on a better level with us and get through to us what we need to accomplish.’’

But it’s not just the coach’s relative youth that resonates with his players, it is also his commitment to their development. While Lichten strives for his team to be great on the field, his ultimate goal at the Division III level goes beyond wins and losses: giving his players the tools to succeed beyond the playing field. And if his age helps him do that, so be it.

“I want to promote them as a person and as a player,’’ Lichten said. “I want to send them back to their parents four years later as a man, as a person ready to take on the world, ready to support himself and his family. Not just a guy who spent four years in pads and cleats and got coached by a young coach.’’

Those life goals have been firmly entrenched within members of the program.

“Being a student-athlete, it’s getting you ready for real life,’’ senior lineman Chris Schwarz declared. “Football, practice, homework, everything like that. It’s just getting us ready to be men, for when we graduate.’’

Defensive back Dre Holder also spoke about what drives him to play the game at the Division III level.

“Sacrifices. That’s the best feeling knowing you can make sacrifices. One day, you are going to have children you are looking after, you have to make sacrifices for your children. It’s like preparing me for when you get to that state after college. I feel like that’s what life is about — making sacrifices.’’

The Struggle

Despite stabilizing the program in four seasons as head coach, Lichten, now 28, knows he has a long way to go to get the program where he wants it to be. After posting a school-record three wins in back-to-back seasons, a young offense, and a lack of depth thanks to injuries caused Becker to take a step back in 2014, going winless for the first nine games of the season.

“I’d be lying if it wasn’t frustrating at times,’’ Millerick said of the tough season. “You’d like to see more success on the field, but at the end of the day, that’s not our measuring stick. It really is graduating kids and having them have a good experience. You don’t go out on the field to lose a game.’’

“It’s been tough, it’s a little bit of a struggle,’’ senior lineman Antonio Young said. “But when you really do love the game and have a passion for what you are doing, it’s all worth it at the end of the day.’’

Despite the struggles, Becker has remained competitive in most losses this season, a distinction that is not lost on Tittle.

“These kids never quit. The three years they’ve been here, they have been in some pretty ugly games. You never see them stop trying to win. Years past, you get down by 14, 21, they are done. They are out of the game. They quit. These kids fight and don’t stop.’’

The Bell

Becker’s final chance for redemption in a disappointing 2014 season came against rival Anna Maria on a crisp November afternoon. For Becker, the day was particularly special due to the presence of senior Chris McCarthy.

The linebacker had been away for the team for the entire season after being hit by a car days before the season began. McCarthy suffered a broken leg, broken ribs, and significant brain bruising. He spent nearly two months recovering in a hospital and rehab center, but he was reunited with his team on this fateful Saturday.

“He was a more emotional leader for us in his pads,’’ Lichten said. “Seeing him in that jersey and on the sidelines has really hit an important place for all of us as a team. To push through what he’s come back from speaks to his mental toughness and resolve.’’

With McCarthy watching, Becker fought Anna Maria in a nip-and-tuck affair that went into overtime after the Hawks missed a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation. In overtime, Jacob Holmes hit a 38-yard field goal to give Becker the win, and a chance to start a new tradition: ringing a new victory bell tucked away in the corner of Becker’s Alumni Field.

It was just a single win, but it was reflective of the change at Becker, where the passion for the game remains as high as ever.

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