BY MICHAEL POINTER — Indianapolis Star
Marian men’s basketball coach Todd Lickliter headed back to the bench for the second half of last Saturday’s game against No. 4 Bethel when he saw his 2-year-old granddaughter, Gia, frolicking in the stands with other family members.
Basketball could wait for a few moments. The 58-year-old Lickliter bounded up about five rows of the rollout bleachers in his Jos. A. Bank suit and stylish Ecco loafers and scooped her up for a hug and a kiss before going back to work.
He’s not at Butler anymore.
Lickliter helped turn Butler into a national power then signed a multi-million-dollar contract with Iowa but the NAIA school on the westside is proving to be quite a comfortable home.
“I’m not sure if he needed it but it has been refreshing,” said John Lickliter, Todd’s youngest son and an assistant coach at Marian. “It’s been nice to be in Indianapolis with all of our families.”
Lickliter is in his second season with the Knights, who are 8-3 and ranked 20th in the NAIA Division II coaches poll with a 77-70 victory over Bethel. It is their first ranking in nearly two years. Marian plays at No. 14 St. Francis (Ind.) at 3 p.m. Saturday.
For their coach, it’s far from the national spotlight he once held. There were no national television cameras at Marian on Saturday and about 300 people were on hand for what turned out to be a nail-biting affair between ranked teams.
But after a bruising ending to his three-year tenure in Iowa City, it feels right.
“It’s no different,” Lickliter said. “I don’t care if it’s Madison Square Garden or John Grimes Court (Marian’s playing floor, named after his predecessor). Once you start competing, you want to do well.”
Lickliter fared well at Butler. His teams compiled a 131-61 record in six seasons, won three Horizon League titles, twice advanced to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament, and won the preseason NIT in 2006.
He hired a young assistant coach named Brad Stevens, who later led the program to heights beyond the dreams of even the most faithful Bulldog fans. Butler seemed to be a perfect fit for Lickliter, an Indianapolis native who grew up on the north side, not far from Hinkle Fieldhouse.
But he left after the 2006-07 season to become the head coach at Iowa, fresh on the heels of a close Sweet Sixteen loss to eventual national champion Florida.
“I don’t know if I had any option,” said Lickliter, who received a seven-year, $8.4-million contract. “You’re talking Big Ten. You’re talking same years on a contract at three times the compensation. … What do you do?
“What happens when you get there is, you realize you were closer to the Big Ten (level) at Butler than we thought we were.”
Lickliter was fired after going 38-57 in three seasons at Iowa City, including 15-39 in Big Ten games. School officials cited declining attendance and public interest when announcing his firing.
It hurt, even with the $2.4-million buyout. Lickliter said he is reluctant to talk about the reasons he wasn’t successful because he doesn’t want to sound like he’s making excuses. But he acknowledged he still hasn’t gotten over it and wonders if he ever will.
“Being fired nationally is a very humbling thing and it’s personal,” he said. “People think it’s not personal, but it is.”
The family atmosphere he nurtured at Butler never materialized at Iowa. Lickliter thought he had landed his best incoming recruiting class just months before he was let go, noting the high scorers in a recent Iowa-Wisconsin game — Roy Devyn Marble for Iowa, Ben Brust for Wisconsin — were both recruited by his staff. (Iowa released Brust from his scholarship after Lickliter’s firing and he eventually signed with the Badgers.)
As Lickliter was struggling in Iowa, the Bulldogs became the darlings of college basketball with Stevens leading them to national championship games in 2010 and ’11.
“I would be dishonest if I said I didn’t regret it,” Lickliter said of leaving Butler. “I enjoyed it so much. But I was so happy for them and so thankful that I had been a part of it. What I regretted more than leaving was that I didn’t have the time to duplicate it (at Iowa).”
There are several reminders of the Butler days in his Marian office, including the trophy he received for being named the National Basketball Coaches Association’s coach of the year in 2007. The only reminder of Iowa is a signed picture of legendary former wrestling coach Dan Gable and current wrestling coach Tom Brands, who remain friends.
Lickliter moved back to Indianapolis and took a year off. He worked as an assistant for one season at Miami of Ohio under the late Charles Coles before being hired by Marian athletic director Steve Downing in June 2012. Lickliter inherited a veteran squad from Grimes, who spent 36 seasons at the school. This season’s team has 11 upperclassmen.
Perhaps the most noticeable is former Roncalli standout Aaron Evans, who redshirted last season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Evans is shooting better than 50 percent from the field and leading Marian with an 18.9 average, including a 26-point performance against Bethel.
“He asks a lot from us but, as a player, you want that,” Evans said. “You want a coach to push you toward high goals. With him as our head coach, we always feel like we’re prepared.”
Lickliter still must work with personnel he largely inherited, but he makes no secret he wants to build an almost identical version to what he had at Butler. He has the support of Downing — a former Indiana University standout who worked for many years as an administrator at IU and Texas Tech — and Marian president Daniel Elsener. All three of his grown sons graduated from Marian.
The hope is that players will gravitate to Marian because of high academic standards, not in spite of them. They will want the individualized attention at an urban, religious-based school.
“The level is not the key,” said Lickliter, who also did not rule out a return to Division I. “The key is the institution. Is it a good alignment or a good fit for you? I don’t look at this as going to NAIA. I look at it as going to Marian and it is in Indianapolis.
“I just think Butler’s system will work anywhere. It’s authentic and genuine. … (Downing) understands that environment and also appreciates it.”
Added John Lickliter: “It’s a lot different level for him, but the feeling from the community is a lot like what he experienced at Butler.”
Yes, coaching at Marian is far different than coaching at Butler or in the Big Ten. Lickliter said he had three assistant coaches, four administrators, six student managers and one secretary at Iowa. At Marian, he shares an office manager with the rest of the athletic department.
His only assistants are his son and Scott Fleming, who has been at Marian for 11 years and also serves as head softball coach and director of intramurals. Lickliter hands out meal money for road trips, something he never worried about at Iowa.
“What I liked about Division I is there is such an emphasis on preparing and competition and the importance of it that you thrive on it,” he said. “There’s something of a high to that. We probably don’t have quite that here but, again, if you’re trying to do something well, what does it matter? Does it matter if there are five people there or 30,000 in the gym?
“When you’re trying to do something well, that’s your driving force.”
John, who played for his dad at Iowa, said his father has mellowed a bit. He no longer has players run extra as punishment, for instance. He figures losing is punishment enough. Those that care will eventually do the required work anyway.
But if anyone thinks he took the Marian job just to be close to home, they’re wrong, his son said.
“He tells the guys, ‘I didn’t come here to retire,’ ” John said. ” ‘I came here to win a championship and create a great program at some place I love.’ He’s older, but he’s still fiery and he’s still a competitor. That’s what he lives for.”
Lickliter’s wife, Joez, watches young Gia every Thursday while her parents work. John said it’s guaranteed his dad will take an extended lunch that day so he can go home and spend time with his granddaughter. John’s wife is preparing to give birth to another grandchild in May.
That may be the best reason of all to be home.
“I tell my wife sometimes that you know, maybe we can move somewhere warm or I can go somewhere else,” said Lickliter. “Then she reminds me we couldn’t see Gia and I tell her, ‘You’re right, forget about it.’ ”
The Indianapolis Star, Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen are all owned by Gannett.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball