INDIANAPOLIS -- Do not feel sorry for Todd Lickliter. He's back doing what he loves, which is coaching at a quality school (Marian University) with a promising future. If big-time college basketball is now in his rearview mirror, well, it's all about perspective.
“Marian is not a step down,” Lickliter says. “It's an excellent academic school. It's in a great city. There's a good foundation here. They've had success. They can have more. This is an excellent opportunity.”
Lickliter stands in Indianapolis Ben Davis' spacious auxiliary gym watching high school seniors to be vie for next spring's Indiana All-Star opportunity. It's the early stages of his recruiting, a different approach now that he's at the NAIA level instead of major college ball, and he embraces it with the enthusiasm of a long-time competitor. He is 57 years old, trim, engaging and eager for this new challenge.
“NAIA has produced great players,” he says. “Scottie Pippen and Lloyd “World” Free come to mind right away. There's good coaches like Rollie Massimino (who won the Division I national title with Villanova back in the 1980s) who's coaching at Northwood University in Florida.
“I see this as a great opportunity for the right person.”
Yes, Lickliter coached Butler to a pair of Sweet 16 berths and a six-year 131-61 record, then made millions of dollars coaching at Iowa. In 2007, he was the national coach of the year. He was a rising-star coach -- much like current Butler coach Brad Stevens is now -- who won with stifling defense and fundamental excellence, thriving by tapping into the deep in-state talent pool.
Then it disappeared. Iowa didn't work out. Lickliter suffered a health scare with a tear in his carotid artery and was out of coaching for a year.
“I was miserable for that year,” he says. “I'm very thankful to have been able to do something I've loved for so many years. I'm passionate about coaching, passionate about winning, passionate about doing it well.”
Now Lickliter's passion finds him at Marian, a Catholic school of 2,440 students on Indianapolis' northwest side. That he does not have the resources he did at Butler and Iowa is a given. Still, there is opportunity to make a difference, to win, and do it the right way. Marian is in the same Crossroads Conference that includes Saint Francis, which won the NAIA national title two years ago.
“It's a challenge, but I don't see challenges as a bad thing,” Lickliter says. “It's a test that makes you grow. If you didn't have challenges, I don't think you would grow. It's how you address those challenges that's the key.
“Marian is addressing its challenges with a great vision. Our president (Daniel Elsener) talks about doing something fast and excellent. He wants it done now, but wants it done right. That's exciting and encouraging.”
Lickliter's Marian coaching predecessor, John Grimes, set a high standard, but not an impossible-to-beat one before retiring after last season. Grimes won 566 games in 36 seasons, which ranks 13th in NAIA history for most victories. His teams qualified for four NAIA tourneys and won three conference titles.
The Knights return four starters from a 20-11 team that made the NAIA Division II tourney.
“Two or three are potential all league,” Lickliter says. “John left us with a good foundation.”
Lickliter took a chance on big money and big opportunity when he moved from Butler to Iowa in 2007, and it wasn't a good fit. He was 38-57 in three years in Iowa City amidst declining attendance, struggling offense and recruiting inconsistency, and got fired. For a year, he was out of work, although not out of money thanks to a multi-million-dollar severance package with Iowa.
During that time, Lickliter tapped into his coaching friendships. He went to practices, attended clinics and conducted clinics.
“I was fortunate. I stayed involved in the game and was around good people. It's not exactly what I would have planned, but it worked out.”
Lickliter said his passion for a success “was part of the problem with my transition from Butler to Iowa.”
“I had been at a really high level, one of the best in the nation, and I didn't want to settle for less than that. In saying that, it didn't work. Somebody else decides for you that you're going to make a career move. That you're going to make a change. There are no options other than accept it and try to move on.”
So he has. Marian hired Lickliter in early June, but he didn't officially start until July 1. He's met most, but not all, of his players. Some had left for summer break by the time he was hired.
“It's kind of a late transition,” he says. “Let's put it that way.
“I haven't worked them out, I don't know them well yet, but they play in a league in Indianapolis. I have confidence in them.”
There had been speculation that Lickliter might get the Miami of Ohio job last spring after Charlie Coles retired. Coles had hired Lickliter as an assistant the previous year, and the thought was Lickliter was being groomed for the job.
Instead, Miami hired John Cooper from Tennessee State and Lickliter moved on again, this time to Indianapolis, where his roots run deep. He was born in the city; he was the starting point guard at North Central for his father, Arlan, and helped the Panthers win a sectional title. He played his final two college seasons at Butler, later coached high school ball at Indianapolis Park Tudor and nearby Danville.
“The funny thing is people say you're more comfortable there,” Lickliter says. “I use the analogy that a surfer is more comfortable near the beach or near the ocean. If you're going to be involved with basketball, I can't think of a better place than Indianapolis.
“Look at what we have. The love of the game. I played high school ball here, college ball here. I am comfortable because I know the great passion for the game that's here, the talent, the excellent coaching. High school coaches are terrific in this city and this state.”
Lickliter taps into his local coaching connections for recruiting leads.
“You're always looking for outstanding students, high achievers, guys who compete hard,” he says. “I have people here who have informed me if they have somebody who they think is a good fit. I trust their judgment.”
Recruiting at the NAIA level is different than at Division I. Good prep players focus on Division I first, and often only consider NAIA after higher-level options disappear. NAIA coaches usually wait and see who's available after the major college programs have signed their recruits.
“It's different for us,” Lickliter says. “I'm just being realistic. Most kids see themselves as Division I players early on. I don't have a problem with that. I know people think that's the best level. But I know this, the other levels are very competitive, also. You have to be a very good player to excel in NAIA, Division II, and so on.
“So I'll target, watch and follow. I won't be asking for commitments or offering at early ages. I'll see how it goes.”
Lickliter can't wait to see how it goes.
“I like the opportunity to compete and the challenge of competition. I enjoy teaching the game. People talk about knowing the game. I don't know that it does you any good to know it if you can't teach it. I enjoy teaching a style of play that allows you to compete night in and night out, like you see at Butler. It's taken a long time to get to that.
“The game has always been good to me. I probably shouldn't have been able to play at the level I was able to play at, but I did. I always enjoyed the camaraderie, being around teammates, helping people improve.”
Don't feel sorry for Todd Lickliter. He's doing what he loves. How many of us can say that?