Falling Up, Falling Down: The Curious Career of Todd Lickliter

By no means is it a unique story. A man emerges from seemingly nowhere to stand at the top of his profession, and then in a blink of an eye he tumbles down the mountain, unable to bear the weight of greater expectation. When you hear these stories the fall seems more riveting than the ascent because the reasons for it are more believable.

At the 1999 MTV Movie Awards Josh Hartnett was standing in the wings of the main stage of the Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica Airport. He was no doubt nervous, but perhaps also delirious with surprise. Nominated for the "Best Breakthrough Male Performance Award" for his work in the seventh installment of the lucrative Halloween franchise, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, Hartnett was about to lose to the teen actor du jour, James Van Der Beek. That much was to be expected, because after all MTV knows its audience. But with the benefit of hindsight we know another more conspicuous reason he went home empty handed that night, and it's this: Because as an actor, Josh Hartnett was a poser and even MTV has standards.

Ironically, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later would prove to be a surprisingly reliable showcase of other up-and-coming acting talent. The film also cast a young Michelle Williams and equally young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, both of whom, like Hartnett, were hardly given lines composed by Shakespeare. Harnett though was somehow able to survive the script's deficiencies and launch a previously superfluous career by leveraging an easily forgotten performance in an easily forgotten film into a convincing display of stardom, if even for just a handful of producers in Hollywood who thought in his performance they might've seen the industry's next leading man.

By the early 2000s Josh Hartnett, still fresh out of the State University of New York at Purchase drama program and with a resume sporting little more than an MTV Movie Award nomination, had been identified among a group as the next Hollywood IT men. His agent brilliantly pounced on the buzz and convinced director Brett Ratner into offering the ‘breakthrough' actor a three-picture deal with Warner Bros. to play Superman, a deal that would have paid him upwards of $100 million, but one he turned down because he was worried that the iconic role would define him forever. So instead, what the public remembers Josh Harnett by today is that he's the guy who wouldn't sleep with Shannyn Sossamon in 40 Days and 40 Nights...because of Lent. What followed for Harnett after that epic movie moment is a string of films you did not see, can't bring yourself to rent, and are unable to buy --- even if you want to. And just like that, Josh Hartnett's movie career, at the ripe old age of 33, is racing toward oblivion. Which is not, (and yet somehow is) how Josh Hartnett's career was supposed to go.

Todd Lickliter can relate.

On Wednesday Todd Lickliter, the former Butler and Iowa basketball coach, and former Coach of the Year, accepted the job as head basketball coach at Marian University in (and you will not find this at all surprising) Indiana. If you haven't heard of Marian University it might be because it is a NAIA school in Indianapolis that is roughly the size of an urban Chicago high school, and they field a basketball team that were they to meet an urban Chicago high school team on the hardwood, might be a legitimate underdog. This is not, and yet it is, how Todd Lickliter's career was supposed to go.

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Of course Todd Lickliter was the son of a high school basketball coach. The Todd Lickliter's of the world are often born into the profession. Coaching, as the cliché goes, is not a profession that you choose, it chooses you. After a modestly successful high school career as a player, Todd Lickliter would play for a pair of minor college teams; eventually (after a couple of transfers) he would become a bench player for his beloved hometown Butler Bulldogs. Upon graduation he made no effort at playing professionally, he was never nearly good enough, and so he took his degree and turned to the coaching profession straight away.

Known for his studiousness of and obsession with the game of basketball, Lickliter secured his first coaching position at a local Indianapolis high school. His story could have settled right there as he coached at the high school level for 12 of the next 13 years, and all indications are that he was a successful high school coach. However, Lickliter longed to wear big boy pants, so much so he accepted a coaching job, in of all places, Saudi Arabia. But this lasted not even a year and Lickliter quickly returned to the womb of his native Indianapolis to resume his career.

By now there were early signs of a trend emerging. Todd Lickliter had made attempts --- both as a player and a coach --- to explore the game he loved outside the comfy confines of the Hoosier state, but each time he preferred to return home to seek the success he craved. While Lickliter no doubt felt bigger than the high school game, the Saudi trip was early evidence his coaching talents might not travel so well; Todd Lickliter was becoming a domestic. Eventually he accepted a position as an administrator at Butler, to which led to another brief foray outside the Indiana border (at Eastern Michigan), followed by another swift return to Butler.

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The same year Josh Hartnett was busting out as a horror victim, Todd Lickliter had decided to faithfully fulfill, in his personal ambition, the tenets of the basketball system he'd grown up in, The Butler Way --- a culture of basketball developed by Bulter legend Tony Hinkle as early as the 1930s, and had come to define Butler basketball. The Butler Way was more cultural credo than basketball strategy, although it's become both. As it is written across the campus at Butler, "The Butler Way demands commitment, denies selfishness and accepts reality, yet seeks constant improvement while promoting the good of the team above self." Once Lickliter became one with the Butler Way it took only a couple of years before he would fall into the school's head-coaching job.

Lickliter's ascension to Butler head coach would be Hartnettian in that he leveraged a fairly unremarkable resume to replace Thad Matta, who'd split in the middle of the night to become head coach at Xavier. It is important to note that Matta did not reject Butler. Starting with Hinkle and fully flourishing by the mid-1950s, coaching Butler had become a very good job for whoever was coaching them. Butler basketball was a belief system situated within a state that shared, for all intents and purposes, that same belief system, and thus Butler had found a way to institutionalize --- as much as is possible --- basketball success. Despite all that, Matta's departure for Xavier was a clear and instantly recognizable move up though, as Xavier is one of only two non-BCS schools to be listed among the top 20 most valuable programs in college basketball (the other being UNLV), according to Forbes. Only the most unmotivated coach would have rejected the opportunity.

So now Butler needed a coach, and quick, and the players wanted Lickliter and the deal was done. Lickliter stepped into a job tailored made for success and tailored made for him, one with a system firmly in place and many years in the making. Having played, worked and coached at Butler, Lickliter was most familiar and committed to the Butler Way and it provided him with a system of belief so strong he scarcely had to evangelize it to recruits or players. Lickliter merely needed to keep his hands on the wheel and the program would drive upward and onward. And, it did and continues to do so.

Lickliter won right away at Butler and he did so with the backbone of his team being Indiana kids who had more or less learned how to play basketball via the Indiana high school basketball factory model, a model very much in tune with The Butler Way. With Lickliter not needing to wander far from Indianapolis to restock the system, recruiting was a matter of selecting the most talented out of those who were already acknowledged as a good fit culturally. Butler was as well defined as a program could be, and there just wasn't a lot of buyer's remorse among recruits. With little or no innovation or creativity required, the job increasingly proved to be for Lickliter a match made in Hoosier. To say Todd Lickliter benefitted from coaching in a unique cultural milieu, one in which he was born and raised, would be an enormous understatement.

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Enter Gary Barta. Not too unlike a Hollywood film producer, Barta was in search of his new leading man. He Who Shall Remain Nameless, who ironically was also a Hoosier, had left for more "authentic" basketball pastures. (Which we learned later was code for him wanting a basketball culture that was singular, greater than any other sports culture on campus. In other words, Iowa had too many successful sports with which fans could identify and admire.) Meanwhile, Lickliter was coming off his breakthrough moment, having just won Coach of the Year honors after yet another successful run with Butler in the NCAA Tournament. Because his COY acknowledgement was from his peers at the National Association of Basketball Coaches, it must have clarified the search for Barta, for the reason that in Lickliter he could envision a coach among coaches. Lickliter signed a lucrative contract with the Hawkeyes and set out -- yet again -- to prove himself beyond the Indiana borders. It did not go well, as we all know.

At first it was believed Lickliter's predecessor left him with spoiled groceries. But over time it became increasingly apparent the man didn't like his kitchen. Moreover, he was incredulous that Hawkeyes fans were not properly understanding and admiring of his disciplined Butler Way offense, an offense that netted 50 or fewer points for an entire game an astonishing 23 times in just three years or a 25% clip. Attendance dropped, enthusiasm was in freefall among not only the fans but with players too, as they began hightailing it out of Iowa City faster than a three-on-one break. Barta had not looked deeply enough at his leading man, and had no choice but to do as they do in Hollywood. Lickliter was rightfully passed over in favor of a more proven Irish traveller.

Todd Lickliter was decent man and a good coach who was soiled because of an awful fit at Iowa, or so it might have been believed until this week. Some of his fellow coaches at the time of his firing came to his side, in particular Tom Izzo, and argued that Iowa was essentially a basketball wasteland. The press suggested as much too after watching He Who Shall Remain Nameless win again in New Mexico. Lickliter wanted to still coach. So, armed with his solid Butler resume and bolstered Iowa narrative Todd Lickliter hit the bricks in search of a head coaching job, but as far as we can tell few were compelled. After two hiring cycles Lickliter would eventually be resigned to accept an assistant job at Miami (OH) with his good friend Charlie Coles.

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This past season Charlie Coles, we now know, was in his final season before retirement. The theory floated at the time of Coles' hiring of Lickliter was the former Butler coach was being brought in as a de facto head coach in waiting. Well, Charlie retired and Miami (OH) who could have bought into the notion of a seamless transition with the purposely groomed Lickliter had other ideas. Despite a full year to flaunt his potential, Miami (OH) choose to hire John Cooper, a man with no prior ties whatsoever to the school. It was becoming clear to Lickliter that major, mid-major, and perhaps even Division II, Division III and junior college basketball programs were not very much interested in The Butler Way personified. So he did what the writing on the wall suggested he should do, take what he could get. And what he could get was the head coaching job at Marian University, a school where two of his sons had graduated and one is in line to do so this year.

Coaching at the NAIA level is a monstrous fall from grace. No matter how you spin it, the step down from coaching at the NCAA Division I level to the NAIA level is akin to what we've seen in Josh Harnett's career --- going from leading man in Hollywood summer blockbuster film to leading man in an obscure independent feature film costarring Neve Campbell. But how far is it in college athletic terms? Well, for starters, Lickliter's salary might max out at 5-digits at Marian. Which is to say that Lickliter will have made more coaching three games at Iowa than he'll make in a full season coaching at Marian. Not that he needs a big salary. Iowa might still be paying him, and if he's managed his lucre wisely he's set for life and could perhaps work on a volunteer basis at Marian.

But being a NAIA head coach usually means you're not just coaching the basketball team for pennies on the NCAA dollar, it also means you have to carry a night job...at the same school. NAIA coaches are often required to have at least one other significant official duty on campus, like bowling coach or gym manager, or if you're lucky, teaching a course or two for the Ed Department. Because basketball teams at the NAIA level are not moneymakers it's often a financial reality that coaches must help out in every way they can; they're an extension of the broader educational mission of the school, not just its athletic ambitions. So basketball at a NAIA school is akin to basketball at a large high school, it's no more or less important than any number of extracurricular activities that students partake in. Although, unlike a school play or similar campus activity, sports at the NAIA level might not quite be seen as entertainment. Consider this, Marian played league leading Goshen College last year in a home game and the official attendance was 263.

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Todd Lickliter has come full circle. He started as a high school coach, where the coach's mission is as much leadership development and teaching sportsmanship, as it is athletic accomplishment. And now he's about to become a NAIA coach, where they might be even more committed to those ideals. Moreover, Lickliter whose basketball life has flourished most when it's anchored in the cultural confines of Indianapolis, has come home for perhaps the final time. While Lickliter may not be back at Butler or the big time, to his credit he is sensibly back to it's ways because "The Butler Way...accepts reality."

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