Campus News

VIDEO: Nearing 700 career wins, Lightfoot talks legacy

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It's difficult to describe just how much Mike Lightfoot has meant to the Bethel basketball program. I mean, where do you start? You could begin with his three NAIA Division II National Championships, tied for most all-time. That does not even count his four NCCAA National Championships. Or how about his five national coach of the year awards? You could also start with the fact that he has 17 Crossroads League titles and, as of the writing of this article, 695 career victories - more than all other Bethel men's basketball coaches combined.
Mike Lightfoot is in his 27th year as head coach of the Bethel men's basketball team.
Mike Lightfoot is in his 27th year as head coach of the Bethel men's basketball team.
Those are the types of things I would start with. But what makes Coach Lightfoot special is that he starts somewhere else. "The tradition, the winning, seven national championships - those are all neat things," said Lightfoot. "But I really think it boils down to having great relationships. There's a connection, there's a family involvement where our players are all connected. There's a brotherhood." Amid all the records and awards, Lightfoot is just the same guy who came to Bethel from his head coaching position at Marian High School in 1987. Well, maybe not the same guy. This version of Mike Lightfoot might have a few pointers for the younger version. "There's a lot of things I would do differently," admitted Lightfoot. "I think probably the biggest mistake that all of us (coaches) make is that we don't embrace the moment at the time. I have a huge character flaw in that I'm always focusing on the next rather than the now." Alright, so let's take a break from the next and even the now. There is so much in the past to talk about too. When he came to Bethel in 1987, Lightfoot made an impact right away. In his first season as head coach, the Pilots went 25-11 and finished second in the Crossroads League. Not bad for a first-year coach, right? Well that was nothing. The Pilots would finish with 30 wins each of the next two seasons and grab their first conference title in the 1989-1990 season. From there, Lightfoot kept racking up the victories. He scored his 100th win by his fourth season, 200 by his seventh and 300 in his tenth season - all NAIA records. He won his first national title in 1992, and followed that with an unbelievable stretch in the mid to late 90's - a 208-26 record from 1994 to 2000. In that span, the Pilots played in five national title games and won four of them. Oh and, by the way, he is the quickest coach to 500 victories in any level of college basketball. Yeah, this guy can coach. So what does he think when he hears all of that? "Just how fortunate I am to be a part of that," said Lightfoot. Another way that you could measure the greatness of his career is by the players who have come through the program. Names like Rico Swanson, Jody Martinez, Eric Brand, Mark Galloway, Dave Troyer, Will Walker and Ryne Lightfoot echo through the annals of Pilot history. New stars like Zach Miller and Ryan Benner carry on the tradition. "The relationships that you have with your players, and, more importantly maybe, the relationships that you have with them ten years after they graduate...those are the things that really tell me that we've had some impact," said Lightfoot. There are so many great moments from Lightfoot's career. As you might expect, the Pilots' successes at the highest level are memories that he cherishes. The Pilots are 27-7 in the NAIA National Tournament under Lightfoot, and many of those wins have come in unforgettable fashion. "All the national championship games do stick out," Lightfoot said. The Mark Galloway shot to send the 1995 NAIA Championship game to overtime, Randy Romer's go-ahead bucket with three seconds left in the 1997 championship game, and Rico Swanson's epic game-winner in the 1998 title game - those are the ones we remember too. But more important to Lightfoot have been the opportunities that players have had to impact the world. "The other things that jump out at me are mission trips," he said. "We've been on 20-plus mission trips. When you see life-changing moments, that's more important than any ballgame." But what if I told you that it almost all came to an end? With a resume like his, it probably would not surprise you to know that Lightfoot has received offers from other schools. Who would not want someone with his credentials at the helm of their basketball program? One such offer almost took Lightfoot away from Bethel. "There was one time that I got real close (to leaving) and that was at Valparaiso University," Lightfoot said. "I thought it was a good fit because I was following (former Valparaiso head coach Homer Drew) and I did that here (at Bethel)." However, he stayed and, as they say, the rest is history. The decision was not based on x's and o's or on-the-court success. Once again, Lightfoot feels a deeper call at Bethel than just what he does as a basketball coach. "I've always believed in the school," said Lightfoot. "I just felt like this is my mission and this is my ministry. This is where I'm supposed to be and until I get a clear calling that no, this is time to move on, then I just feel like I gotta be where I need to be and do what I need to do." One final way to measure Lightfoot's career is his devotion to family. Both his sons played for Bethel, and both are still involved in the program. His wife, Jacci, is always by his side and has been a part of the program every step of the way. "From the very beginning at Marian High School, we got involved as a family," said Lightfoot. "My wife was the players' lives, she was involved in making cookies and taking care of (the players). Then as the boys came along, they were running around in the gym and riding on the bus and spending time with the players. Then as players, they had an impact there, and now that that has continued on, both on and off the floor, it's been ingrained in them. We do this as a family." Coach Lightfoot said that, at times, he can be too focused on the next thing. But now in his 27th year as head coach, how much longer does he see himself on the Bethel sidelines? "That is another thing that I take in stride every day," said Lightfoot. "I remember (Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski) saying that he looks at it pretty much month by month. Not year by year, but month by month, and I think that's kind of what I look at it. I look at it as a God thing. How long do I want to be doing this?" Any chance we get another 27 years with him as coach? "They're gonna be wheeling me out of here in a wheelchair," joked Lightfoot. "No, that's not what I'm going to do." For now, the success continues. The current version of the Pilots has an 11-2 record heading into the Chuck Daly Memorial Classic in Florida. They hold the no. 5 ranking in the NAIA Division II national coaches' poll. Zach Miller is breaking records like they are Kit-Kat bars, and the Bethel fans have been re-energized by the team's success. But can this team really go all the way? "Yes," Lightfoot said. "Because in our previous national championship teams, I didn't really know if they were a national championship contender, if they could win a national championship. But they did it." Who knows what the rest of the season holds. All I know is that we have the honor of watching a one-of-a-kind man on the Gates Gymnasium sidelines. Yes, he has one of the best coaching resumes in the entire country. He has the records and the championships. But Mike Lightfoot has made a difference in the lives of countless people at Bethel College. That is his legacy, and it will not die any time soon. You can find the full interview with Coach Lightfoot below, including his thoughts about a possible matchup with Notre Dame, as well as a full career profile here.
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