By GREG KEIM
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Christian recording artist Guy Penrod has a line in one of his songs that says “A man makes his living by the work he does, but leaves his mark because of who he was.”
Mike Lightfoot, Bethel College men’s basketball coach, is a perfect example of that sentiment.
Lightfoot makes his living teaching young men about the game of basketball. He is leaving his mark because of the quality young men he is turning out that are in turn leaving their own mark, many of them as basketball coaches that will ensure the Lightfoot Legacy lives on.
When it comes to turning out quality young men who are leaving an impression on their communities and in the sport of basketball few can match the accomplishments Bethel’s legendary coach can lay claim to.
Bethel is developing a reputation as a “Cradle of Coaches. Indiana high school state championship coaches such as Jack Edison, Pete Smith, Jason Groves and Travis Hannah all have roots that started at the NAIA Division II school located in Mishawaka.
According to a recent press release from the school, more than 50 Bethel graduates are active in coaching or administrative work from elementary to collegiate levels. More than 30 are presently head coaches.
Seven of the past nine state boys basketball championship finals have included a Bethel graduate on the sidelines.
In 2005, Edison led Plymouth to the state championship game for the first time since Scott Skiles in 1982. The contest would end in one of the most memorable endings in state finals history when Indiana Mr. Basketball Luke Zeller would hit a half-court shot to upend the Pilgrims.
In 2007, two Bethel graduates would win state championships just hours apart. Bethel grad and Oregon-Davis head coach Travis Hannah would lead his team to a 1A state championship with a 63-52 victory over Barr-Reeve. Just one game later Edison would return his team to Indianapolis and capture Plymouth’s second state championship crown with a 71-62 win over Evansville Bosse. Jack’s son Michael Edison, who was a 1999 Bethel grad, was also a key member of the Pilgrim coaching staff.
In 2008, Groves would begin to make his mark on Indiana high school basketball winning the state championship and making his first of many appearances in Indianapolis for Triton High School. The Trojans would defeat Indianapolis Lutheran 50-42.
In 2009, Groves would once again return his Triton team to Indianapolis to have another shot at the state title, but suffered a 66-55 loss to Jac-Cen-Del.
The 2011 season would once again see two Bethel graduates in the state championship games. Groves would return a very youthful Triton team to the 1A finals while 1995 Bethel grad Mark Galloway would lead Culver Military Academy to the finals in his first season with the program. Before Galloway’s arrival CMA had never even won a sectional title in their history.
In 2012, former Penn head coach Pete Smith continued the great run of Bethel alumni by guiding Guerin Catholic to their first state championship with a 64-48 victory over Norwell.
The streak continued this past season as Groves once again had Triton in the state finals. The Trojans dropped a 55-50 decision to Borden in the 1A finale.
Besides all of those coaches, Bethel women’s coach Jody Martinez is a former Pilot as are Lightfoot’s sons Robbie and Ryne who work in the program with their dad. Goshen boys coach Brian Bechtel is also a former Pilot.
Just looking at all those accomplishments there is enough evidence to consider Lightfoot’s coaching career a successful one. Once you start examining the actual numbers from his career it becomes even more impressive.
The Pilot program has been under Lightfoot’s guidance for the past 26 seasons. He has more wins (658) than all the previous Bethel coaches combined (441). During his tenure the Pilots have won three NAIA national championships, four NCCAA national championships, 10 Crossroads League (formerly Mid-Central Conference) regular season titles and seven league tournament championships.
His career record is a noteworthy 658-243.
Lightfoot is the fastest collegiate coach at any level to 300, 400, 500 and 600 career wins. He reached those milestones in 10, 13, 18 and 22 season respectively. He is tied for the quickest to 100 wins (four seasons) and 200 (eight).
Lightfoot’s influence extends beyond the basketball court and into the classroom. In his first 25 years at Bethel, a noteworthy 98.7 percent of his players who completed their eligibility also left the Mishawaka campus with their degree.
That’s a rather remarkable accomplishment in this day and age when more people seemed concerned more with a player’s points per game average than his grade point average. The purpose of college after all should be to obtain a degree not mattered how good of an athlete you are.
One of the major underlying reasons for Lightfoot’s success is his Christian faith. He wears his faith on his sleeve whether it be on his suit coat when he is on the sidelines coaching the Pilots, on the T-shirt or sweatshirt he wears in practice when he is teaching the game or on the T-shirt or sweatshirt he wears on the mission trips he takes the Pilots on when he is sharing life lessons.
Among the places he has taken teams on mission trips are the Dominican Republic, Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Alaska and Ecuador.
In the Bethel men’s basketball media guide a short section of Lightfoot’s three-page biography sums up his feelings about turning out quality young men.
“I heard Coach Joe Paterno respond to this question once: How successful will your team be? His response was ‘I don’t know. I will have to wait about ten years and then I can tell you.’ That says it best,” said Coach Lightfoot.
“We need to look at the product years after graduation. What are my players doing in their communities, their churches and how are they leading their families? The journey really begins after our players finish their basketball careers, graduate and start applying the lessons they have learned.”
There no doubt in my mind when Lightfoot looks back on the kids he has turned out there will be nothing but a big smile on his face.