By Matt Kopsea
Mike Lightfoot knew he had his work cut out for him.
After spending seven seasons coaching the Marian High boys’ basketball team, he now had the challenge of returning to his alma mater, Bethel College.
With longtime coach Homer Drew making the move to Indiana South Bend in 1987 and eventually Valparaiso University, Lightfoot not only found himself advancing up the ladder to the collegiate level, but also having the tough task of replacing one of his mentors in Drew.
Despite losing his first two games, let’s just say that Lightfoot has done very well for himself.
A 25-11 mark in his first season with the Pilots was just a prelude of great things to come for the former LaVille High standout, who retired at the conclusion of the 2016-17 campaign after three decades on the job.
In accumulating his total of 794 victories, Lightfoot was the quickest NAIA coach to achieve 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, and 700 victories.
Only legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp reached the 400-win plateau faster in all of college basketball.
Along with registering 28 winning seasons, including 10 years of 30 or more wins and 26 campaigns with 20 or more victories, Lightfoot also guided the Pilots to three NAIA national championships in 1995, 1997, and 1998 and four NCCAA national crowns in 1992, 1993, 2000, and 2007.
In all, he has captured 19 conference championships and made 15 appearances in the NAIA tournament.
Actually, the 1978 Bethel graduate started out his playing career at Tri-State (now Trine) University before transferring and ended up tallying 644 points over his three-year playing career.
While Drew was responsible for getting the Bethel men’s basketball program on the map, Lightfoot was the man to take it to bigger and greater heights.
In the long run, he might have also responsible for helping save Bethel College from possible extinction.
With talk of the institution possibly closing because of low enrollment, the newfound success of the basketball program along with the introduction of the nursing program in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s ended this speculation.
Bethel College now became an another option or a destination spot for some of the area’s and Indiana’s best basketball talent.
In the early going, Jody Martinez (Marian), Jody Goralski (Marian), Pat Adkins (LaVille), David Troyer (Westview), Brian Bechtel (Fairfield) Rico Swanson (Riley), Von Gilbert (South Bend Clay), Michael Edison (Plymouth), Ryan Bales (North Judson), Mark Galloway (Plainfield), and Eric Brand (Bloomington South) were just a few of the standout performers Lightfoot had a hand in helping mold into champions both on and off the hardwood.
In addition to having the privilege of working with both of his sons, NorthWood products Robbie and Ryne Lightfoot, he recently worked with the likes of Tyler Brown (Penn), Wes Laidig (Penn), Caleb Laidig (Penn), Kyle Sears (Elkhart Memorial), Matt Schauss (Centerville), Zach Miller (Connersville), and Clay Yeo (Triton).
Current high school coaches and Bethel alums Chad Johnston (South Bend Washington), Jason Groves (Triton), Travis Hannah (John Glenn), and Ryan Culp (Elkhart Christian) also owe a debt of gratitude to Coach Lightfoot.
As it turned out, the Lightfoot name will remain with Ryne taking over the controls next year.
Being the sports information director and a 1988 graduate of Bethel, I had the privilege of getting to work with Mike Lightfoot from the very beginning.
Despite some early struggles, I knew right away he was the right man for the job.
Over the years, we not only developed a good, professional working relationship, but became very good friends off the court as well.
With aspirations of maybe wanting to get into coaching myself, Coach Lightfoot helped me realize maybe I was better suited to report on the games instead.
This came in Tennessee while serving as the team’s statistician during the final seconds of the opening round of the 1989 NCCAA National Tournament against Southern California College.
With the Pilots holding a slim lead and one of their better free throw shooters at the line, I suggested to Coach Lightfoot that they pull the other players back to play defense.
Good thing he didn’t take my advice as the player missed the free throw.
Luckily, though, one of the other Bethel players got the rebound and was fouled.
The Pilots wound up winning the game and saved me from total humiliation.
I owe a lot to Coach Lightfoot for helping me get my first job in the sports industry with the South Bend White Sox.
This eventually allowed me to land a job in the sports department at the South Bend Tribune.
As fate would have it, my first assignment in November 1992 was a Bethel-Indiana South Bend men’s basketball game.
During my post-game interview, I thanked Coach Lightfoot for helping me.
I still do to this day every time our paths cross.
He has had such an impact in my life both professionally and personally.
That is why I asked him to be my presenter this past year when I had the honor of being inducted into the Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame
A member of both the NCCAA and NAIA Basketball Hall of Fame himself, Mike Lightfoot will always be “Coach” to me.
By Matt Kopsea