His Bethel College nickname may have been "Pretty Boy", but Barak Coolman's game, unlike his looks and his attire, was far more substance than style.
"The only flash was his hair and he had a lot more of it then," former Pilots coach Mike Lightfoot said. "You couldn't find a harder worker. Barak was hard-nosed, very self-disciplined, a tremendous character guy. He played with a lot of heart, a lot of grit. I could see he had the coaching pedigree, what I call the X factor you need as a coach."
Saturday's Class 4A Michigan City Regional will be a Bethel reunion of sorts with Coolman (Valparaiso), former roommate/teammate Eric Brand (South Bend Riley) and Kyle Sears (Elkhart Memorial), a Pilots player while Coolman was an assistant, all coaching teams.
"It's neat," Lightfoot said, "Coach (Homer) Drew impacted me and I passed it on down the coaching tree. It would be absolutely awesome to be in that gym with all three coaches. That'll be a hoot."
Lightfoot arrived Monday night in South Dakota, where he will watch his son and successor, Ryne, guide the Pilots in the NAIA Division II national tournament. The Bethel coach from 1987 to 2017, Lightfoot had 43 players follow him into coaching with five Indiana sectional winners this season.
"We had a good mentor," Coolman said. "He taught us what it was all about, to do it the right way. There were times you'd wish he was cussing at you because it was nicer than the yelling. He pushed us hard. It made you tough, and that helped you be successful on the court and in our lives. He really cared about you and it was more than just basketball."
By fourth grade, Coolman knew he wanted to be a basketball coach and to play at Purdue. Knowing the latter wasn't going to happen as a 6-foot-3 center, the Leo graduate chose Bethel for its tradition of success and Lightfoot's ability to mold coaches.
"I was the 16th man on the roster, an average player on a really good team," Coolman said. "I knew if I tried to be a scorer, I would stay the 16th man, but I was a good rebounder. I went to coach and asked him how I could help the team and he said if you play defense and rebound, you might have a chance. I wasn't a super athlete, but I worked to get in the best shape of my life so I could play that role to the best of my ability."
In Coolman's four years, Bethel won 132 games, two national titles and a national Christian college crown. It was NAIA runner-up the other year, when Coolman tore his MCL late in the tourney and teammate Michael Edison, now at LaVille, played through a torn ACL.
"That was a zenith point in small college basketball, a pretty amazing feat in four years," said Lightfoot, an NAIA Hall of Famer who now works with the National Association of Basketball Coaches as a mentor. "Barak was a key in what we did."
Equating himself to his Vikings, Coolman was a combination of seniors Marcus Gholston and Charlie Healy, a dirty-work, energy guy who is essential on a team with a star like Brandon Newman. Brand was the star of those Bethel teams, breaking the record for points in a season and career.
"He hogged the mirror, but he didn't hog the ball," Lightfoot said of Coolman. "It was always about appearance for Barak. Eric said he could never get a girl because Barak was hogging the mirror all the time. You can't miss his sports coats. He looks like Mr. Clean in that white one."
Coolman regaled stories of epic comebacks — 32 points down to Huntington, 10 behind Hope in the last minute, 11 in a row in the final seconds to win in the '98 tournament — all a testament to the confidence, competitiveness and never quit spirit Lightfoot instilled.
"Anything could happen," Coolman said. "You look at our teams, we were such a band of brothers. We couldn't jump out of the gym, but we were all hard-working guys who had high basketball IQs."
Save for Newman with the jumping part, it sounds a lot like the identity Coolman has forged at Valpo.
"Some coaches might have an understanding of the game but not the people skills," Lightfoot said. "It takes a special individual to relate to kids today, teach them at the same time what needs to be done on and off the court, and that's exactly what Barak's done wherever he's been at. He's a people person. He connects with players. He wants what's best for them. Every time I see him in a picture, he's with those kids. He's totally invested. He loves and cares about them."
The same, Lightfoot adds, holds true for Brand and Sears. The families also remain close, the Coolmans actually buying the Drews' former home. Jacci Lightfoot helped Valerie Coolman navigate the ups and downs of being a coach's wife and Valerie does the same for Sears' wife, Kara.
"I tried to model it from what the Drews did and passed it on to our players," Lightfoot said. "Valerie's an outstanding coach's wife. I told them it's a team effort."