Fall 2021 SS Magazine

Longwood's Griff Aldrich follows God's unique path to become Division I basketball coach

Griff Aldrich stood at center court. The 1,500-seat arena at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., sat empty. In a couple of hours, his Longwood Lancers would take the court against High Point (N.C.). But there was something unique about this contest when it came to the coaching matchup. On one bench sat Tubby Smith, a man who has amassed 622 career wins as a college coach at programs like Kentucky and Memphis. On the other sat Aldrich.

But none of that mattered. God had Aldrich where He wanted him, inside this gym, coaching Division I college basketball. And to think that just three years prior, the closest Aldrich had gotten to college basketball within the past two decades was as a fan in the stands.

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By the time Aldrich graduated high school, he was a standout basketball player and took his talents to Hampden-Sydney College, a Division-III school in Hampden Sydney, Va. There, he developed a friendship with a recent basketball icon, a coach’s kid by the name of Ryan Odom. Together, they guided Hampden-Sydney to two D-III NCAA Tournament appearances.

Off the court, Aldrich showed just as much potential. When it came time to choose a major, he did not shy away from a challenging career path — medical school or law school. Law school won out.

“When I went to college, I knew I wanted to go into graduate school, but I had no idea of what in,” Aldrich recently told Sports Spectrum. “I ended up narrowing it down to law and medicine, probably because I thought those were prestigious career paths. I took biology and didn’t love it, so I said, ‘I guess I’ll move toward law.’ I also felt that with a law degree, you could use it regardless of what you did in the future.”

Griff Aldrich

Longwood University head coach Griff Aldrich (Photo courtesy of Longwood University)

But upon graduating, basketball was still nagging at his heart. He did not want to completely walk away from the game, so coaching proved to be the perfect option. And he happened to have the perfect connection in Odom, whose father, Dave, was an established coach at Wake Forest. So the next season, both Aldrich and the younger Odom planned on taking spots on Dave’s staff — that was, until a specific letter arrived. That letter was from the law school at Virginia.

So Aldrich pursued his Juris Doctorate instead. But after obtaining the degree, he returned to Hampden-Sydney as an assistant coach for the 1999-2000 season. That ended up being the best season in school history — a perfect 24-0 regular season, No. 1 D-III national ranking, conference championship, and second-round appearance in the NCAA D-III Tournament.

After that season, however, off he went toward a prestigious career not on the court, but in the court. As you talk to Aldrich, you get the feeling that he is one of those special people who will accomplish anything he puts his mind to. He certainly did that in his 18-year law career, as he became a partner at Vinson and Elkins law firm in Houston, founded an oil and gas company in Texas, and became the managing director and chief financial officer at a private investment firm.

Still, he never lost his passion for the sport of basketball — the X’s and O’s of the game — and ended up starting a Christ-centered AAU program called His Hoops, based out of Houston’s inner-city third ward. It not only grew players into better shooters, dribblers and defenders, but it grew them into men.

Among the players to come through the team include NBA veteran DeAndre Jordan and current NFL linebacker Orie Lemon.

“I knew as soon as I stopped coaching — because I loved coaching at a D-III school, my alma mater, instead of practicing law — I knew I didn’t completely want to leave the game,” said Aldrich as he spoke of the inspiration behind starting the program. “For whatever the reason, I truly believe it was a spiritual calling that the Lord placed in my heart, a desire to coach and work with the urban youth.

“I was exposed to the ministry shortly after my rival in Houston worked with youth out of the third ward. They had a basketball program there and I began coaching pretty shortly after I arrived in Houston. We put a team together, kind of the all-stars from the program and from the neighborhood and started playing in AAU tournaments. Some of my greatest memories are working with those young men.”

“I remember trying to do a lesson about how God is your Heavenly Father. I just casually asked, ‘How many of you have a father that you live with?’ One kid raised his hand out of the 17, and that was the pastor’s son.” — Griff Aldrich

In a time in which so much emphasis is put on winning games, getting recruited and achieving national fame in the world of AAU basketball, His Hoops was not a basketball-first ministry. It was a God-first, people-first organization.

“The focus was actually not basketball. When I first started out, I was a young, intense, aggressive guy, but as I matured a lot of the time was spent more on investing in these young men,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich remembers one specific moment when, as a young coach, his eyes were opened to the fact that he needed to be more than a coach for these kids. He needed to be a father figure and a Godly influence in their lives, beyond the basketball court.

“It really hit me one day,” Aldrich said. “We had 17 guys on a team one year and we always did a devotional at the end of practice, and I remember trying to do a lesson about how God is your Heavenly Father. I just casually asked, ‘How many of you have a father that you live with?’ One kid raised his hand out of the 17, and that was the pastor’s son.

“I was prepared for there to be 10 guys, 12 guys, even just a quarter of the guys [who lived with their father] but it just really shook me the lack of a father in these guys’ lives. So it was experiences like that one and others that helped me see that my calling was not to help these guys have a better left-hand [dribble] or a stronger jump shot, but it really was to invest in them, to love them.”

Aldrich reached a point in which he felt God calling him to pursue coaching full-time. It was something he wrestled with for more than a year, until his wife encouraged him to seriously explore opportunities for a career switch. He was certain of one thing: He did not want to coach middle school or high school. College basketball was his “first love.”

“The Lord was really working on my heart for well over a year, maybe several years, to prepare me so that I would have the confidence to do that and maybe even clarity enough to know that He was really calling me to move from the private sector and go into college coaching.

“The backstory to that is that I kind of started a reflection process on God just bringing basketball to the fore in so many ways throughout my life. I was the CFO of a private equity firm at the time, but basketball just kept on coming to the fore. I really thought it was dealing with His Hoops. It was my wife (Julie) that said, ‘If you’re really interested in exploring a career in basketball, if you feel like God is calling you to coach basketball, is that your dream?’ ‘Well, I thought it was great. I feel like we’re bearing fruit and we had big dreams, but my first love is college basketball.’ She said, ‘Why don’t you explore that?’ I said, ‘That ship is gone,'” Aldrich said.

As it turns out, it was not.

Griff Aldrich

Longwood University head coach Griff Aldrich (Photo courtesy of Longwood University)

“The Lord was really working on my heart for well over a year, maybe several years, to prepare me so that I would have the confidence to do that and maybe even clarity enough to know that He was really calling me to move from the private sector and go into college coaching.” — Griff Aldrich

When Ryan Odom was named University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) head coach in the summer of 2016, Aldrich’s phone rang. Odom knew of his friend’s desire to possibly dip his toe into the water in the world of college coaching and offered him a job as director of recruiting and program development. It was the kind of opportunity Aldrich had been praying about. It was the Lord’s hand working right in front of him.

“Lo and behold, several months later, my best friend from college [Ryan Odom] gets the head job at UMBC and has an opportunity,” Aldrich said. “No. 1, I think the Lord had been preparing my heart, but No. 2, opening doors. Then I’d also say my wife. She is a passionate follower of Christ, fearless, and adventuresome, and said, ‘Let’s go for it, and if we find out that’s not where God is leading us, we’ll pivot.’”

But there was also doubt, criticism and questions. He, Julie and their three young children would need to leave their home in Houston. But they didn’t listen to those outside voices, instead focusing on God’s calling for Aldrich, halfway across the country at a school in which few outside Baltimore knew the acronym UMBC.

Odom had put together a good team for the 2017-18 season, but as the year kicked off, few knew, including Aldrich, that it would be that team that would make college hoops history.

UMBC accomplished the impossible twice in March of 2018.

In the one-bid conferences (conferences that historically only earn one bid to the Division-I NCAA Tournament), the championship game of the conference tournament is often more important than an NCAA Tournament game. Win, and you represent the conference in March Madness. Lose, and you are watching the Big Dance from home.

UMBC entered that situation when the Retrievers traveled to play at Vermont for the Colonial Athletic Association Championship. They were 0-16 against the Catamounts heading into that Sunday afternoon, but pulled off the impossible and defeated Vermont on a three-pointer at the buzzer, sending them to the NCAA Tournament. In their first-round tournament game, UMBC then became the first No. 16 seed to take down a No. 1 seed, as the Retrievers earned a 74-54 victory over Virginia, a national championship favorite. The victory captivated the country.

“The game was phenomenal,” Aldrich said of the upset. “It was just an incredible week or so journey from upsetting Vermont, which, a lot of people focus on the Virginia game but for UMBC, Vermont was almost unbeatable for many years prior to us getting there. So to win that game on a last-second shot by Jarred Lyles and to do it at their place, it was incredibly emotional, surreal and special.

“So I think we were riding a little bit of a wave heading into the game [against Virginia]. Our guys felt that we had a pretty good game plan. I think what a lot of people also forget was that we had played SMU, who at the time was a top-25 team. We had also played Maryland and Arizona earlier. The Maryland and Arizona games ended up being lopsided, but we were up with about two minutes to go [against SMU], playing without KJ Maura, one of our key players. So I think there was some built-in confidence, that our guys knew, ‘If we can put some things together, we can compete.’”

They did, and the nation took notice. Among those people was Longwood University’s athletic director, Troy Austin. Longwood is a small D-I program not far from Baltimore in Farmville, Va. Austin called UMBC athletic director Tim Hall, who advised Austin to get Aldrich on board while he still could, calling him a “hidden gem.”

The rest is history. Four days after UMBC lost to Kansas State in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Aldrich took the job at Longwood, making for one of the most unique coaching journeys in college basketball history.

Longwood went 16-18 in Aldrich’s first season, and was 14-18 overall before the 2019-20 season was shut down abruptly due to the coronavirus. But the Lancers earned the most conference victories (nine), best conference winning percentage (.500) and highest league finish (fourth) since joining the Big South Conference in 2012-13, and secured a first-round bye in the Big South Championship tournament for the first time in program history.

And he’s 4-0 against High Point and Tubby Smith.

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Griff Aldrich

Longwood University head coach Griff Aldrich (Photo courtesy of Longwood University)

In 2020, a time in which everyone has had to adjust to the unexpected, Aldrich remains focused on the Lord. At Longwood, he has put together two teams that have surpassed expectations, yet there is one thing vacant from the program’s resume: a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Aldrich says an NCAA berth is a goal he believes this year’s team can attain, but for now, the focus is on having the most successful experience they can.

“Each of the young men that have elected to come play here at Longwood have entrusted themselves to us during a very challenging period, a period they will remember for the rest of their lives,” Aldrich said. “So I think for us, we’re going to try to give them the best experience possible and to help them grow. I honestly think for me, the focus is on having a championship caliber. Do we ultimately want to make the NCAA Tournament? Absolutely. That certainly is a tangible goal. But I don’t think you are able to sustainably build a great program without a tremendous culture.

“If you came to practice, you’d probably hear a lot of emphasis on topics surrounding our culture and our values, about grit and toughness, focus and effort. You are what you repeatedly do. We want to establish a culture that is firm and sound, and once that is built, there is a great opportunity for you to bear fruit. We always talk about pouring into the roots and then the fruit will reveal itself. That’s what we want to do.”

This Longwood team, led by Aldrich, certainly has the opportunity to do that this season. But regardless of what happens, Aldrich’s faith will be rooted in the Lord. God has him right where He wants him.

Ultimately, it was the words of one of Aldrich’s fellow executives in Texas that sums up his journey of faith and basketball, and his unique path to a D-I head coaching job.

“He really encouraged me to burn the boat, follow your dream and don’t look back,” Aldrich remembered. “I think that was some of the best pieces of advice I got during that time. He said, ‘The Lord is leading you in that direction, run towards it.’”

Riley Zayas is a high school sophomore and freelance journalist from Round Rock, Texas. He began his journalism career as a Sports Illustrated Kid reporter and has since become a regular contributor to Horns Illustrated, covering Texas Longhorn sports. His work also includes Fellowship of Christian Athletes publications, his personal blog 360 Sports and now Sports Spectrum, having been a longtime fan of the magazine.

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