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The long road to Longwood

Coach Griff Aldrich led a life in corporate law and private equity for 16 years, and now he’s leading a basketball program to new heights

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you’re neither a resident of central Virginia nor a fan of the Big South Conference, you might not have heard of the town of Farmville before reading this sentence. It doesn’t entirely consist of farms as the name would indicate, but the town of roughly 8,000 sits about an hour and fifteen minutes outside of Richmond, a couple hours from Roanoke and probably a long journey from wherever you are reading this story.

Longwood University’s men’s basketball team, based in Farmville, is in the midst of a long journey of its own. Since beginning its transition to Division I, it has recorded a single winning season — a 17-14 mark when it was still playing as an independent in 2008-09 — and none since joining the Big South Conference in the fall of 2012.

But now, in his fourth season at the helm, head coach Griff Aldrich has helped bring success to the program. Prior to his arrival, Longwood had yet to record a conference record better than eight games under .500. In their last two seasons, the Lancers finished with .500 records. This season, they are in uncharted territory racing out to a 9-0 conference start and 17-5 overall.

“Longwood’s a hidden gem,” he told me last week. “Even though it’s been around for a long time — 1839 — the reality is there’s been massive transformation at this school with facilities, with the community and the town, and it’s a vibrant university. We’re in a two-college town with Hampden-Sydney, where I went, and it’s just a neat community.”

Suffice it to say, the Farmville community means a lot to Aldrich. It’s where he spent his college years as a member of a Hampden-Sydney team that made two appearances in the NCAA Division III tournament and built a lifelong friendship with another future coach in Ryan Odom. It’s where Aldrich got his start as a collegiate head coach at both the D-I and D-II levels. And it was from here almost 23 years ago that he began his own long journey that shares few similarities to many of his counterparts in college coaching.

There and back again

Admittedly, his story has been documented some, but it is so fascinating that I couldn’t resist tracing through it with him.

After graduating from Hampden-Sydney, Aldrich enrolled in the University of Virginia School of Law, but still kept basketball front and center.

“I was actually coaching at the Covenant School up in Charlottesville my second and third year [of law school], and just loved coaching and I knew, ‘Hey, let’s give basketball a chance,’” he said. “Then, I had an opportunity to go with Coach [Dave Odom] at Wake Forest, and then at the last second an opportunity to coach at my alma mater popped up when an assistant left … and so I kind of felt like that was a path that I wanted to at least explore.”

After a year as an assistant coach at his alma mater, he began to see that coaching would not provide enough financial relief to support large debts from law school. So he left coaching full-time to join the Vinson & Elkins firm in Houston as a partner, working with clients primarily in oil and energy on all kinds of corporate transactions, from capital markets, to private equity, to mergers and acquisitions — and he really enjoyed it.

“There’s a high intensity, there’s adrenaline around the deal, there’s intensity about getting the deal done in a certain time frame,” he said. “ … There was a lot of collaboration, and one of the reasons I wanted to be a corporate lawyer is there’s collaboration, usually, to get the deal done. And so you’re working together, there’s negotiations and it certainly can become adversarial, but at the same time, everyone’s usually trying to work towards getting the deal done, and I really like that.”

From there, his path took even more twists and turns. He took on a temporary role in London that turned permanent and lived there for four years while his wife, Julie, received a theology degree from Oxford. They returned to Houston, where Aldrich eventually founded his own oil and gas company and then moved into the even more lucrative field of private equity as a managing partner.

Throughout his career, though, he had a never-ending desire — he referred to it several times during our interview as “the itch” — to impact young peoples’ lives, especially through his love of basketball. After moving back from London he became involved in a couple of Christian ministries, the Forge for Families and Agape Development, and resumed coaching AAU, something he had also done in his first stint in Houston. This time, though, he ingrained himself even further with the kids in his community.

“We had a really neat program,” he said, smiling. “We lived in the Third Ward of Houston, right there near Texas Southern and Yates High School in a historically Black neighborhood. My family moved into that neighborhood to be closer to the Christian ministry … and we thought we would have a better opportunity to connect the guys that we were coaching. We had also adopted three young boys, [all] of whom were African-American, and thought it would be better for them to be raised in that neighborhood.”

He and his family lived in the Third Ward for five years, and seeing the impact he was having on young lives through coaching, he felt called to pursue it even further, but he didn’t know how at first.

“To be honest with you I never thought college coaching would be the answer, I thought it was going to be doing more AAU,” he said. “And, so, when the decision to pursue more coaching it was more ‘Hey, should I reduce my time at my private equity firm and be more present with one of the Christian ministries?’ And it was only at that point, it was really my wife who said, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it, you’re waking up in the morning thinking about this and let’s go for it, but what’s your passion? Is [AAU] your passion or is it college?’”

He’d thought the door to college coaching had close a long time ago. As he said, “It’s not like you can send a resume and get a job.”

But in his view, providence seemed to bring him an avenue in the form of his college teammate and close friend Ryan Odom, who was getting his own opportunity to lead a program right at that time.

“I had reached out to a couple people before I even made the decision to get back into coaching,” Aldrich said. “I said, ‘Am I crazy to be even thinking about this?’ I kind of expected people to be like, ‘Man, keep your job, keep scratching the itch with AAU, you’re doing some cool stuff, keep doing that and stay on that path.’ And every single person I spoke to said, ‘No, go for it.’ And [Ryan] was having a great year at Lenoir-Rhyne at the time, and I think we started really talking in earnest in December [2015], and by March he really became involved with the UMBC job. And he came down to Houston for the Final Four … and that’s when he offered me the position.”

So Aldrich joined the UMBC staff as director of recruiting and player development — not even an official assistant coaching role. Alongside his best friend, for two years he had a hand in building a program from obscurity to success, culminating in everyone’s favorite college basketball moment, a shocking tournament upset of the top-overall seed Virginia Cavaliers.

Not a week later, and a bit to even his own surprise, he was given the chance to take the reins at a new program in a familiar place, and the “highly intense lawyer inside of him” couldn’t pass up such an opportunity.

“I think a lot of times when I stop and think about it, it’s hard to really reflect upon because this is so not what I had in mind,” he said. “Honestly when I left the private sector to go coach with Ryan … I kind of resigned myself to, ‘I’m gonna help Ryan and invest in the guys at UMBC’ who I loved and who were great, and I wanted to be an assistant coach at some point but, I didn’t have any grand plans.

“I was going to ride the wave with my best buddy as long as we could,” he added. “And the Longwood thing was kind of out of the blue … It’s been an incredible journey.”

The march to March

On the court, the Lancers’ strides have been immense the past three seasons, even through considerable adversity.

In 2019-20, the Lancers endured a rough 3-14 stretch in the middle of the season, but battled back to a 9-9 conference mark, easily the best in school history. They pulled a similar stunt in 2020-21, starting 3-13 before again closing strong to a 10-10 conference record.

In a pandemic that forced increased protocols, makeup games and condensed playing schedules, the Lancers played all 20 scheduled conference games.

But even with the moderate success of the last couple of seasons, the Lancers are shattering records and expectations this season. At 17-5 overall and 9-0 in conference play, they are on a pace to set the best record in school history in both conference and overall records. Expected to be somewhat of a dark horse in the Big South, they have emerged as the clear team to beat, taking down contenders Campbell, NC A&T, UNC Asheville and perennial preseason favorite Winthrop — with many of those games coming on an abbreviated timeline due to COVID complications.

So what has been the key to all of the on-court success?

“First off, I think we’ve got really good players,” Aldrich said. “We’ve got some talent that I haven’t had in my four years here … but I think, number two, there’s been a real early buy-in to try and execute. Tony Shaver, the old coach at William and Mary and my coach at Hampden-Sydney, he told me that ‘execution is everything.’ And that’s really been a mantra of ours - it’s said that the highest form of competition is execution. And I think that we’re not where we want to be, but I think that the guys are starting to understand that that’s what we need to really be focused on.”

In particular, the Lancers execute well on the boards. Longwood has hauled in over eight more rebounds on average than its opponents per game, good for the 11th-best rebounding margin in the country and the best in the conference. When outrebounding opponents, Longwood is 15-1 this season.

The Lancers don’t do it with overwhelming size — they are actually paced by 6-foot-4-inch guard Isaiah Wilkins at six rebounds per game — but across the roster, rebounding is very balanced.

According to teamrankings.com, they have risen from outside the top 200 in offensive efficiency the last two years to 49th this season. In Longwood’s last game against UNC Asheville, neither team shot the ball particularly well, but the Lancers outrebounded the Bulldogs 18-7 and had 12 more field-goal attempts, enough to carry them to a 56-48 victory.

Generally though, they score much more than 56 points. Their 74 points per game scoring average in league games ranks second in the Big South — and they owe that to a talented yet balanced roster.

Four players average in double figures, while nine average over 15 minutes per game. After their thrilling 92-88 shootout win over Winthrop, Aldrich raved about the unselfishness of the team overall and the contributions of several of his players: forward Leslie Nkereuwem, who comes off the bench to average in double digits; Nate Lliteras, a sharpshooter from the outside; the aforementioned leading rebounder Wilkins; even Jaylani Darden, a reserve who gave good minutes and provided an important rebound and stick-back.

A couple of men in particular have stepped up to lead the team this season. Justin Hill, a sophomore from Houston (and one of three Texans on the roster), averages a team-high at over 16 a contest and has turned in some fantastic performances this season, including a monstrous 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the Winthrop win to help give his team ten wins in five days.

“Justin doing Justin things,” Aldrich said after the game. “[Last year] he was just playing a role, and his role was to just put up some points and stuff like that. Now he’s leading the team … they’ve got a full game plan to try and stop him, and he’s still able to make smart plays. I’m really proud of him.”

Then there’s senior guard Deshaun Wade, whom Aldrich specifically mentioned to me about having grown into a leadership role.

“That’s been probably one of the most rewarding things is to see guys like Deshaun Wade who have just grown massively as basketball player but also as a young man and to really embrace the challenges that they struggle with and to really fight to grow and get better,” he said.

The success on the court has begun to create a new excitement around the program, particularly in the Lancers’ home arena, Willett Hall.

“It’s unreal,” Aldrich remarked of the sold-out arena after Longwood’s thrilling takedown of Winthrop. “This is an incredible college basketball atmosphere, I mean it’s unbelievable. I’ve participated in very few atmospheres where there’s no available seating, people standing. To think about where we were four years ago – I am just so thrilled for the students, thrilled for the community members, I think everyone’s having a lot of fun with it, and I know our guys are.”

The momentum the program is generating for years to come is apparent, perhaps best evidenced by the construction of a brand new basketball arena, the Joan Perry Brock Center, set to open in 2023. Aldrich is certainly excited by that but remarked that the focus of the players and staff is to finish this season strong, game by game.

At the end of our interview, I asked Aldrich what the program’s goals were for the season and if they had been achieved. He paused in contemplation for a few moments, wanting to give me something concrete. “I think we wanted to compete for the north division title in the Big South, I think we thought we had the talent to compete for that.” (They now sit 3.5 games clear of second place in the division.)

But he knew the real answer. “I know this is probably a little coach-speaky, but it’s to be the best team we can be. And a lot of that is just the approach that we have, and a consistent emphasis on, ‘we’ve gotta execute.’”

If they can keep executing, we may soon see them on a new kind of journey – the NCAA tournament.