Culture according to a purpose: Pursuit of excellence yields historic Lancers season

Published 5:51 pm Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The 2021-22 season for Longwood University’s men’s basketball team will go into the school’s record books as a historic, breakthrough year for the program.

The Lancers were part of March Madness for the first time ever.

When success like this is achieved, it usually involves a variety of factors coming together to make it possible. Evidence suggests that was true in this instance as well.

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It also seems to suggest what the initial factor was.

In the biography of the Lancers’ head coach, the first sentence reads as follows: “Griff Aldrich took over the Longwood men’s basketball program in March of 2018 and soon after began what has become the most successful run of the program’s Division I era.”

At the beginning of 2016, Aldrich was not even involved in the college basketball world. His education at Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Virginia School of Law had led to a successful career in law and private equity.

He chose to leave that lucrative career to coach college basketball at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he was director of recruiting, and then Longwood, where he makes good money but still significantly less than he was receiving before.

So what was the factor that ultimately led Aldrich to become the initial difference-maker for the Lancers?

“I would call it a spiritual calling,” he said.

He noted that he hears people say he followed his passion.

“Well, I love basketball, and it is a passion, but I’m passionate about a lot of things, and I would not have changed my life trajectory just to follow a passion,” he said. “This, I felt like, was much deeper and central to what I felt like I was supposed to be doing with my life, and it was really many years in the making.

“I had been working with urban youth in Houston in one of the under-resourced neighborhoods of Houston, and the more and more I did that, the more I felt like what I was being called to do was invest in young men through the context of basketball.”

He acknowledged that there was a lot of security and comfort in making the amount of money he had been bringing in, but his Christian faith ultimately gave him a different perspective on all that. He noted that being a Christian means his identity is not in his title or his finances or something like that, but in Christ.

“If that’s really who I’m supposed to be and how I’m supposed to invest my life, then it kind of freed me up more than anything to go do what I felt like I wanted to do and what I was called to do,” he said.

Longwood’s 2021-22 season showed that his calling has borne fruit in a big way.

The Lancers finished the season with an overall record of 26-7, the first time they have ever surpassed the 20-win mark. They posted their best-ever record in Willett Hall and in the Big South Conference, going 15-1 in both instances.

They won their inaugural Big South regular season and tournament titles, which led to their first trip to the NCAA Division I Tournament.

Longwood had two players recognized on the All-Big South First Team for the first time — sophomore guard Justin Hill and senior guard Isaiah Wilkins. Senior guard DeShaun Wade received all-conference honorable mention, making it the first time the Lancers had three players selected for postseason accolades.

Aldrich also became the first Longwood men’s basketball coach to be named Big South Coach of the Year.

Longwood reported Thursday, March 24, that Aldrich is also a finalist for a pair of prestigious coaching awards: the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year Award and the Hugh Durham Award.

A university press release highlighted that the Jim Phelan award is presented annually to the nation’s top Division I coach, and this year’s 20-person finalist pool includes Aldrich along with Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski, University of North Carolina’s Hubert Davis and Gonzaga University’s Mark Few.

The release also noted that the Hugh Durham Award is presented annually to the top Division I mid-major coach in college basketball.

The winner of each award will be announced April 1 in New Orleans.

Putting Longwood’s season into words, Aldrich said, “I think it’s been historic at many levels.”

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve been trying to climb the ladder, so to speak, and I think Longwood has always been one of the bottom teams in the Big South,” he said. “And then I think my second year, we finished fourth, the third year we finished fifth, both out of 12 teams, so we really were starting to compete, but even last year, there was still a little bit of separation between the top team and us.

“And so the goal has always been to build a sustainable program that competes for championships year in, year out. And while we had definitely made progress, this has been a historic, breakthrough year where all of a sudden we’re not only competing with the top, but we were the top.”

He noted that typically an ascending program competes with the top and finds itself in the top two or three teams.

“But this year, we quickly became the hunted, so that was a different experience but a ton of fun,” he said.

As for what accounted for the Lancers’ big leap forward this season, Aldrich pointed to the culture of the team, which is informed, in large part, by the character of its players.

“Really the last three years, we’ve had a great locker room,” he said. “My first year, everybody was still trying to get to know me and understand who we were trying to be and what our identity was going to be, and you have growing pains with some of the returning players and things like that.”

He said that particularly in his second and third years at Longwood, he and the team battled real adversity, but the difference that was on display this year was made possible by “the character of the guys and their commitment to buying into our identity of being unselfish, of being tough, pursuing excellence every single day.”

The Lancers have a mantra that Aldrich said is an Aristotle quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Aldrich shared an anecdote to help illustrate why the team was so successful this season.

“DeShaun Wade, who is now our spiritual leader and embodies our culture, he was a new transfer from East Carolina (in 2019), and he came in one summer workout and was a little cranky, and we got on him,” Aldrich said. “But it was his teammates who were like, ‘Hey, man, it’s not what we do here.’ And all of a sudden, that kind of changes the vibe.”

Fast forward to this season.

“We had a new kid who came in and was being disciplined and was giving body language, and now all of a sudden, DeShaun was the one saying, ‘Hey, knock it off, man, take the coaching,’” Aldrich said.

Wade and the other players embracing the culture Aldrich and his staff have been trying to create has paved the way for new players — like Wilkins, Jordan Perkins and D.A. Houston — to embrace the culture as well, the coach said.

This season, Wade and senior forward Zac Watson were players Aldrich came to rely upon as leaders of the team.

“I think DeShaun Wade really became, like I said, our spiritual leader,” Aldrich said. “He’s our most passionate player, he’s been with us for three years, and so he is the guy who will speak up a lot, not all the time, but typically. And then I think, secondly, but in a much different manner, Zac Watson learned to lead quietly.”

The coach said Wade may lead vocally more in games, while Watson would do so more in practice.

“But we really lead by committee,” Aldrich said. “Our captains were Leslie Nkereuwem, Cam O’Conner, who is a walk-on who’s been great for us, and then Zac and DeShaun. But the guys who are playing the most and producing the most would be DeShaun and Zac.”

When asked what Lancers achievement he found to be the most satisfying this season, Aldrich said, “I think winning the tournament was really special.”

“Winning the regular season was probably the hardest and the most noteworthy,” he said. “It’s one thing to win the regular season and be 12-4 and, hey, you’re really good, but 15-1 is just really remarkable and a real credit to the guys.

“But getting to the NCAA Tournament is different, and it’s what the guys dream of, I think it’s what the fans dream of, and so it’s just really special.”