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Griff Aldrich, a former lawyer, has Longwood in the NCAA Tournament

One of the people least surprised to see Aldrich’s behavior was his best friend from college, Utah coach Ryan Odom, who calls him “a nervous Nellie.”

“It’s part of who he is,” Odom said by phone Sunday. “He is always ready. He always worries about something that is not perfect. He is really passionate. But his most important quality is that he has always been concerned with having a positive effect on the lives of his players.

It may sound like a pablum coach, but Aldrich has lived by that creed since practicing law and coaching AAU basketball in Houston — before a dramatic career change that culminated in Sunday’s victory.

So there were plenty more hugs and a few tears as Longwood wrapped up their 79-58 win over the perennial might of Big South Winthrop to claim the conference tournament title. The Lancers are 26-6 and have won 19 of their last 20 games. They will be a No. 15 seed at best when the brackets go up next Sunday. And no one in Farmville, Va. — which is about 70 miles west of Richmond — will care.

Aldrich and the Lancers should be in the spotlight when the tournament begins next week. Part of it will be that they’re on this stage for the first time. It will be more about Aldrich, whose story is unlike that of any coach at the tournament.

Both of his grandfathers graduated from the Naval Academy and served as ship captains in World War II. Aldrich graduated from Hampden-Sydney, a Division III school about six miles from Longwood, in 1996. As a senior he captained the team but only played 10 games because he was diagnosed the previous summer with bladder cancer. Aldrich had applied to law school as a senior, but he really wanted to become a coach.

“My passion has always been basketball,” he said. “I loved the ACC as a kid and wanted to be a part of the sport. Law school was a backup plan.

He entered law school at the University of Virginia, but planned to go work for Ryan’s father, Dave, in Wake Forest as a graduate assistant. When he and Ryan traveled to Milwaukee in March 1996 to watch second-seeded Wake play the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, Ryan told his father that Griff had been accepted to law school in Virginia.

“Coach Odom called me to his room and said, ‘The offer to coach me is withdrawn. You’re going to law school,'” Aldrich said. ‘law School.”

After finishing in 1999 he still wanted to be a coach, so he went to work at Hampden-Sydney for Tony Shaver, who had been his college coach. The Tigers, a Division III powerhouse, went 26-2 that season, losing by one point in the second round of the D-III tournament.

But Aldrich still had law student loans to repay. So when big Houston firm Vinson & Elkins offered him a six-figure job, he took it. “The idea was to pay off the loans and then get back to training,” he said. “Plans change.”

He changed in part because he met his future wife, Julie Wareing – who was born and raised in Houston – and because he became so successful and established that it seemed impossible to leave. He became a partner. He and Julie left their home in an upscale neighborhood and moved to downtown Houston after returning from a four-year stay in London. They adopted three children from Houston – two boys and a girl – who are now almost 11, just turned 10 and 7. Eventually, he founded an oil and gas company and became managing director and chief financial officer of a private investment firm.

He also started an AAU team called His Hoops—Aldrich is a devout Christian—not to tour the country and attract college coaches, but to help inner-city kids. After-school practice began each day with a study hall and often ended at the Aldrichs’ for dinner. When one of his players, DeAndre Jordan, showed college and professional potential, Aldrich hooked him up with a high-powered AAU program for college scouts to see.

He was making nearly $800,000 a year, married with three kids, and getting his basketball fix with His Hoops when Ryan Odom was hired to Maryland Baltimore County in the spring of 2016. Aldrich was 42. He always wanted to be full time. basketball coach. So he called his old college friend.

“I thought he was joking at first,” Odom said. “I mean, I knew how successful he was, and I knew he and Julie loved living in Houston.”

Aldrich was not joking. “I have one spot left,” Odom finally said. “That’s the position of director of basketball operations. I can pay you $32,000 a year.

“The key to it all was Julie,” he said. “She had lived in Houston all her life, and we had to uproot ourselves with three young children to move to Baltimore. We were fine financially, but the pay difference must have been some kind of shock to his system. Mine too.”

UMBC made basketball history in 2018, when they upset Vermont in the America East tournament final, then stunned top seed Virginia, 74-54, in the round of 16 of the NCAA Tournament, becoming the first No. 16 seed. beat a No. 1 seed in 136 attempts.

“I wouldn’t describe Griff and I as screamers,” Odom said. “But we cry after the Vermont game. Beating them was so hard. The Virginia game was different. It was surreal.

It also changed Aldrich’s life. Longwood, who had been in Division I since 2007, was looking for a new coach, and school president W. Taylor Reveley IV knew about Aldrich even before Virginia was upset. A former Princeton football player, he had dated Aldrich at law school in Virginia, even though they didn’t know each other. Their interview had to be postponed twice because UMBC kept winning games they weren’t supposed to win, but when they finally sat down, Reveley offered the job to Aldrich. He got a huge raise, to $150,000 a year – still a fraction of what he was earning in Houston.

The Lancers – whose greatest player was the late Jerome Kersey and who won just seven games the season before Aldrich was hired – improved immediately, winning 16 games in Aldrich’s first season, including beating High Point, coached by Tubby Smith, twice. “It’s got to be one of the greatest managerial matchups of all time,” Aldrich said before the first of those games. “Tubby with 606 wins and a national title, me with 12 wins and a law degree.”

The Lancers have cruised through the Deep South this season with a 15-1 league record. After surviving an overtime scare against North Carolina A&T in the first round of the conference tournament, they sailed on, leading Winthrop by 28 at one point Sunday. “A few years ago, if we lost to them in single digits, this was a win,” Aldrich said. “I’m not sure any of this has struck me yet.”

Evidence suggests otherwise. If Julie has anything to reproach her husband for, it’s that he doesn’t show enough emotion. “She says I don’t cry enough,” he said.

As Aldrich waited to do the post-match television interview on Sunday, he noticed the joy on all the faces of the Longwood players and staff. “I felt myself starting to tear up,” he said. “Then Julie came out to hug me. That was it. Aqueduct. Everywhere.”

Eventually, for a while, nervous Nellie replaced anxiety with happiness. Twenty-three years after graduating from law school, he has found his footing.