He’s still a perfectionist.
Still a taskmaster who is persnickety about shot selection and demanding about defensive effort. Still the kind of guy who spends his mornings pouring over game film and his afternoons fixing the flaws he saw on those films.
And yet, by his own admission, Al Aldridge has changed. After 62 years on this earth and 32 seasons as a basketball coach and 710 victories that included six state championships, he has adjusted.
“It’s been a fun evolution,” Aldridge said. “Learning for me, learning for my kids. I’ve had to tone down my style a little bit.”
Had to, indeed. Probably more than he imagined.
Leaving behind the empire that was his Prairie High School girls basketball program and taking over the Clark College women’s team meant Aldridge was still in the basketball universe, but it was a different planet. He was dealing with older players, with players who were new to him, with players he won’t have longer than two years.
“In some ways, these kids could care less that I won 710 games in high school or was the winningest whatever,” he said.
“I just was so used to kids doing things our way and never questioning why. We always played hard and played fast and played with great spirit and pride. Now, we were asking some of them to play harder than they’d ever played before, to sell out for the program.
“We’re trying to educate college kids on shot selection, and their egos are a little different than high school kids.”
Aldridge, you see, can be hard on his players. And when his team at Clark went 2-8 in non-league play, losing six more times than his last two Prairie clubs combined, well, he was hard on himself.
“It started out as being not very much fun,” he said. “We were both miserable, me and the players. It was starting to snowball, but winning takes care of a lot of snowball issues.”
Or, as freshman point guard Toni Doroha said, “It was shaky at first. We kind of came together, baby steps.”
Since that dreadful start, the Penguins have gone 9-2 in league play, including a 96-34 win Saturday over Green River. They are in contention for the West Division title in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges, and they appear headed for a spot in the NWAACC tournament.
“It took us awhile to adjust to him,” Doroha said. “We had to buy in as a team, everybody having the same goal, sacrificing your body.”
And while the players were adjusting, Aldridge was doing the same.
“Definitely in high school, he was a lot more tense,” said freshman Andrea Smith, who played four years for Aldridge at Prairie and already had committed to Clark before the new coach was hired. “He’s toned it down a bit.
“I definitely try to help as much as I can with the girls, say, ‘That’s just him. You can’t take it so personally.’ You have to have an open mind to learning.”
That has applied to Aldridge, as well.
“I’m just trying not to be in a constant correction mode,” he said. “I’m letting more things go. Constant correction wasn’t building confidence. It was helping their game, but it wasn’t building confidence.”
Which points out the remarkable nature of Aldridge’s transition.
He went from a position of security, one in which previous success had nearly guaranteed a continued assembly line of talented players, and he waded into the great unknown. And while the journey is far from complete, he has learned as much about himself as he has his players.
“I’m not sure I am where I want to be,” he said. “I’m still a perfectionist, and things aren’t perfect as often as I would like them to be. I haven’t arrived yet.
“I just choose not to nitpick as much. You’re never too old to learn.”