PAINTER: Coach Al returns to GH to reminisce about Buc basketball

Jul 31, 2012


But more important to the 78-year-old Schaffer than victories is the numerous friends he has made through the years. Coach Al (as he is affectionately known) still keeps in touch with many of his former players, coaches and supporters through Facebook (he has nearly 1,000 friends).

It is the personal contact, though, that Schaffer enjoys the most.

Schaffer, who now makes his home in Ramona, Calif., was back in Grand Haven last week for his annual visit with many of his longtime supporters. Those supporters held a party in his honor on Friday night.

“I always look forward to it,” Schaffer said of his visits to Grand Haven.

He headed back to California on Saturday.

Even with his busy Grand Haven schedule, Schaffer found time to tutor some future high school players during a session at the Spring Lake Fitness & Aquatic Center. Teaching basketball is something Schaffer thoroughly enjoys.

I sat down with Schaffer at a local coffee shop to talk about his career.

“It’s been an amazing run,” he said. “I had so many supporters.”

His love of Grand Haven basketball remains strong. Schaffer said he follows the Grand Haven boys and girls basketball teams by reading stories on the Grand Haven Tribune’s website.

Schaffer was coaching basketball at a small high school in Blissfield in 1969 when he learned that Grand Haven was looking for a new basketball coach. The Buccaneers had just won one game the previous season.

“I was told not to go to Grand Haven because it was a graveyard for coaches,” Schaffer said with a laugh. He decided to apply anyway.

During his interview in Grand Haven, Schaffer was asked if he had anything to say. He proceeded to tell his interviewers that he was disappointed with the high school gym, noting that the floor and bleachers were in bad condition, and that there were no team logos on the gym’s wall.

“I felt confident enough that I could tell them what I thought," Schaffer recalled.

But he did worry because he had heard that then-Grand Haven Athletic Director Steve Sluka was looking for a more experienced coach.

Nevertheless, Schaffer got the job and would go on to teach mathematics at Grand Haven High School and coach the Grand Haven boys teams for 18 years. And he got some upgrades to the school gym that he named the Pirates’ Pit.

His career at Grand Haven was full of wonderful memories, he recalled. While there were many victories, the one game that stands out in Schaffer’s mind is an 1979 overtime win against Grand Rapids Creston, which was led by Melvin “Sugar” McLaughlin who would go on to star for Central Michigan University. McLaughlin pumped in 42 points that night and Grand Haven’s Cliff Gerish scored 37, Schaffer recalled. Schaffer said he doesn’t remember the final score but believes both teams scored in the 90s.

“Steve Sluka told me that that was the greatest high school game he had ever seen,” Schaffer said.

The Grand Haven basketball program would flourish under Schaffer’s tutelage, and the Pirates’ Pit would be packed with fans. He credits his assistant coaches and his supporters for much of the success.

“I had a great staff,” he said.

But the number of victories wasn’t as important to Schaffer as was the message he was trying to get across to his players.

“It was my goal to make basketball a positive experience for the players, parents and fan,” he said.

That goal was reinforced after Schaffer received a letter from one of his former players, Mark Kieft, thanking Schaffer for making high school basketball enjoyable for him. Schaffer said that letter inspired him to be a better coach.

Basketball had especially consumed Schaffer early in his career, he admitted. He couldn’t sleep at night after a game; he was thinking about that night’s game and the game coming up.

“Lillian (Al’s wife) would tell me to leave it behind. I did try,” he laughed.

Schaffer said Lillian played an important role in his career. “She would tell me that if shooting a basketball is all I’m going to teach, then I should get into another profession,” he recalled.

He realized that teaching was extremely important. “Ninety-five percent of my
salary was for teaching math,” Schaffer said. “I loved teaching math.”

In 1987, Schaffer was faced with a difficult decision. He had taught and coached for 30 years and was eligible for a retirement package, but he still had a burning desire to coach basketball.

He and Lillian began looking at options for retirement in Florida or California. They had a daughter attending college in California, making that option more attractive for them.

The father of a boy who had attended one of Schaffer’s basketball camps in Grand Haven had moved to California and kept in touch with Schaffer. He told the coach that he could get him a job.

Schaffer would land an interview with the Ramona school district, which is located 35 miles from San Diego. The superintendent was looking for a coach to upgrade the high school’s basketball program.

“They didn’t have a very good team,” Schaffer recalled. “The superintendent asked me what it would take to have a winning team, and I told him administrative support and good assistant coaches."

Schaffer got the job and would coach there until retiring in 2001.

That first season started horribly for Schaffer. There were very few fans in the stands. But by the end of the season, the Ramona Bulldogs were playing their best basketball.

In fact, they took one of the best teams in the area to the wire before losing in the final seconds. “We had a lot of fans at that game,” he said.

Schaffer’s life took a dramatic turn in 2010 when Lillian died. But soon after, he would receive a call from San Diego State University assistant basketball coach Brian Dutcher asking Schaffer if he would like to serve as a volunteer coach for the Aztecs. The team is coached by Steve Fisher, who led the University of Michigan to a national championship in 1989.

Schaffer works with the players one-on-one, helping them develop their free throw and shooting skills. He attends all the home games and most of the road games.

His stint as a volunteer coach and his basketball camps keep Schaffer busy these days.
But he always makes time to visit his friends in Grand Haven.

“I was really spoiled in Grand Haven,” Schaffer said.


Tri-cities realist

"2 and a Jake" to you coach Al. For those who played for or ever attended coach Al's camps, few could likely forget the story, and his signature way of ending a practice. For those who never had the opportunity, find someone who did, and ask them about it. It was coach Al's memorable way of reminding us to use everything that God gave us, and always do our best, whether it be basketball, or anything else in life. I never had the privilege of playing for this fine man and coach, but his inspiration lives with me today. Even the most seemingly inconsequential things he did, such as his ever present chewing gum, were done with deliberate confidence. And who could forget his teams' pre-game ritual culminating with his direction of young boys who seemed like men. The Pit that Al built would go crazy, there likely was no venue like it, before or since. Thank you coach Al for all you've done for this community and shaping young boys into men. I'm glad many have not forgotten your contributions, and continue to honor you.


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