FARMVILLE, Va. (AP) — In this small central Virginia town called Farmville, the claim to fame has been massive furniture warehouses that promise to satisfy any shopper’s preferred style.
It isn’t known as an NCAA Tournament town.
This week, both things are true.
Welcome to Longwood University, where Griff Aldrich, a former lawyer and CEO, and Rebecca Tillett — both hired the same day four years ago — have the Lancers men’s and women’s teams in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in each program’s history.
Aldrich’s journey to Farmville is an intriguing tale.
Six years ago, the former partner at a major Houston law firm who became CEO of a private equity company he founded, walked away from that success to pursue his long-held dream of coaching college basketball.
“I think it’s not just the game. I think we really felt called to do this,” Aldrich, 47 and a devout Christian, said in a recent interview. “And there’s a real spiritual component that’s involved here because when I was in the private sector, everything was about climbing and promotion and things like that.”
Peers at the firm of Vinson & Elkins were not entirely surprised by his decision.
“It was one of those things where everybody said, `Oh yeah, the writing was on the wall,’” said V&E colleague Stephen Gill, who noted that Aldrich was very effective at dealing with “sharks” as a lawyer, but clearly loved basketball. “We just didn’t see it because you think about it in terms of monetary issues and whatnot.
“I mean, he just loved coaching and he loved working with young kids.”
The Longwood women’s team also made history, winning its first Big South Tournament title several hours after the men.
“So as they’re rising, you know, there’s like, well, we’re a good team,” Tillett said of her team’s determination to match the men’s accomplishment. “And so I think there was some of that competitiveness for our women, like we want to be at the level that they’re achieving as well.”
Yes, March 6 was a big day for Farmville.
It was so big that on March 7, although it was spring break on campus, about 200 people gathered to welcome the teams back to town.
That greeting, complete with a police, fire and rescue vehicles escort with sirens blaring, was hastily arranged by Mayor David Whitus, a Longwood alum and season ticket-holder for both programs. As the buses turned onto campus, players for both teams exited the buses and celebrated with the fans.
“Allowing the people to touch the players and the players to touch the people was magic,” said Whitus, who estimates the city’s population is about 8,000. “The community is absolutely thrilled.”
Fittingly, both Lancers teams will make their tourney debuts on Thursday.
Longwood (26-6), a 14th seed, will face third-seeded Tennessee (26-7) in the first round of the men’s tournament in Indianapolis. The women (21-11) will face Mount St. Mary’s (16-12) in a matchup of No. 16 seeds in the inaugural women’s First Four in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Tillett and the women have a good chance to notch Longwood’s first NCAA Tournament win. The men face a tougher task, though Aldrich has seen firsthand what can be accomplished by an underdog with a solid foundation.
He’s big fan of Aristotle, which explains the quote on a wall outside the men’s locker room: “You are what you repeatedly do.”
“Excellence is not an event. It’s a habit,” Aldrich tells his players. “We’re a high accountability program where … we are on them constantly, whether it’s June 24th or whether it’s March 3rd. You are what you repeatedly do.”
A repeat performance as a giant slayer would certainly put a smile on Aldrich’s face. He was a part of the biggest upset in men’s tournament history.
Aldrich was in his second season with UMBC when the Retrievers became the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 overall seed in the men’s tournament, knocking off Virginia 74-54.
Aldrich had joined the staff of former teammate and friend Ryan Odom at UMBC in 2016 after a 16-year hiatus from the sport while working in Houston. He took a job as director of basketball operations that paid $32,000 annually.
A year later, Aldrich, who played college basketball about six miles from Longwood at Division III Hampden-Sydney from 1992-96, arrived on the Lancers campus. The team has been on the rise ever since.
Longwood doesn’t have many of the spoils major college programs can offer. The Lancers play — and practice — in a 1,900-seat gymnasium with pull-out bleachers on both sides. A new 3,000-seat arena is due to open in 2023.
Nonetheless, Aldrich — who started a faith-based AAU program called HIS Hoops while working in Houston — brought in five recruits his first year. And like most coaches, also has used the transfer portal to fill out his roster.
Justin Hill, a sophomore from Houston who attracted little attention coming out of high school, and Virginia Tech-Wake Forest transfer Isaiah Wilkins, became the Lancers’ first pair of first-team all conference selections. Wilkins also was the MVP of the Big South Conference Tournament.
Even with Hill and Wilkins leading the way, it will be tough knocking off the talented Volunteers — though Aldrich knows firsthand it’s not impossible.
At a midweek shooting session after winning the conference tournament, Aldrich may have been reliving his UMBC experience as he talked to his team.
“We have a choice to make where we can either decide, `Hey, let’s just have fun with this. We made it to the dance and that’s great,’ or we can be a team that says we can go out and beat you,” Aldrich said. “We’re going to be committed to doing what we do and we can go win a couple games.”
More basketball magic on the sport’s biggest stage is something the Farmville mayor and his constituents have dared to dream.
“That’s the talk of the town,” Whitus said. “We hope they’re the next Cinderella story.”
Follow Hank on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hankkurzjr
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25