Griff Aldrich spent roughly two decades building a successful career in law and private equity. Then, he blew it all up for a chance to coach college basketball.
Now, Aldrich is gearing up for March Madness, as the 47-year-old coach leads the Longwood University Lancers to the NCAA's "Big Dance" for the school's first time ever.
In 2016, Aldrich was in the midst of a lucrative career. After being a partner at one of the world's top law firms, he'd become the chief financial officer of a private equity firm, with a salary of $800,000 per year, he told The Washington Post last week. But then, his best friend and former college basketball teammate Ryan Odom landed the job as head basketball coach at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Odom offered Aldrich a position as director of recruiting, a job that paid only $32,000 per year. But it got Aldrich closer to fulfilling a lifelong dream: a career coaching college basketball. He accepted.
The opportunity proved historic. UMBC's team reached the NCAA tournament in 2018 and pulled off a momentous upset over the University of Virginia, becoming the first-ever 16th-seeded team to defeat a No. 1 seed. Today, Aldrich is making $150,000 as the head coach for Longwood, in Farmville, Virginia, leading the program to its first-ever appearance in the NCAA men's Division-I basketball tournament.
When asked if he could have ever foreseen this turn of events, Aldrich gives CNBC Make It a simple reply: "No. Not at all."
But he says it's important that when you realize what your personal calling might be, you take action on it. "Sometimes it's continuing to do the same thing that you're doing, but with a different perspective," Aldrich says. "And sometimes, it is a dramatic shift like mine. I would encourage [you] to really try to explore [that]."
Aldrich's coaching career almost began nearly two decades earlier. In college, he and Odom played Division-III basketball for Hampden-Sydney College in Hampden Sydney, Virginia. And Odom's father, Dave Odom, was the head coach of Wake Forest's basketball team.
After graduating in 1996, Aldrich was set to join his friend as an assistant on Wake Forest's coaching staff. But when the elder Odom found out Aldrich had been accepted to the University of Virginia's prestigious law school, he told the young man to get his law degree instead.
After law school, Aldrich returned to Hampden-Sydney as an assistant coach for one season, during which the small school went undefeated. Soon, he faced a crossroads: Should he keep pursuing his dream of coaching or take a job at highly regarded law firm Vinson & Elkins, which would help pay off his student loans?
"I had a lot of fear that year coaching that I would be mediocre [as a coach]," Aldrich says. "There was no way that I was going to be able to just tolerate not climbing a ladder."
Aldrich took the job and moved to Houston, where he met and married his wife, Julie. They adopted three children as Aldrich worked his way up to become a partner. He left Vinson & Elkins to run an energy investment company, before joining a private investment firm as CFO in 2014.
With every step, he says, he became more committed to his lucrative career — but basketball kept lurking in the back of his mind. He started spending his free time coaching AAU basketball teams with the goal of mentoring inner-city Houston teens, which only inflamed the itch further.
"I loved what I was doing in private equity at the time," Aldrich says. "But I would wake up every morning thinking about the basketball program, thinking about the kids, and thinking about their situations ... I started talking to some friends who were still in basketball saying, 'Am I crazy to be thinking about this?'"
Then, in a moment of serendipity, or what Aldrich calls "divine appointment," Odom offered Aldrich a role as UMBC's director of recruiting. "When he got that job, he said, 'Hey, you want to come help me build a program?'" Aldrich says. "And I said, 'Absolutely.'"
Aldrich calls his wife "the adventurous one," and credits her for encouraging him to take the UMBC job — even if it meant much lower pay and moving their family across the country. A devout Christian, he says his decision to change careers can best be understood "through the lens of my faith": His obsession with climbing the corporate ladder wasn't fulfilling him spiritually.
With basketball, Aldrich says he finds a deeper meaning in mentoring and guiding young athletes, in a way that he hopes can shape their character both on and off the court.
"I'm a big believer that athletics reveals one's character," he says. "Teams and coaches have a unique ability to impact lives in ways that other mentors, parents and authority figures don't have."
Ironically, that's where lessons from Aldrich's corporate career have come in handy. As a lawyer working with Fortune 500 clients, Aldrich says he got an up-close view of what made successful companies tick — or, in some cases, where they could improve.
Successful organizations typically emphasize traits like accountability and character, he says. Surrounding yourself with people who share your goals matters, too.
"It's all about people," Aldrich says. "We talk about being a development program. So we have to have coaches who are coaching because they want to invest in kids, not because they think Division-I basketball is really cool, or because they played [basketball] and it's what they know. There has to be another level."
The strategy appears to be working. On Sunday, the NCAA gave Longwood a No. 14 seed in this year's tournament, and scheduled the school's first-round game against No. 3 seed Tennessee on Thursday, March 17 at 2:45 p.m. ET. The game will be played in Indianapolis and aired live on CBS.
Thanks to UMBC's historic upset four years ago, Aldrich says he knows the mindset to preach ahead of Thursday. "We're not going to try to do anything heroic or unique," he says. "What we're going to do is try to be Longwood basketball to the best of our ability, and execute at the highest level."