(Feature photo): Al Schaffer is pictured with San Diego State assistant coach Mark Fisher before one of the annual Walks to Defeat ALS in the San Diego area. Fisher, the son of former Michigan and San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher, was diagnosed with ALS in 2011 and this year became the first person with ALS to coach in the Final Four. (Photo/Al Schaffer)
By Tom Kendra
“I tell my former players and coaching friends that I’m available to chat 23/7,” said Schaffer, before quipping:
“I sleep pretty soundly from 3 a.m. to 4 a.m.”
Schaffer, the legendary boys basketball coach at Grand Haven High School from 1969 to 1987, was only half-kidding about his availability – as he will gladly talk about topics like zone offenses, clutch free-throw shooting and man-to-man defense all hours of the day.
My “interview” with Coach Al (if you want to call it that) was designed to focus on his work as a volunteer assistant coach with the San Diego State men’s basketball team, which recently completed an improbable run all the way to the national championship game, before bowing to UConn.
I caught him halfway through mowing his lawn at his “retirement” home in Ramona, Calif., and after asking him one question, he proceeded to talk for nearly two hours straight about his upbringing in tiny New Troy, Michigan (where he learned how to shoot a jump shot) and his coaching stops at Litchfield, Blissfield, Grand Haven, Ramona and the last 13 years at San Diego State.
“You are talking to a blessed man,” said Schaffer, referring to the latest highlight of a coaching career that spans more than 60 years. “I loved every minute of our run, but honestly, I’ve loved every minute I’ve ever spent coaching.”
Coach Al talks with Aztec star Matt Bradley about his shooting at the team hotel prior to the Elite Eight game against Creighton in Louisville on March 26. San Diego State won the game, 57-56, to advance to its first-ever Final Four (Photo/Al Schaffer)
The Shot Doctor
Schaffer energized the entire town of Grand Haven during his 18 years as coach – making the “Pirate’s Pit” gymnasium THE place to be every Friday night in the winter, and a house of horrors for the opposition.
“He orchestrated everything,” recalled veteran area basketball and baseball coach Walt Gawkowski, who was a young head coach at Muskegon Catholic during Schaffer’s GH years. “I remember being in awe. They did everything with such precision.”
That included the national anthem, which was often sung by his wife, Lillian.
One of the lowest points of his life came in 2010, when Lillian died of amyloidosis, just two months shy of the couple’s 56th wedding anniversary.
The San Diego State coaching staff was well-acquainted with Schaffer by that point and understood what a void that loss would leave in his life. That led current Aztec head coach (and then assistant coach) Brian Dutcher to approach Schaffer’s two sons, Kirk and Jeff, at their mom’s celebration of life.
“We have something in mind for your dad that will keep him very busy,” Dutcher told his two boys.
That started “Coach Al’s” stint as a volunteer assistant coach for the Aztecs, focusing on shooting.
For the past 13 years, Schaffer has been a fixture at Aztec practices and games, keeping a close eye on the free throw and on-court shooting of every player.
Schaffer’s duties with the Aztecs are far from ceremonial, as every kid who ever played for him will tell you that “Coach Al” made them a better shooter, teaching a rhythm method of shooting based on fundamentals and consistency.
One of the things he is most proud of from his 18-year run at Grand Haven is that all 10 of the highest free-throw percentage shooters in school history came during his coaching tenure, using his well-known “one, two, up and through” method of shooting free throws.
His favorite part of the Aztecs incredible run came at the Final Four in Houston, when one of the players he worked with extensively, junior guard Lamont Butler, swished the game-winning jump shot as time expired in a 72-71 win over Florida Atlantic.
“If you look at his form on that shot, it was textbook,” said Schaffer, who still returns to Grand Haven almost every summer for the Coast Guard Festival. “The fingers on his guide hand were straight up, his shooting hand right under the ball and he was reaching into the cookie jar on his follow-through.”
Later that night, at the postgame celebration at the JW Marriott in downtown Houston, Butler introduced his father to Coach Al.
Schaffer is interviewed by Eric Kaelin of Grand Haven radio station WAWL 103.5 FM in 2019 after his induction onto the Grand Haven High School Wall of Fame. Schaffer coached the Buccaneer boys’ basketball team from 1970 to 1987 (Photo/Al Schaffer)
Schaffer’s connection with longtime San Diego State coach Steve Fisher started long before they came to California, and well before Fisher led Michigan and Reeths-Puffer’s Mark Hughes to the national championship in 1989.
It actually started 10 years earlier, in the summer of 1979, when Fisher was on his third day as an assistant coach at Western Michigan University.
He was dispatched to drive up to Grand Haven and help out for a day at Schaffer’s summer hoops camp.
Fisher was expecting a quick session. Instead, he worked with a full gym of elementary kids in the morning, middle schoolers in the afternoon and then the evening high school session until after 10 p.m.
“You are staying over, aren’t you?” Schaffer recalls asking him.
That day started a friendship and a mutual respect that deepened during Fisher’s 18 years as SDSU’s head coach from 1999 to 2017, and continues to this day.
Little did either of them know early on, but Schaffer would be called upon for an even more important job in 2011, when Fisher’s son, San Diego State assistant coach Mark Fisher, was diagnosed with ALS.
Schaffer had already turned the beach town of Grand Haven basketball-crazy and made the school’s rickety old gymnasium into “The Pit” – one of the most iconic high school gyms in the state.
“It was a zoo,” recalled former Mona Shores coach Mike Mack, who remembers many classic battles with Schaffer’s Buccaneers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “I couldn’t even hear myself think. It was an amazing environment that I haven’t seen anywhere else since.”
Consider pregame warmups. While most coaches just send their kids out to shoot layups and then jump shots, Schaffer worked with Grand Haven band director Craig Flahive to choreograph his team’s entire warmup down to the most minute details – using “The Horse” by Cliff Nobles and later “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen and “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago (among others).
“The band could play ‘Louie Louie’ at five different speeds, depending on where we were in our warmup,” Shaffer said.
That is the level of enthusiasm, charisma and attention to detail which “Coach Al” brought to Mark Fisher’s fight against ALS. Schaffer coordinates the program’s participation in the annual Walk to Defeat ALS in San Diego, and he has served as the walk chairman on several occasions.
During the Aztecs historic run, Mark Fisher’s cause received national attention as he was recognized as the first coach with ALS to coach in the Final Four.
“I know what it’s like to watch a loved one fade away,” said Schaffer, who dedicated a 500-mile walk in Spain in 2011 in honor of his wife. “The memory of my Lillian motivates me every day. Because of that, I am inspired to do everything I can for Coach Mark.”