High School Sports

A whole new ballgame for Mullins coach

MULLINS - To illustrate the difference in coaching now and the way it used to be, Miles Aldridge has to go back 20 years.

In 1989, he was a defensive assistant at Clemson when the Tigers played at Florida State, and both teams were ranked in the top 20. The year before at Death Valley, the Seminoles had upset the No. 3 Tigers 24-21, and his players were hungry for revenge.

"They were so fired up before the game, I actually had to calm them down," Aldridge said Friday afternoon as he sat outside a portable classroom at Mullins High. He added, with a chuckle, "It's not quite the same here. Not yet."

As if on cue, three players came strolling toward the room where their teammates - out of classes for a school in-service day - watched a video of "Friday Night Lights" before getting dressed for that night's game vs. Aynor High.

"Where y'all been?" Aldridge asked, quietly but firmly. The trio offered excuses; the coach shook his head. "Y'all are lucky I let you dress out," he said, never raising his voice.

In the three months since he became Mullins' coach just five weeks before the Auctioneers' first game, Aldridge has experienced daily the gulf between major-college football and a Class 2A school with 650 students: differences in resources, time, talent and players' commitment.

Thirty-seven years removed from his last prep coaching job, at Newberry High, the Columbia native has gone back to the basics, back to the game's roots. And says he has not regretted the move a single day.

"I'm a ball coach," Aldridge said. "I used to say when I was done coaching (in college), I'd go teach kids to play football and have fun. Of course," he added, laughing, "I thought they'd be 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds.

"But I'm coaching football. This is where I am in my life."

BACK TO BASICS

In early 2007, Aldridge found himself out of the college game for the first time (other than two years with the NFL's Buffalo Bills) in 34 years. He had worked since 1973 for 12 schools (with two stops at Clemson, one at USC), but when he left Central Florida after a 3-8 season - "it was mutual," he said of his departure - he figured it was time to try something else.

Jimmy Richardson, a friend since high school at A.C. Flora, helped set him up in business in Charlotte. "Jimmy was great," Aldridge said, "but that wasn't something I enjoyed. I tried to stay away (from coaching), not think about it." He couldn't.

He looked into high school assistants' jobs in Greenville but lacked the necessary teaching certificate. Then, the week he learned about the Mullins' opening - former coach Ron Lanham's contract was not renewed after two seasons - Aldridge received his certificates for both North and South Carolina; an omen, perhaps?

Mullins principal Ted Greene wondered, too. A former coach, he attended clinics in Columbia in the 1980s, picking the brains of Clemson coach Danny Ford and his staff, including Aldridge. In August, when Marion School District 2 personnel director Gail P. Fowler called Greene to tell him about job applicants, she mentioned one resume in particular: Aldridge's.

"When I saw the name, I thought, 'That can't be the same guy,' " Greene said. "But everyone I talked to said, 'If you can get him, you'd better get him.'

"I wondered why he'd come here; I won't say this is Podunk, but you don't get to Mullins by accident. He told me he wanted to get back to the grass-roots level, back to teaching, building a program."

Mullins needed that. A longtime regular in the Class 2A playoffs and winner of a state championship in the 1950s with future USC great Bishop Strickland as the team's star, the Auctioneers last season finished 3-7. Aldridge is the school's third coach in four seasons, no formula for consistency.

"We're limited in a lot of what we can do" this season, Aldridge said. "But football's still blocking, tackling; run the ball, throw-and-catch."

Heading into the Aynor game - Mullins' homecoming - the team was 3-5, 0-3 in Region 8-2A, barely alive for a playoff berth. Aldridge's stomach lining was tested by close losses due mostly to his team's mistakes.

"We lost to Loris in overtime, with five turnovers and a missed a field goal," he said. "It was 14-7 vs. Cheraw with two minutes left (Mullins lost 28-14). North Myrtle Beach was up 21-7, we came back and went up 22-21; they went back up 28-22, and we threw an interception."

Yet Mullins has outscored its opponents 166-163, using a Georgia Tech-style "wing-bone" option offense. "After every game, I watch the DVD and I'm amazed how close we are to doing really good things," Aldridge said.

He has long-range postseason plans: an offseason weight program, 7-on-7 camps, "things they didn't do before, or not the way they should be done," he said. Nodding toward Friday's three late arrivals, he said, "Mentality is another thing we've got to change."

He laughed. "That's why the job was open," Aldridge said. "That doesn't bother me. I like building. I always have."

BUILDING TRUST

Senior Teddy Johnson is a 5-foot-8, 180-pound linebacker-fullback. He's played since his freshman year, and "I want to win," he said. "This is my last shot."

He had never heard of Aldridge before this season, but said he bought into the coach's message immediately. The reason: results.

"The offense is 10 times better," Johnson said. "The defense is strict. And people don't back-talk (Aldridge). We have respect for him, and he gives it back. You feel that when you're around him.

"He'll have this (team) where it needs to be. I wish I was coming back" next season.

Tackle Avery Grant also didn't know about his coach despite his Clemson ties (brother Jamarcus Grant is a senior offensive lineman for the Tigers), but said Aldridge has made a difference.

"He's a tough leader, but he doesn't raise his voice," Grant said. "You see it in his demeanor. He tries to teach for all who want to learn." And those who don't? "They don't know what they're missing."

The teaching also applies to Mullins' coaches, all holdovers. "He's not making (the offense) too complex," said offensive coordinator Greg Hill, 28. "We run six to seven plays (and) try to perfect them, and then we add wrinkles. Coach is old-school, wants fundamentals so the kids can perform at a high level."

"Miles is a huge asset for this town," said assistant Brian Hennecy, a 16-year staff member and the only non-Mullins native besides Aldridge; he played at nearby Marion, Mullins' arch-rival. "They wanted a coach with a lot of experience."

Even more important than Aldridge's resume, though, is what he could represent: stability. "The last eight years, the turnover here has been tremendous," said offensive line coach Dawani Fladger, who played at South Carolina State from 1997-2001 and coached at Keenan, Elloree and Williston-Elko before returning home. "I played here, I'm from here, (and) I want to help these kids."

Because of Aldridge's history of job-jumping, some in town wonder if he has that same commitment. "People will have that in the back of their minds, but this is what he's told us he wants to do," Hill said.

"The kids, the town - we need someone we can trust. Once that's built, the process can start."

SEASON'S BEST

Friday's pregame rainfall, giving way to a light mist, kept attendance sparse for Mullins' homecoming. But those in the stands, including booster club honchos Donnie and Susie Hill, Greg Hill's parents, were loud and enthusiastic, and the Auctioneers soon gave them reason to be.

Mullins fumbled away an Aynor punt and Aldridge grimaced, but the defense recovered a fumble the next play. The wing-bone gouged out large chunks of yardage, highlighted by a 30-yard run by quarterback Bobby Crawford that set up halfback Jim Reeves' 9-yard touchdown run with 4:41 to go in the first quarter.

Aldridge was animated - and often sarcastic - on the sideline. When his kickoff team was flagged for a personal foul, his previously soft voice cut through the night: "Are you kidding me? You're serious?" he asked an official.

Told the Mullins tackler "slammed" the Aynor ball-carrier, Aldridge fired back, "There's a slamming rule?" The official shook his head, but smiled.

Mullins' offense clicked, defender Hubert Davis returned a fumble for a touchdown, and Aynor gained more yardage via Aucs' penalties than its offense. At the half, Mullins led 34-0 and the backups were in.

Was Aldridge having fun? "In 30 minutes," he said walking to the locker room "That's the way I've always been: go hard, don't let up. I'll relax when I sleep."

He exhorted his players to "come out with great intensity. Every single person must play with intensity. We have to go out and establish ourselves - understand that, and learn that!" A chorus of "yes, sirs" came in response.

Once Mullins scored again, though, intensity was replaced by smiles. The Aucs' 41-0 victory was their best showing of the season, Aldridge said.

"Solid," he said. "Blocking, turnovers, fundamentals - that was good," he said. "The things we're trying to teach them, some of that is foreign to high school kids. We executed on offense like they were taught; now we've got to do it longer, harder, better."

With a playoff spot possible, this week's season finale at Marion looms large. By comparison, Aldridge said, all his years of coaching college football now seem like another life.

"I chased that dream for 30 years," he said. "Tried to move up the (coaching) ladder, be a coordinator. It was fun, a lot of fun. But I'm not chasing that now. I had that ride."

He planned a stop at McDonald's for two cheeseburgers, then on to a friend's place where he lives while wife Angela tries to sell their home in Charlotte, and where he'd sit up watching scores on TV and the DVD of the game.

It's basic, grass-roots, high school football. And Aldridge is having fun again.

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