Jim Gazzolo column: Achin’ for a second chance

Published 11:47 am Thursday, April 11, 2024

There were times during his two seasons as the McNeese State basketball coach when John Aiken struggled to find a place to practice let alone win games.

His teams suffered through the worst two years in program history, losing 45 games while dealing with the aftermath of two hurricanes.

Those numbers eventually would cost Aiken his job and led to the hiring of Will Wade and a 19-win turnaround, tied for the greatest in college basketball.

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As Lake Charles celebrated its newfound favorite pastime, swarming to watch the Cowboys win 30 games and become the Southland Conference’s top dog, often Aiken had a front-row seat.

He watched a few games in person and dreamed of what might have been.

“You can’t help but think about how things might have been different and go over what you could have done to make it happen,” Aiken said. “It was how we imagined things could have been.”

Aiken spent the year trying out various careers and figuring out his next moves. But before he could turn the page he had to deal with what had gone wrong.

“In the past, I didn’t always face my problems. This time I wanted to put my face into the fire,” Aiken said.

So he went to the games and followed the Cowboys closely, but it wasn’t always easy.

“I was very, very happy for McNeese, for Lake Charles, and for the fans,” he said. “I was always pulling for them and have great respect for what Will was able to do. But it was hard being in Lake Charles at the same time.”

Especially for his children.

“That was the hardest part,” Aiken said. “My kids had to hear how good the team was while they were still hurting. Those were the difficult things.”

He spent the year after being fired searching for what was next in his life, personally and professionally. Aiken called it his “toughest year ever.”

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he said.

He tried everything from selling cars to working to put together name, image and likeness collectives for Louisiana-Lafayette and Southern Mississippi. But nothing fueled his fire like coaching.

So he started looking for opportunities to get back in the game and found one in a familiar place.

On Monday he began his second phase as a college basketball coach, working for an old friend. Jeremy Shulman, the new head coach at Tennessee-Martin, hired Aiken as his top assistant.

He coached at UT-Martin for two years under now-McNeese Athletic Director Heath Schroyer, who also brought Aiken to the Cowboys in 2018 when he took over as the basketball coach.

“I’m very comfortable being back here,” Aiken said by phone this week while waiting to start a recruiting meeting. “This is where my passion has been. I started to miss it as the tournaments came around.

“Working with the young players, helping them get better, and helping them become good adults is really what’s important.”

Aiken admitted that he made more than his share of mistakes while coaching the Cowboys, and in the year after, most of them revolved around how he handled everything, especially the post-hurricane issues.

He got caught up in what had happened and what he had lost rather than how to fix things.

“I was in survival mode and I wasn’t growing,” Aiken said. “I was worried about just getting a team ready and now raising the program. I was stuck in a lot of the ‘What if now what can be?’”

That carried over to his post-coaching year when he could not get away from all of the Cowboys hype.

“I wasn’t able to move on,” Aiken said.

Now he can, both with his career and personal life.

He says he’s also ready to accept his time at McNeese and put it into perspective.

“I was the water mediation guy, the one who had to strip things down to the foundation,” Aiken said. “Then it was time for somebody else to build it back up.”

While he knows his time with the program will soon be forgotten, Aiken says he hopes he somehow “served a purpose” in the process.

Everybody deserves second chances in sports, that’s what makes for a good story.

Aiken now gets to write his own next chapter and he gets to do it outside the eye of the storm he was forced to live through.

It may not be the way he wanted his story to go, but it’s also far from over.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com