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Off-bench wisdom

Posted: November 21st, 2014 | College Area, Communities, Featured, Lifestyle, Sports | No Comments

Al Schaffer volunteers coaching talents to SDSU men’s basketball team

By Johnny McDonald

Al Schaffer travels down from Ramona several times a week to offer his opinions when San Diego State’s men’s basketball team takes to the practice floor.

His services don’t cost a dime, just a pair of season seats in the stands.

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San Diego State men’s basketball coaches Justin Hutson (left) and Brian Dutcher (right) with volunteer coach Al Schaffer (Courtesy Ramona Journal)

But head coach Steve Fisher and his staff take time to listen to the 80-year-old retired high school coach, who mentored championship teams that spanned 40 seasons. He’s a self-appointed volunteer coach.

“Under NCAA rules, I can’t take a position on the bench, so they obtain tickets in the stands where I take notes,” he said. “After the game I can discuss them with the coaching staff.

“I might be brutally frank, for instance, of time-out judgments and about players not pressing enough.”

He’s been a volunteer assistant for the past four years, but he and Fisher go back more than 30 years. The two met in 1978 when Fisher was an assistant coach at Western Michigan.

Fisher’s Aztecs posted a 34-3 record and reached the Sweet 16 last season. One poll currently lists the team at 16th in the nation. Easy to say, Schaffer likes to be with a winner.

“One of [Fisher’s] secrets is his staff,” Schaffer said. “I’ve been told this by NBA people who come and watch practices. Some head coaches dominate practice but Steve gives his assistants duties and responsibilities. There’s tremendous teamwork.”

He said the head coach is always open to suggestions, including those from his son, Mark, an assistant coach who has designed several plays for the team.

Schaffer holds a career record of 373-251 at three Michigan high schools. He coached 14 years at Ramona High during which the Bulldogs reached the CIF San Diego Section Division III Final and qualified for the CIF Southern California regional playoffs.

“I can remember Steve’s first year with the Aztecs when he won only one conference game,” Schaffer said. “When his team lost to USD by 26 points, I said ‘you better get yourself a new team.’”

Following the recent bout of winning seasons, recruiting quality players has become a bit easier, and Schaffer believes the 2014-15 team members will be up to the task. This bit of optimism comes despite the loss of two key players from last year, Xavier Thames and Josh Davis.

Schaffer said Fisher has a special way of motivating and getting his players to believe in their capabilities.

Aztec team members are Kevin Zabp, Dakarai Allen, Aqeel Quinn, D’Erryl Williams, Trey Kell, Parker U’u, Kibret Woldemichael, Ryan Staten, Skylar Spencer, Angelo Chol, Dwayne Polee II, Winston Shepard, Zylan Cheatham, JJ O’Brien, and Malik Popen.

Staff members are Brian Dutcher, Justin Hutson, David Velasquez, Mark Fisher, Tim Shelton and Matt Soria.

Plus outsider Al Schaffer.

After an award-winning, 38-year sports-writing career with the San Diego Union and authoring three books, Johnny McDonald now considers writing a hobby. You can reach him at johnny23@cox.net.

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