Al Biancalana’s basketball teams are winners. That’s one reason the 1982 Elmhurst graduate and boys’ basketball coach at Elmhurst’s York High School was named the Illinois High School Association’s Co-Coach of the Year for District 7 in 2006. But Biancalana says a coach’s job goes well beyond just winning. Here, he tells his story.
I’ve been coaching for twenty-five years, and have been a head coach for fourteen seasons. I’ve always thought of myself as an educator ﬁrst and foremost. I’ve been around players who have been good enough to make money in professional sports, but the majority of young people don’t get that opportunity. So knowing that, you remind yourself that there’s a bigger calling than just winning games.
It’s about the things that you can instill in your players that will last forever. It’s about helping them make decisions about their own lives. There’s a responsibility to being an educator, to helping kids ﬁnd out about them- selves and how far they can stretch themselves. I know the people who have inﬂuenced me the most in my life outside of my parents have been coaches.
I’ve felt this calling to be a coach since I was about 10 years old, and I started coaching when I was 16. I just always knew that I wanted to become a coach someday.
I played freshman basketball at Holy Cross High School, but when I was cut from the sophomore team, I started coaching a YMCA team of ﬁfth- and sixth-graders. Then, when I was a senior in high school, I found out they needed a coach for the eighth-grade team at St. Vincent Ferrer School. I think the only reservation they had about hiring me was whether I had a driver’s license. The coach has to be able to get the kids to the game.
When it came time to choose a college, it was important to me stay close to home, because I wanted to keep coaching. I also wanted to play football, and I chose Elmhurst, where I played for Tom Beck. I was a four-year starter and captain of the team my senior year. We were the last Elmhurst team to win a CCIW football championship.
After college, I spent a few years as an assistant coach, ﬁrst at Weber High School, then at Leo High School. But I was looking for a chance to be a head coach, and I heard about an opportunity in Fresno, California. I packed up and took the varsity head coaching job at Washington Union High School. In my ﬁrst year there, we won a California state championship.
I’ve kind of made a career out of rebuilding programs, taking teams that have struggled and taking them up to new heights. We talk about forging an identity, planting a ﬂag. It’s important to help the players develop some pride, to talk about collective responsibility, about contributing to collective goals.
In our practices, we try to have great purpose in everything we do. We want the kids to have an understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish, so that every drill has a purpose and a meaning and they’re all connected. We’re not drilling for drilling’s sake.
Our practices are intense. We try to overload the practices, so that the players are under more pressure to perform than in games. So then when it’s time to compete in a game, they can rely on what they’ve learned in practice, and be comfortable knowing that they’ve been through this.
Over the years, your coaching style changes. When I was younger, I was more demonstrative. I probably screamed and yelled and ran around more than I do now. I’m much calmer now. But I’d still classify myself as intense. I get into the moment. We try to stress to the kids to celebrate every moment, every achievement. Sometimes you have to be calm and gentle, and at other times kids respond to getting on them, to getting emotional. Being able to play both ends of that can really make you a successful coach.
In 1999, I went to Bradley University as the top assistant coach. Coaching in NCAA Division I is a whole different life. I was on the road about 150 days out of the year. I was fortunate enough to recruit and develop two players who became ﬁrst-round draft choices in the NBA (Patrick O’Bryant of the Golden State Warriors and Danny Granger of the Indiana Pacers).
My wife and I just had our third child, and with young kids, I wanted to come back home. I got this great opportunity at York, where I coach the boys’ varsity and am a college and career advisor.
Nothing has changed me as a coach as much as having children. Once you have children you look at things in a different light. When I was single, my time was my own. I absolutely loved coaching and I could spend all day working on the game. But once you’re married and have a family, you have different responsibilities; you have to be able to have some kind of balance in your life. That balance has actually made me a much better coach. I used to spend ﬁfteen, sixteen hours a day on the game, and it can get overwhelming. But it’s funny: I think I’m even more effective now than I used to be.
I’ve never coached a team that’s played below .500, and at every school where I’ve coached, I’ve coached a team that’s set the all time win record at that school. But the team I admire more than any other was my last year in California at Clovis High School, outside Fresno. We had a team that finished 14-13, and it was a team that probably exceeded their natural abilities more than any other I’ve coached. They really understood the game and played extremely well together. I’ve had teams win state championships, conference championships, regionals, sectionals—but that by far is my favorite team. And the interesting thing is that all ﬁve of the starters from that team went on to become coaches.
Interview By Andrew Santella