There were times during his 32 years as a college basketball coach – including a few during his five-year stay at Eastern Washington University – when Steve Aggers felt a bit like the guy pushing a mop bucket at your local super market.
Clean-up on Aisle Eight!
“That’s been my calling, I guess – to clean up messes and rebuild programs,” Aggers said during a telephone interview from his office on the campus of West Los Angeles College, where he is in his third year as the school’s athletic director.
“But overall, I was very fortunate. I was blessed to have had a great coaching career – over 30-plus years – and I look back on it with many fond memories.”
Even a few, he insists, that were spawned during his first two trying years at Eastern, where he inherited one of the worst NCAA Division I programs in the country and daunting rebuilding task made even more difficult by the tragic mid-season death of promising point guard Rod McClure in December of 1996.
“I really think we could have turned things a year earlier at Eastern if Rod hadn’t been killed by a drunk driver,” Aggers said, reflecting on the loss of McClure, a junior college recruit from Las Vegas, who was killed in a car wreck on his way to McCarron Airport to catch a flight back to Spokane following Christmas break.
“You never want to make excuses. You fight through injuries and fight through some setbacks; that’s just what good programs do. But it’s hard to overcome that kind of setback when you’re trying to rebuild.”
Aggers hired on at Eastern in May of 1995 and the Eagles finished 3-23 that winter, whiffing on all 14 of their Big Sky Conference games. The following year, they won just three of 17 games following McClure’s tragic death and finished 7-19 overall and 3-13 in the Big Sky.
But in his last three seasons in Cheney, Aggers won 41 games and a pair of Big Sky Conference coach-of-the-year awards. His 1999-2000 team finished 15-12 overall and 10-4 in the BSC, tying Montana for the regular-season Big Sky title before losing in the opening round of the league tournament.
Aggers split the following spring for Loyola Marymount, leaving, perhaps, the most under-appreciated head coach in the history of the Eagles’ program.
“Any time you take a job that was as difficult as the one at Eastern Washington and try to rebuild it, it beats you down and wears you out,” Aggers admitted. “And there are certainly days when you do feel under appreciated, because the job of turning something like that is so difficult and so trying, emotionally.
“We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that program, and I was always proud of the way we left it. We built it to the point where we had improved the recruiting, improved the budget and left 13 good players. We had put pride back in the program, and left it a thousand times better than when we came.”
And Ray Giacoletti, who replaced Aggers, made sure the vastly improved Eagles program he inherited did not take a step back by leading the Eagles to their first-ever berth in the NCAA tournament in 2004.
“Ray and I have been lifelong friends,” Aggers said, “and I was happy he was able to take it to the next level.”
But while Giacoletti was making history in Cheney, Aggers was dealing with another toxic spill down in Los Angeles, where Loyola Marymount was coming off a wretched 2-28 season in which it finished 0-14 in the West Coast Conference and did not win a game against a Division I opponent.
“That first year at LMU, we played with three scholarship players and five walk-ons,” Aggers recalled. “I mean, it was just as hard there.”
Aggers spent five seasons at Loyola Marymount, compiling a 55-90 record, but was fired following the 2004-05 season, just 12 months after leading the Lions to their first winning season in eight years.
“We did a lot of really good things there, too,” Aggers recalled of his stay at LMU. “We rebuilt the pride in the program and reconnected, in terms of recruiting, with the high school coaches in the Los Angeles and southern California areas. I could go on and on, but the bottom line at this level is, if you don’t win enough games, you’re going to get the ‘Ziggy,’ as Dickie V says.
“I’m a big boy. I understand we needed to win more games to keep our job there. At the same time, though, I felt we left that program in good condition, too, and felt proud of the way we were able to rebuild it. But it was five hard years, believe me.”
During his stay at LMU, Aggers did manage to beat perennial WCC bully Gonzaga, which was something he was unable to do at Eastern. And the year after he left, the Lions finished second in the WCC and came within a missed layup at the buzzer of beating the Zags in the championship game of the conference tournament and advancing to the NCAAs.
After getting the axe at LMU, Aggers accepted a job as the head coach of a first-year Continental Basketball Association franchise in Great Falls, Mont., where he had previously coached at the College of Great Falls, compiling a 104-42 record and winning three conference championships.
The CBA Explorers finished 24-24 under Aggers that winter, but the franchise folded at the end of the season.
By then, Aggers had already opted out of an additional year in the CBA.
“I loved it, I really did,” he said of his experience with the Explorers. “It’s an entirely different game at the pro level, and I really enjoyed the challenge. But the ownership in minor league sports in our country right now just doesn’t pay enough.
“And while I enjoyed the experience and the challenge, I just couldn’t financially stay at that level.”
Aggers tested the NBA waters after leaving Great Falls, but found the fraternity of coaches at basketball’s highest level tough to crack. So at the insistence of some friends, he looked into the athletic director’s opening at West Los Angeles College, a two-year school with an enrollment of 12,000 located just 15 minutes from his home.
As the athletic director, Aggers oversees 320 athletes and 22 coaches competing in 10 different sports.
“Sometimes, when you get fired from a coaching job at a Division I level, people think you’re just going to curl up and die,” Aggers said. “But I’ve still got a ton of energy, and I love the new challenge of what I’m doing right now.”
Frankie, Aggers’ wife of 37 years, works as a program director for a non-profit organization that deals in healthy aging. His son, Erin, is a real estate agent in Portland, and his daughter, Keely, a graduate of Cheney High School, is a vice president for resource development for the United Way Corporation in Fort Collins, Colo.
Aggers, along with his A.D. duties, also works as an evaluator of basketball officials for the Pacific-10 Conference, rating referees at USC and UCLA games. He has been asked by the West Coast Conference to do the same at Pepperdine this winter.
It’s a way, he explained, to stay connected with coaching friends still working in the profession he gave up, but still misses.
“I miss the relationship with the players, and I miss the daily teaching in the gym,” he said. “I always enjoyed the teaching part of the job – Monday through Thursday, in the gym, teaching the game. And certainly, on Game Day, when the competitive juices really get flowing, I miss that for sure, too.
“There are people who still ask me if I wish I’d have stayed at Eastern and, yeah, there are times when I think that. But I more than doubled my salary when I went to LMU, and I had a good experience there, too. I loved coaching, but I’ve moved forward in my career in the administrative area, now, and I really like what I’m doing now.”