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Sports

Girls Basketball: Al Gruidl, Plano's beloved assistant coach, bidding good-bye

Retired history teacher has coached Reapers boys and girls for 45 years

PLANO – That voice will be missed.

For nearly five decades, Al Gruidl's distinctive bark has been as familiar a beat in the Plano basketball gym as balls bouncing on the hardwood.

Gruff to the unknowing ear, there's love behind it. Love for the game, and love for the kids who play it.

"Nobody wants to be yelled at by Gruidl," Plano junior basketball player MaKenzie Vann said with a smile. "This is his game. He always tells his wife 'Basketball first, and then you.' And it's always been like that. It means a lot."

Finally, though, Gruidl has decided it's time to go.

The retired history teacher and Class of 2010 Plano Hall of Fame inductee has decided to retire from coaching at the end of this season.

His last home game was last Thursday, fittingly a Reapers' win over rival Sandwich. Beforehand, Plano girls basketball players mobbed him and his wife at midcourt to show their love and appreciation.

"That was all on their own," Plano head coach John Chernick said. "I had nothing to do with that. They just love playing for him."

Chernick has loved having him by his side.

When Chernick was Plano's JV coach, Gruidl was his source for basketball knowledge. When Chernick was brought aboard as head coach, he made sure to keep Gruidl by his side.

"He's been my right-hand man every game that I've been a head coach," Chernick said, "and our relationship goes way back before then."

Gruidl's relationship with the game goes even further back.

A 1963 graduate of Antioch High School near the Wisconsin border, he continued his playing career at Blackburn College in downstate Carlinville, where he met his wife.

"Halfway between Springfield and St. Louis – exit 108," Gruidl said.

Gruidl had a number of job interviews, until Plano offered him one, in 1972, and he took it. He hasn't picked up his roots in 45 years since.

"I didn't think I'd be here this long," Gruidl admitted.

Gruidl was head coach of Plano's girls program for three years, from 1981-1984. He later became a long-time assistant for the boys program, and was on Scott Miller's staff when the Brad Korn-led 1999 team took fourth in Class A.

Gruidl and Chernick complement each other well, but paint the ultimate contrast during game times.

Chernick typically stands, stoically, scanning the action. Gruidl sits, and rarely goes a minute without barking out encouragement, discouragement, instructions, or all of the above.

"He's a madman," Chernick said, lovingly. "People wonder who the head coach is sometimes. I tell them all the time, 'it's Al.'' He really is the heart and soul and brains of the program."

Gruidl, soft-spoken away from the game and humble to the core, demurs from the over-the-top praise.

"We've had a good run," he said. "John and I respect each other. He makes suggestions to me, I make suggestions to him. Most of the time we wear the same tops to games – we just show up in the same color. It's amazing the way we think alike."

Rare is the day that Gruidl hasn't showed up for practice with a new drill or new idea for an out of bounds play. He's the architect behind Plano girls basketball's hair-on-fire pressure defense that fits girls like Vann like a glove.

"Every day in practice he tells us that nobody in the conference can beat us. That really motivates us," Vann said. "He's always hard in practice, yelling at us, screaming at us, but that really boosts our confidence."

"He's a sponge for the game," Chernick said. "He comes in the gym and it's like he's 25 years old again. He's yelling and screaming and clapping and encouraging. We get along well, I think we see the world the same way and we both just love the game of basketball."

Before his last home, Plano's Senior Night, Reapers' senior MaKayli Vann told her teammates to "do it for Gruidl, and get that win."

Gruidl, emotional before and after, appreciated it.

"I just love these girls," he said.

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