The Road to 450
Lawrence Central Head Basketball Coach Al Gooden Reflects On Career Milestones
Photography Provided by C. Mark Tomlin
Since the 1980s, Albert “Al” Gooden has been accumulating an impressively long list of successes as a high school boys basketball coach here in Indiana, grabbing 10 sectional titles, six regional titles and a state championship in 2001.
Such achievements surely speak to his personal systems and strategies out on the hardwood, but Gooden, who currently coaches varsity ball at Lawrence Central, remains humble and insists that much of the credit for his long-term success belongs to the many kids he’s coached along the way.
“My kids were always motivated, and they were willing to accept my system and me as a coach,” Gooden says. “They’ve always done what I asked them to do and played hard.”
Not unlike many athletic coaches, Gooden’s coaching career came after a successful run as a player. After graduating from Wayne High School in his native Fort Wayne, the 6’5” Gooden played ball from 1977 through 1981 at Ball State, helping the Cardinals to their first NCAA Division I Tournament appearance in 1981 as a 12 seed. He was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame 10 years later.
Not long after his college career began, Gooden realized coaching would likely be in his future.
“I helped out at a camp after my freshman year, doing some different drills and things, and that really helped make up my mind that I wanted to be a coach somewhere,” he recalls. “I knew that I wanted to pursue the coaching role, even though I loved playing.”
Gooden took on his first varsity coaching position at Heritage High School in 1988 and says a major personal challenge early on in his career was identifying each of his player’s strengths and weaknesses and figuring out the best collective strategy based on those attributes.
“Separating what I did as a player from what the kids could do as players was tough,” he adds. “I had to remind myself that they’re not me, and each kid has their own individual characteristics.”
Gooden’s 21-year tenure at Harding High School, which began after two seasons at Heritage and included five state championship appearances as well as a 2001 Class 2A state title, helped to cement his legacy as one of the Hoosier state’s all-time coaching greats.
The winning continued when Gooden transitioned to New Haven High School in 2011, the year Harding closed its doors, and the New Haven Bulldogs went on to win sectional titles in two of Gooden’s three years there.
Since 2014, Gooden has coached Lawrence Central’s varsity squad, and last November he reached 450 careers wins — a milestone that only 54 other coaches have reached in Indiana high school basketball history. Far from having allowed the prospect of such an achievement to distract him during practices and games, Gooden says his mind has always been, and will continue to be, focused on day-to-day challenges rather than career statistics.
“I don’t count stuff like that. I was surprised when I found out about it,” he says with a chuckle. “I just try to be the best I can be as I go. I think if you stay focused on the fundamentals, like defense and rebounding, you’re always going to have a chance in any situation. So I try to build around that.”
Gooden, who was named Lawrence Central’s Coach of the Year for the 2017-2018 school year, says he has no intention of retiring any time soon as long as he remains as excited about coaching basketball as he was three decades ago.
“This is the first year I’ve had a group of kids from ninth grade all the way through, and it’s been fun to see the kids develop,” says Gooden, who enjoys playing golf in his downtime as well as spending time with his wife Felicia and three children, Albert Junior, Alicia and Ashley. “The kids have adapted to what I’ve asked them to do each year. I still love doing this, and when it stops being fun I’ll be ready to get out.”