Portland native John Aiken, in the blue suit coat, was promoted to head coach at McNeese State University in Louisiana earlier this month. At left is Heath Schroyer, the former men’s basketball coach who stepped down to focus solely on his duties as the school’s athletic director. Courtesy of McNeese State athletics

John Aiken is the first to admit he is an unlikely candidate to be coaching one of the NCAA’s 351 Division I men’s basketball programs.

Born in Portland 38 years ago, he never played basketball beyond his time as a student at Greater Portland Christian School in South Portland. His first coaching positions were as an assistant at Maine high schools, and he landed his first job in college basketball shortly after finishing his final class for his bachelor’s degree 13 years ago. He’s had only one other head coaching job, and that was at an NAIA school.

John Aiken

But there he was last Monday being introduced as the men’s basketball coach at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, talking about how his dream had come true.

“If you look at my background, I have no business having this job,” Aiken said Friday in a phone interview. “To be at the highest level of college basketball, to have no background, nothing at all, it’s something that allows me to connect with players. It makes you realize you can make anything out of your life if you’re willing to work hard.”

Aiken’s rise to the Division I coaching ranks is an improbable story – his graduating class at Greater Portland Christian had 15 students, now he coaches a Division I program that has made two NCAA tournament appearances and counts basketball Hall of Famer Joe Dumars among its alumni. It is also one of perseverance and belief.

Heath Schroyer, the McNeese athletic director and the man Aiken is replacing, said, “It’s like the American dream. John is a product of a lot of hard work. Obviously you’ve got to get a little bit lucky, but he’s worked extremely hard, made great relationships, always carries himself in a first-class manner. He deserved this opportunity.”


Aiken, who had been the associate head coach at McNeese for the last three years, did not have an easy upbringing in Maine. He was raised by a single mother and had an older brother die in a car accident when Aiken was 11. He graduated from Greater Portland Christian in 2000 and then struggled to find his place in the world.

He started college at USM, transferred to the University of Maine (where he tried to walk on as a freshman basketball player), then to Huntington University (a small Christian school in Indiana) and then finally back to USM, from where he graduated with a degree in economics in 2008.

“I was aimless,” he said. “I wandered all over the place.”

He married at 21, divorced two years later. And that’s when he decided he needed to find his path. His high school coach at Greater Portland Christian, Brian Green, asked him to become an assistant for him. “He was very influential in my life,” said Aiken. “He became more of a mentor than anything.” After a year there, he joined the staff at Cheverus under the legendary Bob Brown. A year later, he served as an assistant at the University of New England, where he was the recruiting coordinator for the 2007-08 season.


Those years in Maine, he said, laid the foundation for his career. Brown helped him get a position at Camp Caribou, a summer camp for boys in Winslow. Beyond that, he helped Aiken realize that he could become a coach.


“Obviously, as a kid in Maine who grew up playing basketball, I knew who Bob Brown was, the impact he had on basketball in the state,” said Aiken. “I got to watch him operate with the kids, seeing what it was like to be close to a legend. He kept telling me, ‘You’re a basketball junkie.’ He put me in touch with some professional development courses. He paid for them. He just opened my eyes. I thought, ‘This guy believes in me. Maybe there’s something to it.’ My time at Cheverus opened my eyes to the reality that maybe I could be a basketball coach.

“Maine really helped make me.”

Dan Costigan, the dean of students at Cheverus, was also an assistant on that staff. He remembers Aiken as hard-working and likable.

“He was a sponge, he absorbed everything and he was happy to do whatever you asked,” said Costigan. “And he was a really, really good person, someone you liked having around. You’d have to be around John only about seven seconds to know he was a good guy.

“He felt good to be around the program. To know where he is now is amazing, but it talks to the type of character he had.”

At about that time, Aiken reconciled with his ex-wife. He and Michelle have been married now for 13 years and have two children, 10-year-old Gracie and 6-year-old Macrae.


After the year at UNE, he became involved with Athletes in Action, a sports ministry organization. As he and Michelle were preparing to leave with it for a trip to South Africa and Mozambique, he got a call from Tom Kelsey, then the head coach at Belhaven University, an NAIA school in Jackson, Mississippi. Kelsey was looking for a recruiting coordinator and was impressed that Aiken had somehow convinced several players from Texas to go to Maine.

It just so happens that the coach leading the trip to South Africa, Joe Steibing, was a good friend of Kelsey. After watching Aiken for three weeks, he sent Kelsey an email from Mozambique telling him to hire him. When they arrived back in Maine from the trip, Aiken got a call from Kelsey offering him the job, and asking him to join him at a basketball camp. Knowing, said Aiken, that “there are very limited opportunities in Maine to make a career of coaching,” he and his wife got in the car the next day and drove 26 hours to Mississippi.

Four years later, Aiken became the head coach at Belhaven. After two years, a 30-33 record and an appearance in the NAIA national tournament, Aiken was hired by Schroyer as an assistant at the University of Tennessee-Martin, a Division I school in the Ohio Valley Conference. Schroyer got to know Aiken while Aiken was coaching AAU basketball in Mississippi.

“I met him in a gym,” said Schroyer. “I just happened to sit next to him. We talked, exchanged (phone) numbers and he was diligent to stay in touch. Obviously it all worked out.”

Two years later, Aiken accepted a position as an assistant at Nicholls State in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Two years after that, he rejoined Schroyer at McNeese as the associate head coach. And now, three years later, with Schroyer devoting all his time to his position as athletic director, Aiken is the head coach.



Brown, who coached at the Division I level at Boston University, said Aiken’s rise to his new position is inspiring. “It’s extremely remarkable,” said Brown. “There so many obstacles along the way and you have to be at the right place at the right time and know the right people. And those things really happened. This is so good.”

Aiken knows how improbable his story is.

“I just trusted and believed that God had a plan,” said Aiken. “And for some reason, my path has always aligned. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but because of my story, I am able to connect with players. As we prepare for next year, our theme is to write our story. And I’m using my story, our players’ stories, to develop our culture and to understand where we come from and where we want to go.”

There are challenges. The Cowboys are coming off a 10-14 season in the Southland Conference. Their home court, the H&HP Complex, a $41 million building that opened in 2018, suffered $29 million of damage when Hurricane Laura ripped through Lake Charles last August. Aiken doesn’t expect to the team be able to play there until late this year.

Aiken’s own home suffered substantial damage – “Punched right down to the studs,” he said – and Aiken and his family are living in a camper in his driveway. He said the adversity will make him, and the program, stronger. In his Zoom calls with recruits – coaches are still not allowed in-person recruiting visits because of COVID-19 restrictions – he paints a bright future.

“I can look at all the things I struggled with as I grew up and I can draw on all those things that allowed me to get to this moment,” he said. “I can see what a bright future looks like, even in the middle of a storm. I believe it will work out somehow.”


He knows he’s ready for this position. He noted that this past year, with Schroyer dealing with the hurricane damage and COVID-19 protocols, he ran most of the practices and team meetings this year.

“This is a dream job for me,” he said. “Of course I want to win next year, but I’m excited about building this into a long-term powerhouse program in the Southland, which it should be.”

Schroyer is certain Aiken is ready.

“When I stepped into the AD chair, hiring John was the easiest decision for me,” said Schroyer. “He’s always had a great strong work ethic, and I think he’s matured. Being a basketball coach and running a basketball program are two entirely different things. His ability to manage people and run a program has just got better and better. And he’s a really good person.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.