After spending five years as part of Gonzales ISD, head boys basketball coach A.J. Irwin will be joining the Burnett ISD athletic program, assisting on the boys basketball team. The decision to move on was a tough one for the young hometown coach, but necessary for his growth.
"I’ve come to realize that if I stay in Gonzales and I never leave Gonzales, then all I will ever know is just Gonzales" Irwin said. "And how can I truly grow as a professional and truly take myself and my abilities to the next level if all I know is Gonzales."
Leaving the Apache program after five years is the hardest decision he's ever had to make. Irwin started out from coaching in the junior high ranks to eventually moving up to head coach at the high school.
“Shout out to Gonzales ISD for having me back," he said. "Shout out to all the people that came, supported and believed in the boys and all of the entire athletic program — boys and girls — our youth programs, for everything that everyone’s done here. There’s been a lot of really good that’s come since I’ve been back. It’s a bittersweet, more bitter right now, just because I'm from Gonzales, this is my hometown, a piece of me will always be here and in my heart Gonzales will always be there, and that will never change.”
"As a professional, if I'm going to gain experience and eventually come back to Gonzales with this experience, in order to come back with experience, i have to take this leap," he added. "It’s the toughest decision in my life to do this."
Irwin compared the decision to one he made six years ago before finishing up school. He believed his playing days weren't over yet, so when presented the opportunity to play professionally overseas or finish his degree, the local baller wasn't sure what to do.
"Either I go overseas and play, then come back and finish school, which I had already sat out of school for three years and I got back in, I've been in for five years, and this is like, I want to get done, or I turn it down and I finish school and I go on and be able to go teach and coach somewhere," he thought.
But then Irwin decided to catch an Apaches game, the first one he's seen since the program's last playoff run in the 2010-11 season.
"I remember coming to the gym and seeing that they haven’t done anything, and well maybe I can come back in here and help get this on the right track, at the time thinking wins and losses,
not realizing that my influence and my impact was going to be much greater than the outcome of basketball games," Irwin said.
The program did see improvements during Irwin's tenure. Blowouts turned into close losses and eventually a couple of district wins. Though he didn't necessarily get the wins and losses record he strived for, Irwin's influence off the court is what he considers his greatest and most impactful achievement.
“'Though we do not make a lot of money, what we do make a lot of is a difference,'' Irwin recited. "That’s one of the things I believe I have done in my time in Gonzales.”
One example he points to is his now graduated point guard, Contrell Smith, who Irwin did not know how much of a difference he truly made until Smith made it known.
"They did a teacher-appreciation video and he was talking about me and how much I impacted him," Irwin recalled. "I didn’t realize how much of an impact I had on him when he was that young as a freshman or a sophomore. He was just one of the kids I coached, but I coached him hard and hugged him after."
If there's anything Irwin wants to highlight is the ability to not only make a difference in the lives of others, but to influence them enough to want to make an impact themselves.
“To sum it all up, the legacy of being able to have made a difference in this community and then for kids to want to go out and hopefully that I inspired them to be that difference in their community and the things that they do, for them to live a life of wanting them to make a difference for others," he said. "That’s what I feel that my legacy withstanding should be. It’s been an honor, a privilege and an overall blessing to be able to be in Gonzales and do all the things that I have done while I've been here.”
Is there a path that'll lead Irwin back to Gonzales? Admittedly, he couldn't say. But eventually, he'll want to go back home.
"I’d love to be back here one day with new knowledge and new ideas and be able to expand on the growth that Gonzales is going to experience here in the future because there’s going to be a lot of growth," Irwin said.
But he doesn't know when that day will come. For now, Irwin believes the program will be in good hands while he's headed out to learn even more about being a better coach both on and off the court.