An Unlikely Pair: Community college athlete joins forces with experienced coach

How a 21-year-old community college basketball player joined forces with a coach with more than 30 years of experience.

STERLING, Illinois -- What does it take to be a great men's basketball head coach? 

"You have to understand your players," said Russ Damhoff, a IBCA Hall of Fame coach. "You have to relate to your players." 

Damhoff would know. He was head coach at Sauk Valley Community College for three decades. 

"Each player is dealing with things off the court," added Damhoff. "You have to be smart enough as a coach to understand that." 

Damhoff isn't the head coach at Sauk Valley CC anymore. He's now the assistant coach. 

"It was time to pass it on to someone younger that had a lot of energy." said Damhoff. 

The man who filled his shoes, A.J. Sharp, might look more like one of his players. 

 "I was 21 when I got hired." said Sharp. He was hired three seasons ago after finishing up his own playing career at Sauk under Damhoff. 

"You knew he was gonna be a coach when he was playing and he shows that now." said Damhoff. 

When it was time to retire, Damhoff knew who he wanted to take over the Skyhawk program.

"There were 31 applicants," said Sharp. "We didn't think I'd get it." 

But he did, using Damhoff as his reference. 

"When I got it, I said, 'Okay, now you're my assistant, right?'" said Sharp. "And now he's my assistant." 

In the past three seasons as head coach, Sharp has picked up more than 50 wins and is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. 

"We always kid that he's got a 60 percent win percentage," added Sharp. "We always joke that once I get higher than him I'm going to retire too." 

But wins and losses aren't what Sharp is focused on.  

"It's the other stuff that's important," said Sharp. "Having support for them as they try to find their way through school. At the end of the day we tell them the most important thing is to graduate." 

Sharp may be years younger than his predecessor, but he's wise beyond his years. and it's clear he also knows what it takes to be a great coach. 

"Making sure that everyday you're learning and your players are learning," said Sharp. "I've learned just as much as anyone these past three years. More than probably the guys I've coached. They've taught me a lot more than I've probably taught them."