When North Bergen native Greg Herenda left the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to become the new head men’s basketball coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck last April, there were a lot of people who wondered whether Herenda was doing the right thing.
After all, UMass-Lowell was all set to become an NCAA Division I program, so Herenda’s dream of becoming a Division I head coach was almost handed to him on a silver platter after bouncing around the country for 30 years as basketball coach.
Plus, FDU represented a huge gamble. It was a program that had won a total of 13 games over the previous three years, seven of which came last season. It was a program that had some difficulty recruiting the right kind of student/athlete, with several former FDU players running afoul of the law while attending school there.
But Herenda didn’t flinch. At age 52, Herenda looked at the opportunity in simple terms.
He was coming home.
No more long bus rides on dark Massachusetts roads. No more sojourns to places like Philadelphia and central Illinois. This was New Jersey, a stone’s throw from the North Bergen home where he was reared. He was able to bring his wife, Jill, and young son Trey, back to his Garden State roots.
Sure, Herenda had a stint in New Jersey in the early 1990s, when he was an assistant coach at Seton Hall. But this was a head coaching position on the Division I level in his backyard. Forget the gambles and everything negative associated with FDU – including the insane “Fairly Ridiculous” nickname – this was the job Herenda sought out, pursued and got.
However, when he arrived in Teaneck, he found the pickings to be slim. There wasn’t exactly a plethora of talent remaining. He had to assemble a capable coaching staff. Herenda had to roll up the sleeves and get to work. But there was always the predominant feeling. He was home.
After winning the season opener last month against Division II Caldwell College, the Knights proceeded to go out and lose their next six games. It appeared as if it was the same old FDU, only with a new coach.
Herenda wouldn’t have any part of it.
“I really wasn’t overly concerned with our record,” Herenda said. “I knew that we were playing the schedule that was given to me and as long as we kept getting better every day, I wasn’t going to worry about it. Sure, our record is important, but it wasn’t going to make us or break us.”
After the Knights suffered their sixth straight loss to St. Peter’s last week, Herenda had a feeling that his team was about to turn the corner.
“I just knew after we lost to St. Peter’s, we couldn’t continue the same pattern,” Herenda said. “We were fouling too many times and not rebounding. So we made some changes.”
Herenda installed a new aggressive, pressing style of defense that better suited the Knights’ personnel.
“I thought it was going to put us in a better position to win,” Herenda said.
There was only one problem. The Knights’ next two games were on the road against the New Jersey big boys, namely Rutgers and Seton Hall.
Herenda didn’t care who the next opponents were.
“We had great practices before we faced Rutgers,” Herenda said. “I really thought we had a chance to win. I knew we could compete with Rutgers. We just needed to be in the game with them late.”
Sure enough, the Knights went to New Brunswick and pulled off the shocking 73-72 upset. It was a win that sent major shockwaves through the New Jersey college basketball circles. No one, other than perhaps Herenda and the Knights themselves, thought they had a shot against the Scarlet Knights.
The win against Rutgers opened some eyes – especially among the Knights themselves.
“Once we beat Rutgers, the kids started to believe,” Herenda said. “We thought we had a chance to beat Seton Hall.”
Yeah, sure, right. The Pirates were not about to lose to a mid-major team on their home court, especially a team in FDU that was ranked among the five worst Division I teams in the country prior to the win over Rutgers.
The odds makers in Las Vegas didn’t think the Knights stood a chance, as Seton Hall was made a 25-point favorite to win the game. It was earmarked for blowout status.
“We controlled the tempo,” Herenda said. “We outrebounded them.”
More importantly, the Knights outscored the Pirates, somehow coming away with a 58-54 victory at the Prudential Center last Sunday afternoon. Sidney Sanders, Jr., one of the holdovers from last year, who averaged just five points per game last season, scored 23 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had nine assists.
Sanders had 22 points and 10 assists in the win over Rutgers, earning him Mid-Major Player of the Week in the entire country.
Shockingly, suddenly, there was some new life in what had been a totally moribund basketball program in Teaneck. The two wins over the New Jersey college basketball powers did exactly that.
“The two wins have given us so much exposure,” said Herenda, who was featured in post-game interviews with new network Fox Sports 1 and was also featured in a front page column by Tara Sullivan in The Bergen Record last week.
“A lot of people are talking about Fairleigh Dickinson basketball,” Herenda said. “We’ve already had people donating to the program. Alumni are calling. It’s totally jump started our program faster than we could have anticipated. Kids are walking across campus with their heads held high. People are offering congratulations. There’s a lot of good buzz going on after wins like that.”
And it’s made the former kid from North Bergen happy about taking that gamble last spring.
“I think there is a little bit of a payoff,” said Herenda, his voice already in mid-season raspy condition. “The kids have been working hard since August. They see what we’re doing is right. There’s a purpose behind what we’re doing. The two wins validate what we’re doing and gives us a chance to win even more games. We have a long way to go, but this is a good start.”
Of course, the Knights aren’t world beaters with a 3-6 record, but it’s far better than the 1-8 mark that was anticipated heading into facing Rutgers and Seton Hall back-to-back. It’s safe to say that both programs had wins penciled in on their schedules, thinking they were facing a pushover like FDU.
Well, think again.
“I think we have a feeling now that there’s more success coming down the road,” Herenda said.
Herenda said that he didn’t feel any personal satisfaction in defeating the school where he once coached. But he did reach out to speak to Jersey City native George Blaney, Herenda’s mentor who brought Herenda with him to South Orange from Holy Cross two decades ago.
Blaney, now retired from coaching, was the head coach at Seton Hall for three seasons before being unceremoniously removed.
“I told Coach Blaney that we won the game for him,” Herenda said. “So much of me comes from Coach Blaney. I was proud to win for Coach Blaney. Seton Hall gave me a great opportunity to coach there. That’s all part of the business. There are no hard feelings at all. I was just glad to be able to persevere and continue to coach all these years and now I’ve taken my own Division I program to win a few games. It’s pretty gratifying.”
And it’s also gratifying to come home and be a conquering hero, even if it is for just one week.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.