For the longest time, perhaps ever since he started his coaching sojourn with the Dan Doucette at the University of UMass Lowell in 1983, Greg Herenda has been a college basketball nomad.
The North Bergen native’s basketball coaching career took him all over the continental United States, from Massachusetts to Connecticut to North Carolina, back home to New Jersey to Illinois to Pennsylvania and back once again to Massachusetts. His dutiful and incredible wife Jill tagged along and eventually so did their young and growing son Trey.
There’s no way that was easy for Herenda and his family, packing up and moving over and over again, just in order to secure a good job in the college basketball profession.
A couple of times, Herenda followed good friends to specific collegiate stops. He went along with Jersey City native George Blaney from Holy Cross to Seton Hall, firmly believing that coming back home to New Jersey was going to be at an extremely opportune place and time.
At Seton Hall, Herenda was put in charge of recruiting and he was able to secure some top-flight All-American talents, especially Shaheen Holloway, currently the head men’s basketball coach at Saint Peter’s University.
But the basketball gods weren’t too kind to Blaney and Herenda, as they weren’t highly successful in the rough-and-tumble world of the Big East Conference and the coaching staff was asked to leave after just three seasons.
It was time for the Herenda family to pack their bags and belongings and move once again.
After a stop at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Herenda joined forces with his college teammate at Merrimack College, Billy Herrion, at East Carolina University in North Carolina.
At East Carolina, both Herenda and Herrion, the Merrimack backcourt, a spot where Herenda once ranked among the best assist men in NCAA Division II basketball, averaging nine assists per contest, Herenda thought he was once again set for life. He was at a beautiful location in picturesque Greenville, N.C., a perfect place to raise a family.
But after just five seasons in the extremely competitive Conference USA, Herenda and Herrion were dismissed and yet once again, Herenda and his family hit the high road in search for yet another spot in the coaching merry-go-round.
For a full year, Herenda was unemployed, left wondering if his coaching career was over. Luckily, Jill Herenda had a good job as a flight attendant, so she became the breadwinner. But Greg was left doing color commentary with famed New York Yankee announcer John Sterling on Ivy League basketball telecasts on the YES Network. That didn’t exactly pay the bills, but at least Herenda kept his nose to the grindstone and kept knocking on doors, seeing if someone would take a chance on him as a coach, preferably as a head coach after serving 22 years as an assistant coach.
That quest took him to Elgin, Illinois and a small two-year school called Elgin Community College. If you want to be a head coach, you have to start somewhere. Elgin was that somewhere.
“That was my goal when I started coaching in 1983,” Herenda said. “I wanted to be a head coach. There were a lot of days when it didn’t look good. But I knew it was going to happen. My wife and my son were with me every step of the way. In reality, I was confident that it would happen. I had to believe in myself.”
After a year at Elgin, Herenda moved to Philadelphia, where he became the head coach at Cabrini College. His family wasn’t at Cabrini long enough to unpack all the boxes, because they were off again, this time back to his coaching roots, back to UMass Lowell, where the journey all began.
Herenda was the head coach at UMass Lowell from 2008 to 2012 and posted an excellent record of 95-56 there. But when the school’s administration decided to become an NCAA Division I school, but wasn’t willing to give all the Division I perks, like a pay raise, Herenda realized it was time to leave.
Once again, the vagabond Herendas were on the move.
Herenda then interviewed for several different coaching positions, when finally the head coaching job at Fairleigh Dickinson University opened up in 2013.
“It was 10 miles from where I grew up in North Bergen,” said Herenda, a graduate of St. Peter’s Prep who recently returned to Grand and Warren to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that graduating class with his friends and classmates. “My family is here. My friends are here. It was perfect.”
But Herenda was inheriting a program that went 41-138 over the previous six seasons. One year, the Knights were a dead and dreary 3-26. This was nowhere land. Many people, including yours truly, told Herenda he was out of his mind if he took the job at FDU. It didn’t appear as if the program could ever be turned around.
“When I came here, I had a tremendous fear of failure,” Herenda said. “I think that motivated me that I was coming home, where my friends and family all were. I was back in New Jersey. I was excited about it.”
Herenda, his wife and son all moved once again – but this time, it looks like the move is permanent.
Herenda has enjoyed incredible, almost unfathomable success at FDU. In his first year, the Knights knocked off Rutgers and Seton Hall in the same week. Two years later, the Knights managed to win the Northeast Conference championship and earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament, the program’s first appearance in March Madness since 2005.
Last year, it was more of the same. The Knights had a spectacular season, winning 21 games, including the NEC Tournament for the second time in four years. And the Knights won an NCAA Tourney game for the very first time, knocking off Prairie View A&M, 82-76, their ninth straight victory, before falling to national powerhouse Gonzaga in the next round.
Herenda has become a media darling. He already had his own weekly radio show on WFDU-FM (89.1 on the dial) which airs Saturday mornings. Herenda has had guests like college basketball greats John Beilein (now with the Cleveland Cavaliers), Steve Clifford (now with the Orlando Magic) Bob Hurley, Jim Calhoun. Jay Wright and John Calipari, former NBA coaches like Jeff Van Gundy and P.J. Carlesimo, TV stars like Steve Schrippa of “The Sopranos” and “Blue Bloods” fame, former NFL coaches like Bill Cowher and Dave Wannstedt, and famed announcers like Dick Vitale, Jim Rome, Gary Cohen and former colleague John Sterling. Even yours truly had a spot on the Greg Herenda Show in November of 2016, recalling our great moments together as classmates at St. Peter’s Prep.
Herenda has appeared all over the TV and radio airwaves. He was the first coach shown in CBS Sports’ “One Shining Moment” at the close of the NCAA Tournament. Herenda has appeared with people like Mike Francesa and Joe Benigno on WFAN Radio, with Jim Rome on CBS Radio and with Seth Greenberg and Jay Williams on ESPN. The Greg Herenda Show will celebrate its fifth anniversary in September.
And in June, Herenda delivered the commencement speech for the FDU Class of 2019. Imagine that, a basketball coach getting caught up with the pomp and circumstance at MetLife Stadium.
So when the time came to talk turkey, the powers-that-be at FDU, namely school president Dr. Christopher A. Capuano and new athletic director Brad Hurlbut decided to rip up the remaining two years left on Herenda’s original contract and rewarded him with a new five-year deal that includes a significant pay increase.
Finally, after 36 years of chasing down offers and jobs, Greg Herenda has a permanent home. More than likely, FDU will be the final stop of his journey. When the contract expires, Herenda will be 63 years old and winding down his remarkable career. It just might mean that Herenda has a permanent home at home.
“I received great confidence from Dr. Capuano and Brad Hurlbut,” Herenda said. “I’m happy and lucky to be the leader of this program. We’ve come a long way the last six years. I’m motivated to keep winning here. I’m taking a deep breath and realizing that I’m in a good place. To come home and enjoy some great success here means a lot. I’ve had a great staff. Bruce [Hamburger, the Knights’ top assistant] has been with me from Day One. Dwayne Lee [from St. Anthony High School and Jersey City, who has since moved on to St. Bonaventure to be an assistant there] was one of the cornerstones of the program. Grant Billmeier [the former Seton Hall player] was with us for two years. Pete Lappas and Darius Stokes are with me now.”
This season, the Knights have a tough schedule, facing Kentucky, Notre Dame and DePaul on the road. July 30, the Knights as a team will participate in fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club of Hackensack/Lodi, where they will run the streets of Lodi and pass an Olympic-style torch.
“We do that every year,” Herenda said. “We’re glad to help the community.”
The Knights are also part of a program involving older people who have autism. We will feature that program in next week’s editions.
For now, it’s all about the vagabond wanderer finally coming home to rule the roost, apparently for good.
“It’s a local storybook tale I’m living,” said Herenda, who survived a health scare last year with a blood clot in his leg. “I’m really living the dream.”
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com. He set the Internet afire with his controversial take on the actions of the United States women’s soccer team that recently won the World Cup and also had a fond memory of local baseball legend Jim Bouton. You can also follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar.