When Mike Granelli basically volunteered to take over the women’s basketball program at St. Peter’s College in 1972, he had no idea that he would still be coaching at the school 32 years later.
“Back then, I think my salary was $1,000,” said Granelli, who captured the 600th win of his coaching career last Thursday night with a 73-61 victory over Fairfield. “The former coach (Kevin McDermott) just left and the school didn’t have anyone to coach. I was the soccer coach at the time and I basically told the AD (Father John Boland) that if they didn’t have anyone in mind, I could handle it.”
In fact, at the time, Granelli didn’t know what the future held, considering that he had two children at home still in diapers, but he did have an idea in mind.
“For some reason, I don’t know why, but I did ask Father (Edmund) Ryan (the vice-president of student affairs at SPC at the time) when he hired me that if there was a tuition policy in place for the children of employees,” Granelli said.
Was that intuitive foresight? As it turned out, all five of Elizabeth and Mike Granelli’s children went on to graduate from SPC. That simple request turned out to be one of the finest moves in Granelli’s career.
“Father Ryan gave it to me in writing,” Granelli said. “I never knew whether we would need it.”
Granelli’s career as a women’s basketball coach had humble beginnings. His team was 4-11 during his first season, 1972-73, and went just 3-5 the following year.
“In the beginning, we had practice one day a week,” Granelli said. “We would have to find a place to practice. The New Jersey public schools (like Montclair State) took it more seriously. There’s no comparison between then and now. It’s a completely different world.”
However, from 1977 through today, Granelli has carved his niche as one of the finest women’s basketball coaches in the country. He became just the ninth coach in Division I history to collect his 600th victory and is the first male coach in women’s basketball to reach the milestone.
Granelli is also one of only three coaches to reach 600 wins at the same school, joining Pat Summitt of Tennessee and Jody Conradt of Texas. Since his second season in 1973-74, Granelli has had to endure only one losing season and has won 20 or more games 18 times. His teams have earned seven berths in the NCAA Tournament and have captured nine Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships.
Granelli said that he always wanted to be a coach, going back to his days growing up in Hoboken. His first job was as a youth baseball coach at age 16. He attended Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland and received his first break from Jim Phelan, the legendary men’s basketball coach at the school who retired last year with 830 victories.
“I was heckling him one time at a baseball game,” Granelli recalled. “He yelled up at me and said, ‘If you think you can do a better job, I’ll see you in the gym on Monday.’ ”
Granelli took Phelan up on his offer and showed up, ready to apologize for his antics. Phelan later recommended Granelli to coach a high school team near the Emmittsburg campus, while he was still an undergraduate.
After graduating from Mt. St. Mary’s, with some coaching experience already under his belt, Granelli then returned to his native Hoboken and became the head soccer coach at Hoboken High School, leading the team to the NJSIAA Group III state championship in 1968.
At one time, he simultaneously coached both the boys’ soccer team at Hoboken and the men’s soccer team at St. Peter’s and did so for three years.
Granelli remained as the SPC soccer coach for 20 seasons (1970 through 1989) and is still ranked first in coaching victories (160) at the school.
Amazingly, Granelli accomplished most of his victories in both sports as only a part-time employee of the school. He was a physical education teacher in Hoboken for 31 years, before retiring in 1995 and since become a full-time coach at SPC.
“I realized then that it was too hard to do both,” Granelli said. “I still work as hard as I did then.”
Granelli said that reaching the milestone wasn’t something he was shooting for.
“I don’t put any emphasis on milestones,” Granelli said. “I didn’t want our team focusing on that. I’m a lot more relaxed now that it’s over. Moments like that are fleeting. It’s not only an accomplishment for me, but also for the school. We’re the No. 1 Catholic school in terms of wins, and only one other private school (the University of Richmond) has more wins. That’s remarkable for a little institution to have this much success.”
Success that begins and ends with the coach, who has the longest tenure at one school than any other coach in NCAA Division I basketball.
“It all starts with having great players,” Granelli said. “I’ve also been lucky to have good assistants. Not many people get to do what they wanted to do in life. I’ve always wanted to coach and I’ve done that. I have a lot to be thankful for.” – Jim Hague