North Bergen’s Herenda leads FDU to March Madness

Three years ago, Greg Herenda took a major gamble in becoming the head basketball coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck.
At the time, Herenda looked at it as a chance to come home again, returning as close as possible to his North Bergen roots, after spending the better part of the last decade at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
But it was a huge gamble, because FDU was a totally dead program, having won just four games in each of the two previous years prior to Herenda’s arrival.
In fact, the Knights were a total laughingstock of college basketball, a program littered with bad seeds who committed a variety of crimes, ranging from assault to armed robbery, with a former player holding up a gas station/convenience store near campus.
So Herenda was leaving the confines of a secure job in Massachusetts for a ravaged and damaged program in New Jersey, all because he wanted to come home and wanted to finally be an NCAA Division I head coach.
Herenda was basically being a riverboat gambler, grabbing the dice and hoping to roll seven come 11 over and over. It was a job that was certainly not desirable to say the least.
But Herenda wanted it and wanted to come home, wanted to bring his wife, Jill, and son, Trey back to where he was born and raised, to Teaneck, which was only a handful of miles from the North Bergen courtyards where he consistently played basketball.
Herenda said that he never put a timetable as to how long it would take for the Knights to be successful.
“I just knew we could do it,” Herenda said. “I thought it would happen.”
A lot of his closest friends – present company included – thought that he was out of his mind, first taking the job and then turning the program into a winner. Even if he was my friend, I thought he was completely nuts.
You see, Herenda and I were great friends together at St. Peter’s Prep, members of the Class of ’79. We were part of a close knit group that did everything together, but from almost the first days of strolling into Grand and Warren for the very first time, it was Hague and Herenda, because we were first paired alphabetically.
I always followed Herenda’s career as a basketball coach, from his days as Jersey City native George Blaney’s assistant coach at Holy Cross and later Seton Hall, to his days as an assistant at places like East Carolina and Yale. He took a head coaching job at a community college in Illinois, then another at Cabrini College outside of Philadelphia.
Herenda also agreed to become the head coach at the University of New Haven, with his arrival being celebrated with pomp and circumstance, only to resign from the position a few weeks later because of a change of mind.
So as a friend, I followed his career. As a sportswriter, I was always curious as to what my friend was doing next.
Herenda was a basketball lifer, sometimes worrying about where the next dollar would come from. There were times when he seriously wondered whether he made the right choice out of Merrimack College where he starred as a player to become a basketball coach in the first place.
Herenda was never cut out to be part of the business world, sitting behind a desk. He’s best jumping into his car and driving 200 miles to recruit a player or drawing up plays and designs for his team to use. Plain and simple, he was a coach — and coming home to take the FDU job was the best thing he could do, because it was coming home, regardless of how bad off the program was that he was inheriting, regardless of what his friends told him.
When Herenda saw how bad off the program at FDU was, he didn’t frown or pout. He just went to work.
“It’s what I do,” Herenda said.
In the first year, Herenda’s FDU team upset both Seton Hall and Rutgers in the same week. Things looked like they were going great.
But then, the losing kicked in, both in the first year and especially last year, when after a solid start, the Knights managed to lose an astonishing 15 straight games. College basketball teams are not supposed to lose 15 straight. Coaches lose their jobs when teams lose that many in a row.
“We couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” Herenda said. “But we had a real special group. I knew that when the talent level and the work ethic collided, we could be a special group. The kids all believed in themselves. They really like each other. They like being together. They had the qualities that a winning team has. We had only one place to go and that was up. Everyone in the program hoped that we could get it done.”
Herenda said that his assistant coaches, which included former Seton Hall and St. Peter’s assistant Bruce Hamburger and Jersey City native and former St. Anthony standout Dwayne Lee, went out to look for top players.
“They helped me get good players,” Herenda said. “If you don’t get good players, you can’t win. We had the staff to get it done and I trusted them to do most of the recruiting. When you lose 15 straight, you either quit or you get stronger. Our kids wanted to get better.”
So after the long losing streak last year, the Knights stayed together and worked on improving. Some new freshmen players were sprinkled in.
“They had a great summer together,” Herenda said. “These guys just stayed together. They didn’t blame anyone for what happened last year. I’m a real lucky coach for that. We were ready to rise up from the depths of college basketball. I started believing in the kids and they started believing in themselves.”
Still, the coaches in the Northeast Conference didn’t believe. In the preseason NEC coaches poll, the Knights were picked to finish ninth in a 12-team league.
“We didn’t use that as a rallying cry,” Herenda said. “I knew they were good players. I knew they could play basketball. I honestly thought that getting picked ninth was fair considering what we did last year. We deserved to be picked there.”
But as the season went on, the Knights started winning the close games that they lost a year ago. They finished second in the regular season and last Tuesday night, they did the unthinkable, beating Wagner on Staten Island to win the Northeast Conference championship, punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, just one year after enduring a 15-game losing streak, the Knights are going to the dance, being a part of March Madness. The kid from North Bergen did what no one thought he could do. He was leading his team into the tournament.
“Being a kid from North Bergen, I never thought I’d get a chance to be a part of it,” Herenda said. “I think it’s the goal of every kid who ever played. I watched the NCAA Tournament on television. I used to go to college basketball games in the [Madison Square] Garden and see Indiana and Duke. I never thought I’d be a part of it. It’s incredibly surreal. I usually do most of my contemplating in the shower and today, I was in the shower and said to myself, ‘We’re going to the NCAAs.’ It’s just unreal.”
Sunday evening, the Knights will learn their fate. More than likely, they’re headed to Dayton for a play-in game against another No. 16 seed. That’s fine with Herenda.
“We’ll wait to see what Sunday brings,” Herenda said. “But we want to go to the tournament and win games. That’s our next goal. That’s a reality. Our next goal is to win in the tournament.”
Not many times I get a chance to write a column like this one, but I’m so damn proud of my friend for what he’s achieved, defying the odds, even the ones I thought he would never overcome. Here’s to you Greg. For 40 years, you’ve been my friend and I can say without missing a beat that the pride right now is immense. Congrats and welcome to March Madness.

Jim Hague can be reached at You can also read Jim’s blog at

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