Greg Herenda completes last-to-first turnaround, resurrecting Fairleigh Dickinson by winning Northeast Conference championship. (Photo courtesy of Fairleigh Dickinson University Athletics)
STATEN ISLAND -- Halfway through his first season, with only four wins to his credit, Greg Herenda still looked at the glass half-full.
"Good things are happening here," he assured after a January 2014 victory over Hofstra, even though very few, if any, would believe him after seeing what Fairleigh Dickinson University had become under his predecessor, Greg Vetrone.
With a roster that he patched together in May of the previous offseason, finding players with no prior scholarship offers, Herenda could only promise opportunity. Opportunity to play, opportunity to turn things around, opportunity to win. His Knights eventually scrapped and clawed enough to reach the Northeast Conference tournament in that year one, but the promise of brighter days was put on the back burner in season two, a 2-0 start to league play derailed by 15 consecutive losses. Nevertheless, Herenda soldiered on, preaching a simple message to his players as they prepared to climb out of the cellar.
"Don't wait to be great," sophomore guard Darian Anderson explained. "That hit home. We work hard day in and day out, and I knew it was going to pay off."
So did Herenda, the New Jersey boy who returned home after honing his craft all across the country at different levels to get to where he is now, a conference champion head coach, his FDU program clipping Wagner to secure the Knights' first NCAA Tournament trip since 2005.
"I was lucky to get a scholarship to play Division II basketball," he recalled, speaking from the heart in an emotional, yet resonant, postgame address. "I've overachieved my whole life. I was an associate head coach at East Carolina and we were let go, and I said I'd never be an assistant. I went to a junior college in the cornfields of Illinois, and I knew I was going to be here. That's the only way you can do this, unless you have the lineage of a Duke or a Carolina, which I didn't have."
And with that, he went to work, recruiting his roster, getting it into the gym, and ultimately onto the floor to compete. When FDU suffered a 23-point loss to Fordham in November, it seemed as though this night would not be on the immediate horizon. But both coach and players persevered, fought their way to the top of the NEC midway through the season; and after a three-game losing streak toward the end of the regular season threatened the upward mobility, rebounded to sweep the final weekend before postseason play before winning three tournament games to cut down the nets for the first time in eleven years.
"We lost 15 straight games last year," said Earl Potts, Jr., whose 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting earned him the conference tournament's Most Valuable Player award, "and we never gave up at all. We knew we had something great, and we proved it today."
The newly crowned champions will get a national stage to keep proving their mettle, and if the Knights have to head to Dayton, where they are likely projected to be sent for a First Four game as a No. 16 seed, Herenda has no objection. In fact, he openly embraced the notion of a play-in game, extolling its benefits.
"We put Dayton on the board in July," he boldly proclaimed. "For us, Dayton, I think it's a night in the lights of America, and an opportunity to win. And the exposure the university and the league gets? I told the guys at the halfcourt circle to enjoy it."
Enjoying the moment has seemed to come naturally for this group, a true blue-collar bunch that recognizes that from which they came, and most importantly, does not forget those roots. The appreciation has produced a quiet confidence, and unlike the swagger that can be misconstrued in some other mid-majors, this one seems genuine enough for all to savor.
"I've got beautiful kids," Herenda said with a smile. "I mean that in every sense of the word. I've got the greatest team in the world, and when I wake up, it's Christmas, and I'm not just selling that. It's the truth. Our players are my role models, and I'm the coach."
"I just surround myself with good people," he humbly stated. "You gotta believe. I'm a Met fan, and (in) 1973, that's what Tug McGraw said. The biggest thing is, these kids believe. And when that happens, special things occur."
Tonight may just be the first of many special things to come.