There was a time, not too long ago, when the head coach at Fairleigh Dickinson was viewed as a decent job in college basketball circles.
Located in prospect-rich North Jersey and showcasing the Rothman Center — an impressive small-college gym when it opened in 1987 — the Knights captured seven conference titles, made four NCAA Tournaments and posted winning seasons more often than not under Tom Green.
This week, when Greg Herenda was fired after nine seasons at the helm, the view from the coaching fraternity was decidedly different. As expressed in conversations with several industry insiders, it went something like this: “Is FDU committed enough?”
Last year, the athletic department contracted the men’s and women’s basketball staffs from the standard three full-time assistants to two, replacing the nixed posts with graduate assistants instead. That’s out of step with peers in the Northeast Conference.
Men’s basketball, the university’s most visible sport, has an undergraduate student as its communications director — an arrangement that would be unusual even in Division III and is virtually unheard of in Division I.
Unable to get an interview with athletics director Bradford Hurlbut, USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey posed a direct question to another athletic department official: Is FDU’s Teaneck campus committed to competing at the Division I level for the foreseeable future?
“Yes, we are committed to Division I and are truly excited to play our first season of women’s lacrosse next year,” Jason Young, senior associate athletic director for external affairs, wrote in an email.
It’s true: Last year, in the throes of the pandemic, FDU announced the addition of men’s volleyball and women’s lacrosse. As explained by Hurlbut to Sportico.com: “Most universities, especially universities our size, are looking for additional students. This is a perfect way to bring additional students to the campus, and fill up dorms.”
Most of those new students are paying their own way. Sportico estimated the two new sports will bring in “an extra $1.2 million in paid tuition.”
It’s worth noting that an analysis of the financial health of New Jersey’s private colleges, published last summer by NorthJersey.com, ranked Fairleigh Dickinson as the third-healthiest behind Princeton and Monmouth and ahead of Seton Hall, Saint Peter’s and a badly trailing Rider.
In 2021, the same year the two sports were added, the basketball staffs were contracted. Does FDU plan on restoring the third full-time assistant-coach position?
“We instituted our current model last April,” Young said. “Our women’s basketball team just won a regular season championship, under this direction. This model mirrors that of the Ivy League which has a great deal of success in men’s and women’s basketball. The only difference is that FDU provides a graduate assistant, while the Ivy allows only for a volunteer assistant coach.”
Does FDU plan to continue having a student at the university fill the role of communications contact for men’s basketball?
“The student you are referring to is a prodigy and an amazing talented individual that has gained national recognition by CoSIDA (the sports information directors’ association),” Young said. “The coverage of FDU teams by the NY Metropolitan media has been unprecedented since he has become a member of the staff. We are in a unique position to have a prodigy in our athletic department and we have created an extra position in creative services which helped grow our staff.”
Why were these unusual staffing measures taken?
“As Covid-19 impacted many athletic departments, we ensured our department was well-situated for the future by restructuring parts of our department,” Young said. “FDU was one of the only schools in the country to increase the number of sport offerings during the pandemic and our model is working. During the course of the 2021-2022 season we have won a regular season women’s basketball championship, a women’s indoor track and field championship, and a men’s tennis championship. Additionally, women’s bowling made the final four, and baseball is off to its best start NEC in conference history, currently sitting in first place.”
FDU’s successes in those other sports do little to quell questions about its commitment to men’s basketball. It remains to be seen how much that impacts the applicant pool. The Northeast Conference is in flux, with champion Bryant leaving and perennial power Wagner changing coaches, so there is potential for upward mobility.
Obviously salary will be a factor. It’s unclear how much of the $500,000-plus FDU owes Herenda over the final two years of his contract will be paid out, and how that will influence the offer for his successor.
If FDU wants to hire someone familiar with the landscape, there is no shortage of respected assistants who once worked on the Knights’ staff, including Grant Billmeier (now at Maryland), Zak Boisvert (Indiana State), Bruce Hamburger (Columbia) and Dwayne Lee (Quinnipiac).
An interesting in-state option could be Brett MacConnell, who is Princeton’s associate head coach and recruiting coordinator. A former Rutgers manager, MacConnell has been on Mitch Henderson’s staff since 2012, working his way up the ladder of the perennially successful Tigers. He’s recruited New Jersey well for a program that hadn’t done much of that in the past.
There’s a potential connection here: Hurlbut spent 17 years as an administrator at Northwestern, his time there overlapping with Henderson’s stint as a Wildcats assistant coach under Bill Carmody.
Also in McConnell’s favor: He’s worked at Saint Peter’s, and prior to that at Division II Holy Family (Pa.) and Division III Delaware Valley (Pa.). He has experience trying to turn less into more.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at email@example.com.