Greg Herenda had enough. Sore, mentally fraught and feeling disenfranchised, the 19-year old point guard secretly boarded a bus and began his sojourn from Merrimack College, a small Augustianian school in North Andover, Massachusetts, to the Garden State.
It was a rough sophomore season for fiery Herenda, one that saw decreased playing time with a new coach keen to establish his way or the highway. Head coach Bert Hammel, in replacing local legend Frank Monahan before the start of Merrimack’s 1980-81 season, sought to institute a new system that drew parallels with Bob Knight at Indiana University. Now there were 5:00 AM lifts, constant running drills on an overgrown ski slope, mandatory study halls, and something that was of a particular annoyance to Herenda, strict curfews.
Several players quit throughout Hammel’s inaugural season as the taskmaster implemented his unforgiving culture. Others like Herenda endured the physical and mental torture in hopes that their standing with the Merrimack coach would improve and basketball would be fun again, as it had been under Monahan.
That didn’t happen, and as Herenda sat on the bus that spring night heading toward the Port Authority in New York City, he felt relief. Relief that the hellish year was coming to a close and that he could start anew somewhere else. The sudden exodus felt right.
That is until his mother, the following morning in their North Bergon, New Jersey home, asked her son a simple question after breakfast. “My mother was street smart, she’s like ‘well, who is going to give you a scholarship,’” Herenda recalled from that emotional moment.
Once Herenda’s mom injected her son with a dose of reality – there wasn’t a portal that afforded student-athletes an easy way to transfer back then – it wasn’t long before Herenda was on a bus returning to Merrimack. His next meeting with the fastidious Hammel became a turning point in his young life, even if Herenda was oblivious when he walked into the office.
“I had a meeting and I’ll never forget it,” Herenda said with respect to that end-of-season sitdown. “In my second year, I averaged like nine minutes a game and he told me I was going to be a nine minute player if I came back. I don’t think he really was begging me to come back and I just remember saying ‘Ok man, that’s it. I’m going to show this guy.’”
Always the fierce competitor, Herenda devoted himself from that point forward, and by the time the following season commenced, Herenda was the Warriors’ starting floor general. His upperclassman seasons were fruitful, culminating with a splendid senior campaign. The captain averaged nine assists per game and posted a record setting 22 helpers in a victory over rival Bentley College. Over the course of his final season, Herenda developed into a coach on the floor, routinely calling out defensive coverages and making suggestions to Hammel while competing on the hardwood.
“My relationship with him and the game really changed over my four year career,” Herenda said looking back. Shortly after his playing career was over, Hammel gave Herenda his first opportunity to be an assistant coach. It certainly was an arduous path to get there, but things had officially come full circle for the man who’d eventually coach young men to championships, first at UMass Lowell and next at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Nearly two decades after Herenda was exposed to Hammel’s coaching, the then-assistant coach at East Carolina University got a call from Alan Taback, the long-time high school coach at Princeton Day School in New Jersey. Things weren’t going well for one of Taback’s former stars, Justin Leith, at Colonial Athletic Association rival UNC Wilmington and he needed Herenda’s input. Leith wanted to find a better fit collegiately, leading to Herenda suggesting he look into a small Division II school near Boston.
Leith took Herenda’s advice, and soon after his freshman season committed to Merrimack and Coach Hammel. On one of his next trips up to the campus, Leith brought along a former high school teammate to play in a scrimmage with his new team. The teammate’s name was Joe Gallo.
By the time Gallo signed onto the Warriors program as a walk-on in 2000, Hammel had softened his persona to the point where he fostered a better connection with his players. The intensity on the court, however, never waned as the grizzled veteran coach acquired experience.
“He was very honest, but it always came from a great place, you always knew he cared for you,” Gallo said when asked about playing for Hammel, then entering his third decade of leading Merrimack. “The guy in between the lines was tough, but he was a big teddy bear once you got him off the court back in the office.”
Herenda took his former coach and mentor’s softening to another level. “By the time Joey got to (Coach Hammel), forget it, he was a marshmallow I think,” he laughed.
No matter if he was a teddy bear or marshmallow, Gallo benefited greatly from Hammel’s tutelage. He ascended to become the Warrior’s backup point guard as a junior, a noteworthy accomplishment as a walk-on. And despite missing the entirety of his senior season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, the setback inevitably led to Gallo’s next calling in life. It gave him an invaluable exposure into coaching.
“Coach Hammel had me sit up front on the bench with him and the assistant coach rather than in the back with the players,” Gallo said of his senior season. “I was almost like a student (coaching) assistant, so to say, that year.”
Like Herenda before him, the coaching apprenticeship as a player led to a full-time assistant coach position right next to Hammel, merely six months after Gallo graduated from Merrimack. That was the start of a productive career as an assistant coach with stops at Dartmouth and Robert Morris along the way.
After 36 years of patrolling the sidelines, the Merrimack athletic department and Hammel decided to part ways. Then 64 years old, Hammel had given Merrimack a treasure trove of success on and off the court – 526 wins, five NCAA Division II tournament appearances, three NE-10 conference titles and a lifetime of charitable work that originated at the Boys and Girls Club in Lawrence. His foundation and legacy, which also produced a slew of coaches including long-time University of New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion, left a lasting impression on the hundreds of players he guided over a remarkable four decades. The college even honored the coach in 2011 by naming the basketball facility “Hammel Court.”
Despite the successes, the split between Hammel and Merrimack after the 2015-16 season wasn’t completely amicable. It led to a layer of trepidation for potential candidates; taking over a program that was in great hands for a long time was surely an intimidating prospect for some.
While the college swiftly expressed interest in Gallo as Hammel’s successor given his success as a Robert Morris assistant under Andy Toole, the Warrior alum needed approval from the mentor responsible for jump starting his coaching career.
“The first person that I did call was Coach Hammel,” Gallo said. “He called me back and left me this long-winded message of how proud he would be of me and how there’s no one else he’d rather take over the keys of the program that he had… Before I inquired with anyone over (at Merrimack), I wanted to make sure I got Bert’s blessing. Once I got the OK with him, I could really care less what anyone else thought, whether it was other alums or people close to him.”
The rest, of course, is history with Gallo continuing Hammel’s legacy of achievement at Merrimack with three consecutive NCAA Division II tournament appearances and a NE-10 championship in 2019 to boot.
Now Division I and Northeast Conference competitors, Gallo and Herenda share the unique coaching bond that got them into the business, albeit in different ways. And they will square off against each other for the first time when Fairleigh Dickinson visits Merrimack on January 23.
Toole has the unique perspective of having coached against both Hammel disciples, while even employing one for four seasons. He playfully attempted to compare Gallo and Herenda, two distinct personalities whose foundations began at Merrimack.
“You watch Joe and Greg and they have some great sideline behavior,” Toole deadpanned. “Both of them have shown their vertical, or lack thereof vertical, at times during games. Both of them jumping up and down at times, waving their arms.”
Gallo notes that the famous Herenda foot stomp, a sideline move that may have consequences on 58 year old’s hips in due time, originated with the animated Hammel.
Joking aside, Toole further elaborated on the two men who coached their respective programs to league championships during the 2018-19 season. “Both of them definitely have a command of their teams; the players are connected to their coach,” he said. “I think all their feelings toward Coach Hammel were as hard and as tough a coach he was, they all had great respect for them, they knew that he cared about them greatly and I think you see that in Joe, you see in Greg and they wouldn’t have had some of the successes that they had if they didn’t approach it that way.”
Herenda will undoubtedly be emotional when he steps onto Hammel Court before Thursday’s tip for the first time since his Hammel’s unfortunate passing in October of 2018. Gallo has already confronted those emotions, while Herenda isn’t completely sure of how he’ll feel.
“That’s where I grew up, it’s where I (went) from a high school kid to a man,” Herenda said two days before the game. “And I coached there with Bert for four years. And now the court’s named after him.”
No matter the score, it will undoubtedly be a special night. And rest assured Bert Hammel, the man who started an indelible legacy at Merrimack, will be smiling down on his former players from above. For a legendary coach that was fiercely intense and competitive, there likely are no losers after Thursday’s contest on Hammel Court.