Herrion, others return to game at lower levels
DURHAM, N.H. -- After an hour of watching Bill Herrion pacing up and down the bench, getting into a defensive stance, instructing his players on running their offense, encouraging the effort and being discouraged when careless turnovers affect a scrimmage, you realize this is why he is here.
Herrion's passion for being a coach, a basketball coach, pure and simple, is the reason he has nestled himself in northern New England at bottom-feeder New Hampshire, one of the least-known and least-productive programs in Division I.
"This is home," said Herrion, who was fired at East Carolina last March, got hired as a top assistant at Arkansas and then left after six weeks to take the UNH job when Phil Rowe resigned.
"This is who I am," Herrion said. "I'm a gym rat. I started as an assistant at Division III and then Division II. I wasn't one of those great college players that, because of your name and where you're from, that someone just hands you a great job. I've earned this."
Herrion, 47, went to nearby Merrimack College. His family is from the Worcester, Mass., area. He coached in America East at Drexel, coaching a lad named Malik Rose to the NCAA Tournament and upsetting Memphis for the Dragons' first-ever Tournament win in 1996. He went on to ECU, where he lasted six years during the Pirates' struggle to transition from the Colonial to Conference USA.
"I've had my chances," Herrion said. "I had a great run at Drexel and, like anything, got hot and had a few chances [to go up], and for one reason or another I didn't do it. I'm a coach and I love being in the gym and I love teaching. This is back to the beginning."
The quality of talent on the court is irrelevant right now. The high school-style stands at Lundholm Gym don't even matter. Neighboring America East rival Vermont turned its previously dormant program into one of the nation's darlings over the last three years, so building isn't a foreign concept here in New England, where basketball isn't ingrained into the fall foliage landscape. Vermont had never been to the NCAA Tournament before going for the first time three years ago and then returning each of the past two seasons. Last March, Vermont upset Syracuse in the first round.
UNH has never been, not even once.
Much like Matt Doherty at Florida Atlantic and Buzz Peterson at Coastal Carolina, Herrion is here to resurrect his career. Unlike the other two, though, who have tasted the big time and it's still to be determined if they will call their new Southeast digs longtime residences, Herrion doesn't have that bug and isn't here necessarily to move on to something bigger and better in a few years. He is home.
This isn't the same America East from the '90s that Herrion knew so well. Drexel, Delaware, Hofstra, Towson and now Northeastern are gone to the CAA. Vermont likely will regress and Albany, of all schools, is picked as the preseason league champ. Resident big boy Boston University is still an annual contender, but the opportunity appears there for Herrion to make UNH into a threat.
"The exciting thing here about this program is that, aside from a couple of years, they've never won here," Herrion said. "The hockey team is a top 10-15 program and goes to the [Frozen] Four. The football team [was] ranked second in Division I-AA [earlier this season]. There's a lot [of positives] athletically, but for whatever reason they've never done it in basketball."
Watching practice last weekend were a few of the UNH diehards. Herrion said there were only 10 season-ticket holders a year ago. He said there are 250 now. Well, we might have found four of the original 10 sitting in the stands watching the Wildcats.
"If he ever gets to the [field of] 64, this place will go nuts," said Paul Banford, a 1975 grad and president of the Cage Club. Banford was decked out in his UNH gear from head to toe.
"If anybody can do it, he can," Banford said. "He's such a good teacher. And he's got support. I applaud UNH for giving him support."
Rowe was making an estimated $75,000. Herrion got $130,000. That's actually less than he was going to make at Arkansas as associate head coach to Stan Heath.
"Look at his attitude and intensity," said Maynard Jackson, another longtime fan. "Give him two years and you'll see a big difference."
Wow, that's some heat. Two years into his five-year deal and Herrion is expected to make a major change (like a league title?). We'll see.
UNH was 9-19 last season (5-13, tied for eighth in the America East). The roster has three returning starters, which isn't always a great omen for a team that finished so poorly. The schedule is dreadful, with only two nonconference home games before Jan. 5 (Long Island and Robert Morris; in-state rival Dartmouth comes calling Jan. 16). Herrion said this will be the last year of playing four guarantee games (on the road at Providence, Connecticut, Penn State and NC State) -- although they will probably help pay for his salary.
"Like anything, you want it to happen right now," Herrion said. "When you're young, you think it's all coaching. But the longer you do this, the more you realize that you need players and then [you] coach them."
Herrion had to jump back right into the mix. Unlike Peterson (who could have stayed out longer and still maybe gotten another gig with Dean Smith as his power broker) or Doherty (who was able to get a job after two years out with his resumé, stature, connections and profile), Herrion said he didn't have the cachet to do that if he were to stay out of sight too long.
"This is where I needed to be. This is me," Herrion said.
"Look what Vermont basketball has done for their university, their state," Herrion said. "I think our people in New Hampshire see what occurred the last three years and think, 'If they can do it, why can't we?'
"Nobody in this state respects basketball right now and thinks it's OK to go here. We have to change that."
When practice ended Saturday, Herrion was up in his assistant coaches' office (three desks) discussing the practice and breaking down the team. It didn't matter who they were, what league they were in or whether they had a shot to win a league title. This was about the basics of teaching the game of basketball at its very core.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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