Theresa Grentz returns to sidelines for Lafayette

Theresa Grentz returns to coaching this weekend for Lafayette (courtesy Lafayette College)
Theresa Grentz returns to coaching this weekend for Lafayette (courtesy Lafayette College)

Theresa Grentz has done it all in women’s basketball. She has won national championships as a player (three in fact at Immaculata — Watch 1973 title game) and as a coach (at Rutgers). She has guided the Olympic Team (in 1992) and served as president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. She has been inducted into multiple Halls of Fame, ranks 29th– all-time in career victories (with 671) and is the winningest head coach at both Rutgers (434) and Illinois (210), building up programs at both places. 

When Grentz stepped aside in 2007 after 12 seasons at Illinois, she had no intention of getting back into the ranks. However on Friday in Newark, Delaware, with many of her contemporaries settling into retirement, including Georgia’s Andy Landers most recently, Grentz is going the other direction. After eight years, the Philadelphia legend is back this year as the head coach for the Patriot League’s Lafayette College.

“I really love it,” Grentz said “It’s still coaching. It’s in your blood. I enjoyed being retired. You get up and get your cup of coffee, walk the dog, do a load of wash. I was thinking, though, ‘I need something else.’ I retired too young.”

After leaving Illinois, Grentz returned to her alma mater, Immaculata, as a vice president, leading fundraising efforts for some new buildings, then started her own business, Grentz Elite Coaching, to teach the fundamentals and skills that have helped aspiring college players realize their dream of playing Division I.

“The game has changed, some things for the better, some things not so much,” she said on why she started the business. “The skill level of the game today I don’t find is where it needs to be because we’ve lost the camps.”

Those success stories from Grentz Elite Coaching include players like Nicole Munger, who begins her first year at Michigan this season.

“The kids who came through with me really went to another level.” Grentz said.

Grentz made a cameo appearance in the Mighty Macs, a film based on tiny Immaculata’s improbable run to the national title, and last year gave the acceptance speech for the team’s induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

“You go back to the time we played as a group and it was Camelot, it was magical,” she said of those Immaculata days.

Last season, Grentz did something she had never done in 33 previous years of coaching — serve as an assistant — doing so for Dianne Nolan at Lafayette.

“That was something really different for me,” Grentz said. “I told them I would do it for six months. I really enjoyed the kids. I really did. I thought it was a great group of people. Then spring came and I went home.”

When Nolan retired after 38 years in the business, Lafayette called Grentz again, this time to ask her help in finding a successor.

“We talked about some people and the next thing you know they said, ‘We have to ask, would you do this?’ I said I just might. I met with (Lafayette President) Alison Byerly and the next thing you know I am here.”

Lafayette College is a school of 2,382 students with a strong academic reputation and a $46,000 per year price tag.

“Lafayette is a really neat place,” Grentz said. “Somebody wrote that the last true amateurs are in this league. I was very impressed with the alumni and faculty and with how the school helped its student-athletes. I thought if I was a parent of a son or daughter looking for a college, this would be a neat place to go to school, never thinking that I was going to end up recruiting here. It’s not the same as recruiting for or coaching at Illinois or Rutgers, but it is an awful lot of fun.”

Coach Grentz has always been known as an outstanding teacher of the game.

Coach Grentz has always been known as an outstanding teacher of the game (courtesy of Lafayette College).

Since being announced as the Leopards head coach in April, Grentz and her staff, which includes one of her former players, Kristen Foley, have gone coast-to-coast recruiting to find the right fit for the system, the school and the basketball program, which has seen just one winning season since 1994. The Leopards, paced by senior Jamie O’Hare are picked ninth in the 10-team Patriot League this year.

“We want to be competitive,” she said. “We’ll do our best job with what we have here and I believe we’ll surprise some people. We only have 12 scholarships. That’s why we’re getting after the recruiting. Our students have to be bright. We start at a 4.0 and work our way up. As far as basketball, they need a motor and have to want to play. We’re excited about them and they’re excited about us. Give us a couple of years and see what we have and then we’ll have a conversation.”

In some ways, Grentz has come full circle from an era where the women played for the love of the game and really wanted to learn, but more importantly use the game to grow as a person.

“That’s why I got into it,” Grentz said. “That’s the way it was and I kind of get to do a little bit of that now. We’re trying to take the players to the next level and let them experience what that is like. They are quite bright and they’re all going to be very successful.”

Grentz never truly left basketball. The time away from the frantic pace of leading a program, gave her time to study the game again, reaching out to coaches like Phil Martelli at St. Joseph’s, Jay Wright at Villanova and Fran Dunphy at Temple. She says that while her team at Lafayette will reflect her style at Illinois, it will be different as well.

“I still have my Illinois playbook, but we’ve added, tinkered, twisted, and tweaked to be able to play to the personnel that we have.”

Things couldn’t be better for Theresa Grentz, the person. She has an apartment connected to a beautiful home on a hill not far from the Lafayette campus. Her husband, Karl, is retired and plays a lot of golf while also refereeing. They take turns making the 50-minute drive to and from their permanent home in Westchester.

“When he comes up here, it’s like when we’re in college except now we have money,” she quipped.

Grentz regularly talks with several of her friends in Champaign and looks back fondly at her time at Illinois when she invigorated a fan base, took the program to five NCAA Tournaments in a seven-year span, and hosted a live TV show. She often told the story about her closest friends thinking she was nuts to leave the world of cheesesteaks for that of the Illini (rhymes with tortellini).

In October, the Grentz’s first granddaughter, Emily Grace, was born to her son, Kevin, and daughter-in-law, Kelly. As luck would have it, the baby was delivered by a doctor who once practiced in Springfield, Illinois, and remembers the Grentz era well. In fact, Emily’s footprints were imprinted on Kevin’s Illinois shirt he wore to the hospital.

The 63-year-old Grentz says she’ll keep coaching as long as her health allows and she is having fun. She admits that gearing up for her return to the bench took a little rehearsing, standing in front a mirror to see what she would look like on the sideline.

“I had to practice coaching again,” she said. “I watched games by myself and asked ‘What would I do here?’ But it came back rather quickly. I do feel fortunate. I’m still here and kicking so I might as well coach.”

Suffice it so say she’ll have several fans from the Land of Lincoln watching her progress closely and hoping for continued success.

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