WEST ORANGE, NJ – There was excitement at Monday’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting as a crowd gathered to support the hiring of Darnell Grant as the new head football coach for West Orange High School (WOHS). There was unanimous consensus among the board as Grant was officially given his new position in the West Orange district.
Grant, 46, joins West Orange after nine years as head coach at Shabazz in Newark, which won two state championships under his leadership and appeared in the state finals three times in a five-year span. He is celebrated for his accomplishments, which include being named New Jersey Coach of the Year in 2014, inducted into the Essex County Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2015, named NAACP 2017 Sportsman of the Year and as one of New Jersey’s 50 Winningest Active Head Coaches in 2018.
Ron Bligh, West Orange Athletic Director, previously stated that the WOHS sports programs have experienced” a complete overhaul over the past five years,” and that the results are showing in the district’s county and sectional accomplishments.
“Darnell brings new dynamic leadership to our football program and I'm excited to see how he transforms the program to put West Orange football on the map,” he said.
During Monday’s meeting, Bligh commented on the process to hire the new football coach, saying that it was a “long process” and thanked Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez, the WOBOE and Mountaineer End Zone Club President James Rawls among others for their hard work in the make up of the committees that interviewed the potential coaches.
“It was the most thorough interview process I’ve ever been a part of, and Eveny, I really thank you for that; you really made it a fair, honest, decent process and I know we have the right man,” said Bligh. “He’s not only a great football coach, he’s a great young man. The first way I judge people is, ‘Would I want my son or daughter playing for a coach like this?’ and I can unequivocally say yes, he’s that type of young man.”
Many residents came out to congratulate the new coach on his appointment and to urge the board to give Grant as much support as he needs to make his time at West Orange a success.
West Orange resident and Grant’s friend Derrick Tandy, who attended Shabazz High School and coached against Grant while at Irvington High School, commented on Grant’s development as a coach.
“I believe not only will he bring our school a winning program, but I believe that he will also bring to our school a winning atmosphere—not only for the players, but for the community and for the other students,” said Tandy.
Board members also commented on how impressed they were with Grant’s credentials in addition to his character and how he prioritizes his students’ education above all else.
“Upon meeting [Grant], there were several things that impressed me,” said WOBOE member Mark Robertson. “But what really impressed me more or as much is listening to him talk about the development of our kids and putting academics first, where kids have to come up with a daily report and the goal is 3.0 or above, because as he puts it ‘3.0 opens the door.”’
Robertson said he was also impressed with how Grant has taken his team on college tours so that they can envision themselves in that environment. Grant also shows his team that “football is a means to an end.”
Off the WOHS field, Grant will partner with the West Orange PAL program to mentor and continue developing players.
Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez previously stated that she believes Grant will be "an invaluable mentor and role model for our boys, teaching them not only how to be strong athletes, but excellent students, faithful friends, contributing citizens, and one day loving husbands and nurturing fathers."
“We’re looking forward to partnering with coach Grant,” said Joe DePasquale, president of West Orange PAL. “Adding a strong mentor like coach Grant who can deliver both on and off the field will benefit our young players and be a positive influence for the entire community.”
In addition to his coaching expertise, Grant has led behavior modification programs and has experience in crisis management and restorative circles.
“Transformation doesn't happen overnight," said Grant. "Slow and steady wins the race, but I'm ready to blast off with these kids and coaches. I'm excited to be on this journey and look forward to delivering winning seasons, championships, and help build upon the West Orange pride that fills this community to create a whole new meaning to Friday Night Under the Lights."
WOBOE Vice President, Sandra Mordecai also commented on Grant’s track record, mentioning that based off research she had done, she found that Grant once gave a student who “was assaulted and…afraid to go home” a ride from school every day. She also expressed excitement about Grant’s mother, who reportedly cooked dinner for the entire Shabazz football team before every game.
“We’re looking forward to partaking in that meal and becoming a part of the family,” said Mordecai.
Alper echoed the sentiments of his fellow board members by saying, “I believe this is really going to be the beginning of a really fantastic new chapter for West Orange football.”
After being confirmed, Grant took the stand to thank the board for choosing him to be the next head football coach at WOHS and expressed his excitement to get started.
“I’m so happy to come to West Orange; I think we’re a sleeping giant and I just can’t wait,” said Grant, who added that it takes hard work to build a great program but he is up for the task. “This is a process and we’ll do it together. You know, they say success happens through togetherness. We’re going to be together, one football community, and hopefully soon, one football family.”
WOHS Principal Hayden Moore also previously expressed his enthusiasm about Grant’s appointment, stating that he can't wait for fall to "welcome Coach Grant to our Mountaineer family at this pivotal time in our evolution."
"Our campus and community is so welcoming and forward-thinking, I couldn't think of a better leader to join our team with all the right qualities to keep us moving in the right direction and take us to the next level," he said.
Grant replaces previous head coach Jim Matsakis, who boasted significant accomplishments during his six years at WOHS.
The Mountaineers were 3-7 last season, which opened with a stunning 26-19 upset victory over defending sectional champion Montclair. West Orange went on to lose four games by a touchdown or less in 2018, and was defeated by Montclair in a rematch, 35-0, in the opening round of the playoffs.
As president of the Mountaineer End Zone Club, the football boosters program at the high school, Rawls took some time to “acknowledge the service and tenure of [Matsakis]” who not only helped the football team win its first divisions titles, but also helped many players “pursue a college education because of football.”
“His time has passed and we’re ready for the next chapter, but we will continue to build upon those successes,” said Rawls. “Darnell Grant is the man to lead the program as we begin writing that new chapter. If you were to create a list of must-haves for a coach in West Orange, Mr. Grant checks every box.”