But now that we’re a few days away from the Hokies’ season opener against East Tennessee State on Saturday, I wanted to share a story about Greenberg that reveals a side other than the bombastic, emotion-on-his-sleeves coach fans have come to know from game days.
As some of you may be aware, back when Greenberg was coaching at Long Beach State in 1996, he was involved in an ugly incident at New Mexico State in which one of his assistants found a Jewish epithet written on the grease board that Greenberg used to diagram plays. Then during the game, Greenberg confronted some fans that were yelling racial slurs at his players.
Greenberg’s postgame remarks made national news as he called the entire episode a “sad commentary on life, and … a sad commentary on this university.” Here is an interesting piece written in the aftermath of the incident if you want a full rundown of the events.
But few know about the lifelong friendship Greenberg developed with a Michigan high school basketball player as a result of this unfortunate set of circumstances.
Benjamin Lincoln was a junior at Harper Creek High in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1996 when in a January rivalry game against Marshall High, an opposing player twice called him “Jewboy,” setting off a near-brawl during postgame handshakes.
Lincoln’s father was also his coach, and seeing how frazzled the whole ordeal had made his son, he remembered that Greenberg had endured something similar just days earlier.
So one afternoon, he left a message on Greenberg’s office phone in Southern California, asking if the coach would talk to his son. That evening, Greenberg called back.
“You’re 16 years old and it kind of shakes you up. You’re like ‘What the hell did I do?’ and you just don’t really know,” Lincoln explained over the phone earlier this week. “I can’t tell you about what he said, but it was just something comforting like, ‘We’ve got to stand up for this stuff.’ ”
Maybe the most remarkable part of the story is that 15 years later, both Greenberg and Lincoln remain extremely close after Lincoln served as a team manager for two years when Greenberg coached at South Florida.
Now 33 years old, Lincoln is the managing partner at Redwood Wealth Management in Charlotte and calls Greenberg “a second father figure.” The two talk frequently over the phone, trading ideas about leading their respective organizations. Or Lincoln will just call to cheer Greenberg up, like he did this week after senior J.T. Thompson went down to a season-ending knee injury.
“You can’t be too busy to not have time for people in need, whether you know them or not. It’s the right thing to do,” Greenberg said of Lincoln. “We’re very close friends. It’s a friendship I value a great deal. In a lot of ways we look at him as part of our family.”
It’s worth noting that I found out about this story independent of Greenberg. While sometimes the coach can come off as brash and irritated in interviews, there is another side to him that he doesn’t often show in public.
But his players see it every day, and though Greenberg can be a bit of a taskmaster on the practice floor, guard Erick Green told me a few weeks ago: “People don’t realize he’s one of the most caring guys. He’ll do anything for us. If we need anything, he’s always there.”
Perhaps the best anecdote comes from Keith Stevens, the program director of Team Takeover, a top AAU team in the Washington area. Greenberg is actively recruiting one of Stevens’s players, Stanford Robinson of Paul VI Catholic – the same WCAC school Green attended for this senior season.
Both Green and Jeff Allen played for Stevens, and from how he talks about Greenberg, it’s no wonder the Hokies have the best freshman class in school history taking the floor this winter.
“I think a lot of head coaches when they get jobs at that level, they tend to focus more on the players that is already at the school,” Stevens said. “I think he does a good job of balancing – he has a lot of focus on the kids at the school, but he also makes sure he builds a relationship with those kids out in high school that they’re recruiting.
“The one thing he realizes is Blacksburg is a hard sell. When kids go down there and see it, they like it, but just the thought of going to Blacksburg if you’ve never been there, you don’t know what to expect. He has to do some out-of-the-box things, like be at the little events to show his interest is more sincere than the next one.”