Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
How ‘Shoes’ Vetrone Helped Keep the Rutgers Basketball Team Together
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — When Deshawn Freeman found out that Eddie Jordan had been fired as the Rutgers coach last March, he considered his options.
The 6-foot-7 Freeman might have transferred from Rutgers had it not been for one man: Greg “Shoes” Vetrone.
Vetrone, who received the nickname “Shoes” as a small child from his older cousins, had recruited Freeman to Rutgers, coming with Jordan to the family home in North Carolina to meet his mother, Renne Freeman. Deshawn’s future hung in the balance after Jordan was fired and he might well have transferred had Vetrone departed.
“Probably and I don’t think just me overall, I think the other guys Shoes recruited [would have left],” Freeman told me in advance of Rutgers’ season-opener on Friday night against Molloy at the RAC. “Me, Corey [Sanders], Jonathan [Laurent], other guys, we just thought about it.”
Vetrone, a 55-year former head coach at Fairleigh Dickinson who was once unofficially banished from UNLV, had actually recruited half a dozen players on the Rutgers roster: Freeman, Sanders, Laurent, Issa Thiem, Candido Sa and 7-footer Shaquille Doorson
After Rutgers hired Steve Pikiell to replace Jordan, one of Pikiell’s first moves was to retain Vetrone as Director of Player Development. Freeman said that was a key move in keeping the team intact.
“Shoes staying was a big part of fit,” Freeman said. “Coach Pikiell telling us that Shoes was going to be here, that helped a lot.”
The 6-2 Sanders, the team’s leading returning scorer, said he, too, might have bailed had Vetrone departed along with Jordan.
“Me, Deshawn, Mike [Williams], Jon, we were all thinking about leaving, that was the first thing that came to our mind,” Sanders said. “When you go through something like that, it’s like, ‘Dang, what do I do now?'”
Sanders said Pikiell told him at the time, “‘I know you and Shoes have a tight relationship so that’s going to be one thing I consider when I go through the coaching changes,’ and so that was one thing that we talked about and I’m so glad we was able to keep him.”
Sanders said the decision to retain Vetrone was “a major move right there.”
“Shoes [was] the one that brought me here and we have one of the greatest relationships that I ever had with a coach,” Sanders added. “He’s like a father figure in my life, too, so just keeping him around was a great move because I feel most comfortable with him.”
Within seven days of getting the job, Pikiell opted to keep Vetrone on staff for a variety of reasons, not just because of his ties to several key players.
“I’ve talked to good people who’ve known Shoes, he’s been invaluable to me,” Pikiell told me. “He’s been invaluable to me because he knows the University, he’s been here, he’s the one guy on staff that traveled the last two years. He knows the ins and outs. So he’s been great. He’s a good guy, he’s been doing it for a long time.
“Every time you take over a job, someone’s tied to someone or someone’s close to somebody, and it’s great,” Pikiell added. “But I hired him because he’s really good at what he does and he’s a valuable addition to Rutgers and has been for the last few years.”
Vetrone said he never indicated to Pikiell that any players would depart if he did, but that he did offer to help make Pikiell’s transition to Rutgers easier.
“It was very positive from the day I met Coach Pikiell,” Vetrone said. “I said, ‘Coach, the one thing I can at least help you with is the culture of Rutgers and what these kids have been through.’
“It’s very difficult for an outside looking in. You see they only won three [Big Ten] games in two years, but when I started to explain to him the culture and how many young players we have. We don’t have a senior on the team, so I thought I could be a huge asset just in that regard.”
Of course, in his new role Vetrone doesn’t travel on the road recruiting, where he helped land six of the team’s current players.
Instead, he’s closer to campus, something he says he enjoys.
“I thought it was going to be a lot tougher, to be honest with you,” he said. “But it’s really enabled me to have a much better relationship with the guys that are here now. And for me, if we really want to develop these guys, it’s a positive for me and the program to be around them all the time. Because when you’re on the road, you’re gone. I was with these guys all summer, I’m enjoying it.”
Sanders, who flirted with trying to enter the NBA after last season but never got any team workouts, said he believes the team is much stronger now than it was a year ago.
He’s glad that both Pikiell and Vetrone are aboard, even if Rutgers was picked to finish last in the Big Ten.
“To go from what we had last year to what we have this year, it’s a great jump,” Sanders said. “I love how everybody thinks we’re going to finish last and all that because there’s not a better time to be a Rutgers Scarlet Knight.”
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.