Darnell Grant named new West Orange HS football head coach

After leading Shabazz to tremendous success for past 9 seasons; he’s ‘excited to be on this journey’

Photo courtesy of West Orange Public Schools.
Darnell Grant led Shabazz to two state championship crowns and three state title appearances in the last five seasons.

WEST ORANGE, NJ – The West Orange Public Schools announced the appointment of Darnell Grant as the new head coach of the West Orange High School varsity football team.

Grant, 46, joins West Orange after nine years as head coach at Shabazz High School where he was named NJ Coach of the Year in 2014, inducted into the Essex County Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2015, named NAACP’s 2017 Sportsman of the Year, and was named one of NJ’s 50 winningest active head coaches in 2018. He lead Shabazz to outscore opponents, 500-69, delivered its first undefeated season in more than five decades, and delivered two state championship crowns and three state championship appearances in five years.

In announcing Grant’s appointment, West Orange Director of Athletics Ron Bligh said, “Our High School sports programs have experienced a complete overhaul over the past five years and the results are showing in our 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.”

“I can’t wait for Fall!” said West Orange High School Principal and community leader Hayden Moore. “I couldn’t be happier 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. Welcome to the family, Coach Grant!”

Grant will undoubtedly bring new and unique experiences for players and coaches on the field. Off the field, he will partner with the elite West Orange PAL program to mentor and continue developing players into the next generation of scholar-athletes who will raise the bar for the entire community.

“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.”

The WOHS varsity football program has experienced several transformational seasons leading up to this point. Coach Grant has a great opportunity ahead of him and is ready for the challenge.

“I believe Coach 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,” said Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez.

Grant brings an immense wealth of knowledge in the field of Academic Intervention to the West Orange Public Schools. He has lead behavior modification programs and has experience in crisis management and restorative circles.

“Transformation doesn’t happen overnight; slow and steady wins the race, but I’m ready to blast off with these kids and coaches,” said Grant. “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.’ Thank you to the WO BOE, Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez, WOHS Principal Hayden Moore, Athletic Director Ron Bligh, and the entire community for giving me this chance.”

Grant replaces Jim Matsakis, who stepped down after six seasons (2013-18). Grant  guided Shabazz to two North Jersey Section 2, Group 1 state playoff titles in 2014 and 2017. In 2014, Shabazz beat Dunellen, 14-6. Three years later, they capped a 12-0 season with a 35-0 win over Weequahic.

Last season, the Bulldogs were going for a repeat title, but fell to Hasbrouck Heights, 13-7, in the final to finish 10-2.

Grant’s overall record at Shabazz was an impressive 68-32.

Prior to Shabazz, Grant was the head coach at Irvington, his alma mater, for eight seasons from 2002-09. A 1991 graduate of Irvington, he guided the team  to the North 2, Group 3 championship game, the program’s first-ever sectional final, in 2006, but Irvington came up short against New Brunswick, 18-14. Under Grant, Irvington qualified for the playoffs in each of his last seven seasons. Grant’s record at Irvington was 64-21.

Matsakis went 27-32-1 at WOHS. In his first season in 2013, the Mountaineers finished with a 7-3 record, losing to Union City, 32-21, at home in the first round of the North 1, Group 5 playoffs.

In 2016, WOHS won a share of the Super Football Conference-Liberty Blue Division title with Montclair and finished 6-4 after losing at Ridgewood in the North 1, Group 5 playoffs. Last fall, the Mountaineers stunned state-ranked Montclair, 26-19, in the season opener. The teams had a rematch  in the North 1, Group 5 first round, where Montclair won, 35-0, as the Mountaineers finished 3-7.

Sports editor Joe Ragozzino contributed to this article.