For the first time since re-embarking on a whirlwind coaching career that took him from Harrison High School to the highest levels of college football, Dan Hicks found himself looking for a job and facing an unknown future.
“There was a lot of uncertainty,” the 30-year-old Hicks said. “When you first get into coaching, you sit in at these clinics and you hear these conventions and they talk about how with every (college) coach you’re going to live in 20 cities in 20 years and the day will come when you’re not working at a university anymore. This was my first taste of that. It was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of questioning and wondering what was next.”
Hicks, a Blue Tide graduate and a product of the Harrison Gardens, no longer has to worry about what’s next. Last week, he was hired as an analyst on defense and special teams at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
“I’m super excited and grateful to join a dynamic staff that Coach (Don) Brown has assembled at UMass. His reputation speaks for itself, so to soon be able to work for a coach with so much knowledge and wisdom is a blessing,” Hicks said. “I’m really looking forward to taking bits and pieces from my experiences at Harrison, some of my experiences at AIC and most recently, the experiences that I accrued under Coach (David) Cutcliffe at Duke University, and do anything I can at UMass.”
While UMass, a Division 1 FBS Independent, might be a new stop for Hicks, there will be some familiar faces awaiting him in the coaches room. Hicks will once again be working on defense and special teams with Ben Albert, who was an associate head coach at Duke and now the assistant head coach at UMass. Current running backs coach Damian Mincey is someone Hicks has known for five years dating back to when Mincey was recruiting former Harrison star Dustin Husenovic to Pace.
Those relationships combined with a return to the northeast made UMass the right fit for Hicks who interviewed with several Division 1 FBS and FCS programs in recent months since his contract at Duke expired right before New Year’s.
“I was particular about where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to just jump on the first job offer that was presented to me this offseason. I was super picky with opportunities and I maybe let some good ones pass me by,” Hicks said. “When I had a conversation with Coach Albert and Coach Brown, everything seemed to fit. It’s a northeast mentality and I knew that I would fit in with these guys.”
Hicks said he was able to use the six months away from coaching to “re-center,” himself as he returned to North Jersey. The time, the longest he’s been back in the area since stepping down as the head coach at Harrison to become a wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at American International College.
Spending six months at home without knowing his next job wasn’t easy, but Hicks credits the support system of friends and coaches for keeping him upbeat. Among them, former Harrison coach Al Ruiz, who is now the boys basketball coach at Pompton Lakes, Mike and Nick D’Errico, Lyndhurst head coach Rich Tuero, Paul Johnson, the head football coach at St. Mary of Rutherford, and former Harrison coach Raphael Viana.
“Without all of these people in my circle, I wouldn’t have been able to go through the adversity. Without the support system that I have, it’s truly not possible,” said Hicks. “It was very challenging, but there’s always a positive to take from it. I grew as a person, I grew as a coach from going on interviews and talking to coaches. This is a people business.”
Hicks, who played at Harrison and Fairleigh Dickinson, started his coaching career as an offensive assistant and later offensive coordinator at Kearny. After a brief stint in pharmaceutical sales, he returned to coaching in 2017 as the offensive coordinator at Harrison. One year later, he became the head coach at his alma mater, going 5-5 and giving the Blue Tide just their second non-losing season in three decades. The following spring, in 2019, he departed to begin his college coaching career at American International.
“It feels like yesterday that I was telling the players at Harrison High that I was getting ready to leave for AIC,” Hicks said. “To be back up here, back in the northeast, back in Massachusetts and hopefully, assisting with the pipeline from New Jersey to Massachusetts, I’m beyond excited and ready for that challenge.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)