Dan Hurley is no longer broke, but at UConn, he's the best chance to fix things
UConn needed Hurley, but this program still has serious hurdles to overcome
Danny Hurley pulled the Toyota Rav-4 with the pink tire into a gas station in New Hope, Pa.
"It was embarrassing enough to still have it," Hurley said. "It was [my wife's] college car, 140,000 miles. Imagine driving through Newark (N.J.) with that, by the way. I get to the gas station and I'm convinced I have 10 dollars, and I'm close to empty. So I get $10 of regular in cash. The guy pumps it, I flip my visor and it's just my wallet. There's no money."
Hurley was the coach at St. Benedict's Prep at the time, a team that included a youngster named Tristan Thompson. He was leaving New Hope after having just coached a game vs. Solebury Prep. He'd forgotten how or when, but at some point Hurley figured he must have spent the $10 on a soda and some candy. So for the next 10 minutes, 35-year-old Danny Hurley stood in the cold and peddled for spare change from strangers who pulled into the gas station.
"I never had any money," Hurley said. "Me and my wife never had any money. We were always broke. Always. One of the reasons at the end that I [went to] college was that."
An embarrassing moment at a Pennsylvania gas station sparked him toward getting a job at Wagner in 2010, which then turned into another at Rhode Island in 2012. Danny Hurley goes by Dan to most now, and on Thursday, he agreed to a six-year contract worth in the neighborhood of $3 million annually to coach the four-time national champion Connecticut Huskies.
The only school with four titles in men's basketball in the past 20 years is tasking Hurley with saving its program and bringing it back, or close, to the levels it thrived at under Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun. Hurley carries a lot of the Calhoun traits: a fiery competitor bred from the northeast who thrives on the criticism and skepticism of others.
UConn got its guy.
It's a critical acquisition for a program whose standing in college basketball has slipped rapidly in the past three years and is undetermined going forward given landscape of the conference it resides in.
A hire like this can fasten, and hasten, Connecticut's situation for the better. In luring Hurley away from Rhode Island, the school upgraded the American Athletic Conference in the process, too. Whereas Hurley wanted UConn, UConn and the American needed Hurley. This is a league on the upswing, but it can only go as far as good coaches can take it. Withand now Hurley inbound for the biggest program in the conference, it's been a huge week for the AAC.
Hurley picked Connecticut over Pittsburgh and URI. He spent nearly four days weighing all the facets.
"These types of decisions aren't easy for me to make," Hurley told CBS Sports this week. "It has a big impact on my family. Lots to consider. I just want to make the best possible decision."
Money is always a driving factor in these decisions, but it wasn't the deciding one for Hurley. He picked UConn for its pedigree, opportunity and history. He picked UConn despite being offered more money in a better league at Pitt. We're talking about a guy who was gifted a Ferragamo belt and pair of shoes by his wife, Andrea, who made him promise he'd wear both if Rhode Island made the NCAA Tournament, which it did.
Instead, he wore the same pair of six-year-old, worn-down shoes last week. The belt? From Marshall's. He never even packed the Ferragamo stuff for the games in Pittsburgh.
"I told her I'd wear them next year," Hurley said.
The real reasons UConn won out? Its potential -- and its issues. Back when we sat down in February, in his office at URI, Hurley gave an indication as to why a job like this appeals beyond the obvious reasons.
"I'm like a fixer, man," Hurley said. "I love broken shit. I love fixing stuff. I enjoy improving things. … I'd rather take a job like Rhode Island than take a turn-key job. For me, I find it more rewarding, a more exciting challenge to create something from nothing."
Hurley inherited a disastrous situation at Rhode Island that was made even worse when he learned the team's APR was on the brink of sending the program into an abyss.
When he got to Kingston, the basketball offices had no branding, no identity. He referred to his office as "the dentist's office" because of its aging wallpaper and drab furnishings. The team's locker room had cinder-block walls, a rusted-over wet bar and a TV with bunny-ear antennas. Next to it, old VHS tapes of game tapes were scattered about. The floors were worn. The weight room was smaller than what Hurley had at Wagner.
This was 2012, not 1998.
In six years, Hurley got the Rams to the top of the A-10 and won NCAA Tournament games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.
"As the bad news was coming I was, in a weird way, the challenge was greater and it got more exciting to me," Hurley said. "The challenge would make the accomplishment even greater."
Welcome to UConn, Dan, where the roster is arguably as weak as it's been in decades and morale around the program has dipped to lows not seen since Jim Calhoun took over the team in the mid-1980s. The Huskies missed the NCAAs in consecutive seasons for the first time in almost 30 years. They finished below .500 in back-to-back seasons for the first time since Calhoun's first season, in 1986-87. The fan base was losing its collective mind.
There's also the unknown of an NCAA investigation that may or may not ultimately be tied to Kevin Ollie and/or former staff members. It's possible that UConn eventually winds up getting hit with some restrictions from the Committee on Infractions.
If Hurley thrives off the big fix, it's time to get the tools out immediately.
UConn also won out because it obviously presented the best opportunity for Hurley to win a national title. It's a top-three job in the American Athletic Conference, meaning it will be easier to navigate that league than it would be to worm your way up in the ACC at Pitt. Rhode Island made an impressive pitch, too, and that shouldn't go overlooked. Rams AD Thorr Bjorn put a seven-year contract at $2 million annually on the table that would kick in next July. The school and its donors were also willing to build a basketball practice facility, up the salary pool for assistants by $300,000 and get the team to fly charter for all of its away games.
It was a huge step, certainly beyond what Hurley could have been anticipating, in trying to keep him.
But Hurley had to take UConn. At its best, UConn is the best of the three options. Better recruits, better opportunities at a national title and a chance to restore a program that at its peak was one of the five best in the country. That's why it won out.
This is no automatic, though. Hurley inherits issues outside of the obvious. With Ollie being fired, will UConn's NBA alumni -- who are close with Ollie, a longtime beloved NBA vet himself -- be slow to welcoming in Hurley at first? Is Hurley prepared to massage those relationships? Having NBA players stumping for, and being around, your program can do big things for recruiting.
UConn is also a high-stress job. The local media horde is like few others in the sport. Hurley's never dealt with anything like it. In recent years he's been able to tone down his sideline act and reduce his stress. Now comes a job that will truly challenge his change in lifestyle and approach to coaching.
Plus, he'll never be Calhoun. Is Hurley equipped to deal with that, and will it be an issue in the coming years considering Calhoun's everlasting influence at the school? Then there's the fact that the soon-to-be 76-year-old will be coaching right down the road at D-III University of Saint Joseph (in West Hartford, Conn.). That makes for an unusual set of circumstances.
Five days ago, Hurley stood among a gaggle of reporters outside the team locker room in Pittsburgh after Rhode Island had just lost by 25 points to second-seeded Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He lost to a squad loaded with pros, a program capable of competing for national titles on an annual basis.
Duke brought to mind UConn's best teams under Calhoun.
How could he lose a game like that, see what was on the other sideline and not want to take a chance on an opportunity that could provide something similar? College coaching is always about opportunity, time and place. Seize your chance when you have it. Hurley could pass on other gigs no longer. A job with the potential of UConn might literally only come once in your life.
He grew up in Jersey, played at Seton Hall, then was an assistant at Rutgers. In coaching, he went from St. Benedict's to Wagner to Rhode Island and now Connecticut. Dan Hurley has roamed the northeast all his life. Now, at UConn, he aims to become the king of it.
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