Hurley vows to build, not buy championships
STORRS — Champions in professional sports are … check that. Let’s start again.
Champions in professional and major college sports are either built or bought.
After opening the doors to the public Saturday for a preseason practice at Gampel Pavilion, coach Dan Hurley, on a hellfire mission to bring championship basketball back to UConn, swore it would never be the latter.
He swore it on the Hurley family name.
“I was a high school coach for nine years (at St. Benedict’s in Newark),” Hurley said. “I had seven McDonald’s All-Americans my last eight years, or six my last seven. I had teams with eight or nine Division I players on a team. No one ever offered me a lunch or any money. I’ve never had a recruit, handler, mentor or a grass-roots guy ever ask me or a staff member for a thing.
“I just think that’s because they know who my dad is, who my family is. They know we would rather fail and lose with integrity. How do you coach a kid after you pay him? How do you be their coach? How do you set the standard for them when you had to sell your soul like that?
“I come to UConn now and if I lose recruits over the years because I was unwilling to enter that world, I’m fine with that.”
Those aren’t little words. Those are big, important words to the integrity of the game, to the integrity of a school that has agreed to pay him an average of $3 million a year for six years, to a state still weighing the $10 million question of how much did Kevin Ollie cheat or lie or violate the terms of his contract.
Hurley’s dad Bob, among the most storied high school coaches in history, is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Just like Jim Calhoun. Just like Geno Auriemma. Just like John Wooden. His brother Bobby is the coach at Arizona State.
Dan Hurley swears on the family name he’s going to build and not buy.
I believe him.
Yet as Louisville, Duke, Kansas and other schools see their names and the names of their coaches appear in the college basketball corruption trial in New York, there also is no shortage of people around the nation who would roll their eyes at his words. All that sneaker money, all that goes into the giant cesspool, no one at this point could be blamed for screaming, “I don’t believe anybody!”
“I don’t think (people) necessarily look at Danny or Bobby Hurley as anything different right now,” Hurley said. “It has been very ugly. It’s a bad look for college basketball coaches. I remember when it first hit last year there was a little bit of shame walking around with a polo, representing a college basketball program.
“I can imagine sports fans across the country are skeptical about what goes on in recruiting in college basketball based on what they’re reading right now and with the trial.”
So if he isn’t going to buy UConn a fifth national title, heck, if he isn’t going to buy UConn its second AAC Tournament title, he is going to have to build it.
There has been little not to like about Hurley since he took over in March. Under Connecticut’s great glare, we will reserve judgment for one season on his emergence as a Zen master. We’ll see how the self-described “Incredible Hulk” on game nights morphs into meditation, prayer, reading and journal-writing the next morning. We’ll see how it all goes after Christian Vital chucks a couple of indiscriminate threes or Eric Cobb’s thought process wanders.
Yet this much is sure. He is a coach in the noble sense. He thinks the game. He explains the game with laser precision. On this day, he talked about the problems Tyler Polley and his shot will cause as a starting stretch 4. How it will force a bigger 4 from the basket, leaving Polley, a somewhat limited ballhandler, a much better chance at beating that opponent than a 3. Polley can create one-on-one for the post player and open the court for the three guards. Hurley conceded Polley lacks quickness to guard a 3 and needs to work on work on physicality and rebounding at the 4. Later when I asked him in conversation about the wisdom of a lanky Polley along with three guards on the defensive end, he went on a nuanced explanation how it worked at Rhode Island. He also alternated plans against more traditional big-tough opponents. (Think Cincinnati).
He didn’t brush off the question or demean an outsider with a, “How dare you challenge my all-knowing wisdom” look. He clearly loves to coach and talk about the game.
And he swears on his family name.
“Champions start carrying themselves like champions before they become them,” Hurley said. “Michigan State, the Villanova, their huddles look a certain way. My teams at Rhode Island. We had the habits of championship programs. The way we communicated with each other. The way we came in and out of timeouts. The way substitutes ran on and off the court.
“Everything matters in championship level organizations. This is what the first two years are like. You fight over every detail. You fight for their souls in every way … Everything around (the players) has to be high level, too. I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself, my staff and also on academic support, marketing, sports information, strength and conditioning. It’s not just these kids. It’s the whole place we’ve got to get right if you want to have Final Four expectations. Your investment has to equal your expectations or else we’re all just kidding ourselves.”
Outplayed, even outclassed, by a superior opponent? Hurley said he can handle it.
“Never outworked,” he said. “No team should ever play harder. If that happens I have not done my job … simple as that. You’ll never hear excuses in terms of that from me.”
So here was Dan Hurley’s voice during this high-tempo public practice, no whistle, never a whistle. Creating a stressful environment, making it as chaotic as possible so games will seem slow. You want to run fullcourt defense? You’ve got to wear your opponent out.
Hurley has handled a glossary to his players. Afterward, he starts a quarterback’s cadence, “Red! 42! Omaha!” None of that in basketball. It’s close out! Or rim run! Or show! The terminology is short. The reaction must be immediate.
“Think hard while running hard,” he said.
He said he coaches Josh Carlton and Sidney Wilson more than anybody. With their ability they need to be fully engaged more. During practice he was on Christian Vital and Jalen Adams for taking low-percentage chances for steals. He said guys bailed on six charges. Nothing worse the day after a loss — nothing — Dan Hurley said than watching guys on video unwilling to give up their body for their teammates.
Yes, he’s going to build it. He’s not going to buy it. He swears on the family name.