Dan Hurley’s surreal life as coach of UConn’s national champion

Dan Hurley's surreal life as coach of UConn's national champion

Maybe UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley has passed right by you recently, incognito and unnoticed, just a 50-year-old Jersey guy bouncing around Connecticut with his thoughts.

There are times when he needs to avoid the commotion of his new normal, when he’s not necessarily up for the next high-five or picture. He sometimes wears sunglasses, pulls a baseball cap to his brow and makes a point not to wear UConn clothes.  

Hurley has been in the spotlight enough, particularly since the Huskies’ march toward a national championship started gaining momentum, that he has come to appreciate anonymity in sprinkles. Down in South Glastonbury, just a few miles from his home, there’s a restaurant that offers all he needs at times: a booth to share with his wife, a killer margarita, a plate of tacos and even the simple feeling of being the next guy in line.

When the wait is particularly long at Sayulita, Dan and Andrea Hurley usually take their margaritas to the parking lot and sip them while waiting to be seated.

“We love that place,” Hurley said. “Mexican is my favorite food. No one bothers me. It’s a small place. You have to be patient. It’s a place where I can feel a little normal. It’s our place to go when we want some nice food and need a little break.”

Hurley came to Connecticut in 2018 as a well-known basketball coach of an animated sideline demeanor.

He is now famous for his accomplishments and, perhaps, better understood in his adopted home and beyond.  

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be Geno,” Hurley said of Geno Auriemma. “But it’s better if somebody wants to take a quick picture or something than somebody whispering, ‘That guy sucks at his job. He’s on the hot seat.’ It’s a feeling of great pride that you have because you know how much everyone in Connecticut has invested in the university and the sports teams.”

This is a strange time in that a seminal moment has come and gone and pressure to win the next title is already percolating. Hurley is preparing to welcome the 2023-24 team and start anew. He’s also riding the high of the most rewarding chapter of his unique career.

A longtime high school coach who once figured he’d always be a high school coach, Hurley will meet the President of the United States at the White House on Friday afternoon. He’ll be joined by players and staff members who put together the Huskies’ dominant run to the program’s fifth national championship.

“I’m not a normal person,” Hurley said. “I’ve enjoyed this — intermittent moments, like when a song comes on or a visual reminds you of that level of exhilaration and love. There’s this tremendous feeling of love that you have for all the people with you while you’re going through it. So I see how coaches like Coach [Jim] Calhoun, a Nick Saban, a Jay Wright, how they didn’t become complacent, how they became even more obsessed with trying to get those feelings back, those emotions. How you feel about your players and how you feel about your staff as you’re going through that, that’s the thing you’re going to chase forever, probably even harder. Because it feels even better as you’re going through it than you imagined it would.”

Hurley has often said losing is torture and winning is only relief.

“We all have different capacities for how long we enjoy things and how much we enjoy things,” Hurley said. “This is the most joy I’ve gotten out of anything I’ve been able to accomplish. And then you start reflecting on just how hard it is to do, and the manner in which we did it. We didn’t look back and say, ‘We were kind of lucky there.’ When I go back and watch these games and evaluate our team, the way we dominated on both ends of the court, on the backboard and with the culture — that makes you even prouder. We had the talent, but we were just so sound and together and so well prepared.”

Hurley climbed a ladder and roared upon UConn winning the West Region in Las Vegas. He climbed another ladder as confetti flew in Houston. He spoke to some 45,000 gathered fans during a parade in downtown Hartford. And in recent days, he was finalizing prepared remarks for the ceremony at the White House. He handed them to Andrea on Thursday, asking if they were OK.  

“It’s pretty rare in life to move somewhere, uproot a pretty happy life that I had in Rhode Island, and move to accomplish something pretty specific and pretty hard to do,” said Hurley, who coached Rhode Island for six years after two at Wagner. “It would have taken the potential to do something that you can only kind of dream of to make the move. Then you make the move and you do it. The most gratifying part is that we had to start over and rebuild the entire thing pretty much from scratch, as opposed to kind of keeping it going. The challenge of losing every aspect of that championship DNA and having to rebuild it with no one who had any of it — coaches or players — makes it that much more special for me.”

UConn won national championships under Jim Calhoun in 1999, 2004 and 2011 under Calhoun, and in 2014 under Kevin Ollie. Hurley was hired in the wake of Ollie’s firing, charged with restoring the pride no matter what conference the team played in. There are 11 women’s basketball national championship trophies across the building in Auriemma’s office. There was a lot for Hurley to live up to and aspire to in taking the seat he now occupies.

Now we’ve got our own, is what Hurley yelled after UConn defeated San Diego State April 3 at NRG Stadium in Houston. One for the Hurley project, another for a state that has been taken on a wild ride from the depths of the American Athletic Conference, to the Big East and back to the top of the college basketball mountain.

Hurley was the most visible person in sports for the March-to-April stretch, allowing looks from new angles. For all Hurley’s ranting on the sideline, the behavior people see from afar and judge him on, he’s also self-deprecating, pretty soft spoken. The kind of guy, even, who most anyone would grab a cocktail and taco with, even while he remains the guy who has spent 50 years intensely searching for the validation he now feels. Parts of the nation were introduced to him and Connecticut got to know him better. 

“I think so,” he said. “The people that generally don’t like your style will continue to generally not like your style. I’m a lightning rod type where you’re either going to really, really like it or you’re not. Because I’m not going to change a whole lot, maybe little subtle changes. So you either like it or you don’t. I guess, in a way, I feel like over the course of my career, I’ve improved a lot from when I first started out at the high school level. And I have a very successful track record. So the acknowledgement that I’m more than just somebody that yells at officials and is a fiery guy, it’s nice to finally get recognition as, tactically, a really good coach. I think there’s been this narrative about me: he can recruit, he’s a fireball, he’s brutal with the refs. But I feel like I’ve, tactically, won a lot of games in different places at all levels of college and it’s nice to finally get, ‘Hey, the guy can coach.’”

Hurley paused.

“You can sense a little bit of an edge in that comment, right?”

It was thinly veiled, if at all.

In some areas of his professional life — and as the son of a Hall of Fame high school coach and the younger brother of one of the best college players in history — Hurley burns the wick at both ends in ways that would either lead one to believe he’ll coach until he’s 80 because he needs to keep proving and competing, or retire in his fifties because his emotional tachometer is always red-lining.

Calhoun coached at UConn until he was 69. Mike Krzyzewski retired at 75. Hurley was asked if he might coach into his late-60s or early-70s.

“No way,” he said. “I think I’ll coach, but maybe somewhere else at the end. In my 60s, maybe I’ll go back to high school or maybe at a different level of basketball. But I love college. I love the age we get to coach these guys in. I’ve said things about the NBA, but sometimes you watch those games and you’re not really sure if you’re allowed to coach. Sometimes I feel like the players are doing the coaching. And I want to be a coach. But the college game, it’s gotten so crazy that I just think you have to have the youthfulness, the energy, to give it 12 months a year. And once you can’t do that, you’re going to have a hard time being successful.”

When first reached Wednesday night, Hurley warned that the call might be interrupted because he was expecting to hear from a recruit. That player called three minutes into the conversation and the line went dead seconds later. “Sorry!”

Resuming the conversation Thursday, Hurley picked up where he left off.

“Sorry! The portal trumps the media.”

Hurley had been in Ponte Vedra, Fla., for the first call, wrapping up Big East meetings. He was in New Jersey for the second call, having flown Thursday morning. He was set to drive to Connecticut Thursday night. On Friday, he will join the team for the flight to D.C. Freshmen start moving in over the weekend. Hurley has to continue to guide two players, Andre Jackson and Tristen Newton, through decisions over whether to return or pursue professional careers. Recruiting is a never-ending commitment. Name, image and likeness will drive mad even those who best understand its nuances.

Life, in short, is great.

Life, too, is also crazy.

Is Hurley finding it difficult, as some coaches have, to keep up with the accelerating pace of college athletics?  

“Oh, no,” Hurley said emphatically. “I would imagine for the next 10 years or so, I’m going to be in my absolute prime in coaching. I think all of my experiences at all the levels I’ve been at, my successes and failures, just everything that I will have experienced to this point is going to have put me in my prime for the next 10 years. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

Hurley’s 50th birthday was Jan. 16, the day after a deflating loss to St. John’s at the XL Center. It had been arranged for Sayulita to cater food for the Werth Champions Center but he left work early, soon tested positive for COVID and fought heavy symptoms for much of the week, missing UConn’s game two days later at Seton Hall, a loss at the buzzer.

The Huskies didn’t look like national championship contenders at the time. Two months later they were working toward a title won without even really being threatened. The run further endeared Hurley to fans in Connecticut. When he’s not actively trying to avoid being noticed or eating tacos in a tiny restaurant, he’s making his way around the state by shaking hands. Most days, he loves this surreal aspect to his new life.

“The deeper you go in the tournament, it becomes like therapy,” he said. “When you’re doing all these media things with CBS, they’re constantly bringing up your childhood and history. They get you really emotional. They had me thinking about growing up in Jersey City as a dirty little kid running around the courts. They kind of lead you down that road. But I feel like, living in the state now for five years and representing that state with UCONN across your chest with a program that means everything to people in the state, it’s a unique connection that you have with the state and the people.”

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