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Dan Hurley rebuilt Connecticut into a basketball powerhouse. But is he satisfied?


BOSTON — Once he stopped celebrating the crowning achievement of his coaching life, Dan Hurley began grappling with it. The national championship he won last April at Connecticut delivered him immense joy, which he found different from satisfaction. As days passed, Hurley confronted a vague, hazy sadness that bordered on confusion. He had seized the thing that had obsessed him. What had changed? What was the point? “I started freaking out a little bit emotionally,” Hurley said.

Hurley called the man he would be chasing. He and Billy Donovan had bonded over the years, two point guards from New York-New Jersey Catholic schools with basketball in their veins. Donovan recruited players from Hurley’s team when Hurley coached at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, and Hurley sought counsel from Donovan as he moved up the coaching ladder. They spoke often about how to make players compete and win. “There’s a lot of soul-searching that goes into how you do that,” Donovan said.

Connecticut’s NCAA tournament title had given them another commonality. Donovan coached the Florida Gators to consecutive championships in 2006 and 2007. Nobody had matched the feat since. Hurley would try, but first he had to understand why he felt the way he did. Donovan assured him it was normal, that he had felt the same. Donovan told Hurley something he thought about every day over the summer and into the season. It gave Hurley a feeling of freedom he carries still.

“I think about it every day,” Hurley said.

These days, Hurley stands atop the sport. The Huskies are three victories away from matching Donovan’s Gators, starting with Illinois on Saturday evening in the Elite Eight. They are 49-5 since the middle of last season. They have won nine consecutive tournament games by at least 13 points. Hurley speaks openly about his team being “bulletproof,” how it has found a “formula” that allows it to “systematically break down” opponents.

Coaching giants who have faded from the landscape — Krzyzewski, Boeheim, Williams — have been replaced on their old sidelines but not in their stature within the game. The next permanent face of college basketball could be the pugnacious, soulful, idiosyncratic and brilliant former point guard building an old-fashioned hoops behemoth on the East Coast. It could be Dan Hurley.

High school coaches want him to speak at their clinics. Peers pick his brain about the beautiful offense he has constructed. He signed a $32.1 million contract last year. Even as college basketball shifts, consecutive championships would leave an all-time mark on the game.

“He’s a really intense guy,” said Hurley’s son Andrew, a senior walk-on. “I didn’t think it was possible for him to go harder than he did, but I think this year made him go a lot harder. He knows we have a bigger target on our back.”

After the Huskies defeated Stetson in the opening round of this year’s tournament, Hurley barged into the locker room and shouted: “Just keep blowing these teams out of this tournament. Just keep smacking them.”

Walking off the court after a blowout loss last month at Creighton, where the crowd had directed profane chants at Hurley all game, Hurley pointed to one heckling fan and shouted, “I will knock you out.” After a victory at Providence, Hurley waved a fan to “come here” and told him, “You’ll get hurt.” During the Big East tournament, he received a technical foul after pointing out a courtside fan’s behavior.

Hurley wears plastic gloves at practices out of fear of germs. He burns sage before games at Gampel Pavilion. He must eat specifically color-coded M&Ms. He travels with a portable hand-washing device, which his wife uses to clean his lucky underwear and socks daily during the tournament. For every game, he wears the same blue suit and “brutal” brown dress shoes.

“It’s almost like you’re putting on armor,” Hurley said. “It just kind of takes my mind away from thinking about all the bad things that could happen over the course of the next couple hours.”

The closer he gets to the pinnacle, the more he is reminded of what he learned in his conversation with Donovan. Striving for the championship might be more rewarding than winning it. He loves to make an impact on a group of players. He loves embarking on a mission. He loves to coach.

“I guarantee you that I coach at a much lower level once coaching at this level is gone,” Hurley said late Thursday night, standing outside Connecticut’s locker room in the bowels of TD Garden. “My dream jobs are, like, Montana, Montana State, Idaho. To coach at a low-major or a high school and just having the purity back after I’m done chasing this s—. It’s in my blood.”

Sitting at his son’s introductory news conference six years ago, Bob Hurley watched the Huskies players Hurley inherited walk into the room. He turned to his wife and mouthed, “Oh, my God.” They looked to Bob like a high school team, all undefined muscles and short limbs. Hurley refused to run them off, a common practice. He believed they were his players.

“That’s because he grew up with empathy,” Bob Hurley said. “What makes him a better coach is what he went through as a player.”

Growing up, basketball surrounded Hurley like oxygen. His father built a high school powerhouse out of scant resources at St. Anthony in Jersey City. His brother, Bobby, became a star at Duke. Dan starred at St. Anthony as a lefty sharpshooter and stayed home to play at Seton Hall. Road crowds would chant, “Bob-by’s bet-ter!” The pressure he felt to live up to his brother, so close to where his father had built a basketball dynasty, led to depression. He drank heavily and felt himself spiraling. He announced a leave of absence two games into his junior season. Only after counseling with Sister Catherine Waters did he return to basketball.

Hurley was a good college player. He scored more than 1,000 points and played in two NCAA tournaments. But he did not become what he wanted, and he didn’t become an all-American and a national champion like his brother.

“Where he is right now, we’ll give Bobby the basketball playing career,” Bob Hurley said. “We all loved to watch Bobby play. We loved Danny’s playing career, too, but he felt things could have been better. He’s still in the sport, and he has this opportunity. He’s had a chance to keep moving up this ladder, and he’s still a very hungry coach.”

Bob Hurley believes his youngest son remains driven to prove himself at basketball, the thing he devoted his life to. He did not conquer basketball as a player. He is doing it now. It can seem that Hurley is trying to accomplish as a coach what he could not as a player.

“I believe so,” Bob Hurley said. “He wishes the other part had gone well.”

“When you’ve had times in your playing career where you have struggled, I do think it hardens you, it toughens you up,” Hurley said. “You’ve dealt with a lot of adversity, and you know how to handle failure, and I think as a coach in this business if you can’t handle adversity, failure, you’re going to have a very, very hard time.”

“Yeah, bricking all those shots back at the Hall certainly paid off.”

Hurley’s first teams at Connecticut struggled. Players improved but met their hard ceilings. Recruits were uneasy about playing in the American Athletic Conference. Once the Huskies moved into the revamped Big East in 2020, Connecticut’s recruiting surged, especially among the New York City and New Jersey environs Hurley knew so well. He took U-Conn. back to the NCAA tournament in 2021, but the Huskies lost in the first round two years in a row.

Two years ago, believing his program had reached the verge of a breakthrough, Hurley overhauled U-Conn.’s offense. Hurley barricaded himself in an office with assistants Luke Murray and Kimani Young, studying offensive sets from all corners of the basketball world, particularly European leagues. They melded concepts from FIBA and the Golden State Warriors to create an offense based on side-to-side movement, intricate off-ball screens, quick passing and open space.

Suddenly, Connecticut became a threshing machine. The Huskies rampaged as a No. 4 seed to the national championship. As he accepted the trophy onstage, Hurley shouted out Jersey City. He returned there a hero. They threw a party for him at Greene Hook, a downtown bar, and all the people he knew growing up came and toasted him. He was feted at Citi Field and Yankee Stadium.

“Every one of them made him feel so good,” Bob Hurley said. “He was doing these things that growing up he watched others do.”

The glow receded, though, and that is when Hurley called Donovan. They did not discuss how to repeat, at least not at first. Those outside the coaching profession may assume the challenge in winning a title is how to keep players motivated the next season, to avoid complacency, to maintain focus. The first task is knowing what to do once an accomplishment that consumed you becomes reality.

“There’s a period of time when the confetti stops falling and the parade stops and you go home or you go to the office, it’s four or five or six days later,” Donovan said. “There’s this huge reflection point like: Is this what I’ve been fighting for? Is this what was so important? I don’t want to use the word depression, because that’s way too strong, but there’s melancholy. I’m making all these sacrifices with my family and my players. What is the purpose of all this?”

Hearing that from Donovan provided Hurley peace. A switch flipped. It allowed him to understand his purpose. The chase mattered more than the outcome. The endless recruiting trips and game-planning sessions and film study were not means to an end. They were the whole point.

“The achievement wasn’t going to do it for me,” Hurley said. “What was going to do it for me was the coaching that we love to do, the impact on a new group of players, to be part of another mission. The one thing that he said that resonated a lot was: ‘Were you really chasing a trophy last year? Or did you just not want it to end with a special group of players?’ You wanted another two days. You wanted another game. You wanted another week. You really didn’t want the trophy as much as you wanted to stay with a group of people that you love.”

The outside world separates coaches into those who have won championships and those who have not. Once he joined the former category, Donovan had an epiphany: The dividing line he thought meant everything actually meant nothing.

“When you get it, you realize how screwed up your thoughts are,” Donovan said. “It’s going to be ‘Dan Hurley, national championship coach.’ At the same point, it doesn’t change who he is. When guys get too consumed about stepping over people to achieve something, they turn into something they don’t like. When you’re chasing it, in the process, you don’t lose yourself. You actually gain more of yourself. That’s the trick. That’s the beauty of all that.”

Hurley realized the title had changed him in almost no way. It earned him more money. It earned him stature on the recruiting trail and, if he wants, the speaking circuit. It didn’t change anything about who he is.

“The only way it’s impacted me is confidence,” Hurley said. “You know you can climb the mountain. You’ve got a confidence about you. That has helped me stay calm this year and not have that fear of losing.”

Hurley wants another championship, maniacally so. He wants newcomers Stephon Castle and Cam Spencer to experience what his players felt last year. He wants to feel that joy again. If he lifts the trophy again, something will be different. He will know what he already gained in all the days that led to it.

“This year,” Andrew Hurley said, “he started to tell the guys to look around and enjoy it.”

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