STORRS, Connecticut — Dan Hurley leans forward in a chair inside his office overlooking UConn’s men’s basketball practice court and smiles.
“I’m not the victim,” he said with a laugh.
In recent weeks, the fifth-year UConn head coach was shown on camera calling one official a “f—ing clown” in a win over Villanova and was given a technical foul late in a tight game against Xavier.
None of this is a new development for Hurley, one of the more fiery sideline personalities in college basketball. He has been ejected from games, reprimanded by the Big East and called out by local media to stop getting technical fouls at inopportune times.
But there’s another side of Hurley, one he’s constantly battling. There’s a dichotomy between the on-court Hurley and off-court Hurley, between the practice version of Hurley and the game version of Hurley. The new Dan Hurley and the old Dan Hurley.
The consistent ref-targeted anger is what everyone sees. It’s a trait that runs in the Hurley family, starting with his father, Bob, one of the greatest high school coaches of all time at St. Anthony in New Jersey, and moving to Dan and his brother, Bobby, a former top-10 NBA draft pick out of Duke who has been the head coach at Arizona State since 2015.
“My father is one of the greatest coaches of his generation at any level,” Hurley said. “I model how I coach after my dad.”
Hurley doesn’t hide from his sideline behavior, noting that he has brought most of the unwanted attention onto himself. But he also thinks his reputation leads to him receiving more technicals from officials — and camera time — than other coaches with similar behavior.
“Obviously, I’m the boy who cried wolf when it comes to any type of referee interactions because of my history and I’m judged because of that history,” he said. “In any situations that go badly, I’ve created that for myself. ”
Within the UConn program, there’s no concern about Hurley’s in-game outbursts. The outside criticism doesn’t bother the players; in fact, they feed off their coach’s sideline energy.
“That’s what I want from my coach,” guard Joey Calcaterra said.
“I just wish that people understood what we thought about him,” Calcaterra continued. “We love his energy, his intensity, the emotion he shows. He cares, and he wants the best for us, and he just wants to win. Seeing him do that, we love him for it.”
Is Dan Hurley coaching or delivering a Shakespeare monologue? pic.twitter.com/JpefawEGZZ
— Tyler Aki (@TylerAki_) January 7, 2023
‘Certain type of edge’
HURLEY ALSO BELIEVES the UConn men’s basketball head coach needs to have an edge as a job requirement. Despite the four national championships in a 15-year run from 1999 to 2014, it’s not exactly a historical blue-blood program. It didn’t have a practice facility until the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center opened before the 2014-15 season. The campus is off the beaten path, 30 miles east of Hartford.
And then there are the expectations. The men’s program has four titles in the past 25 years. But the women’s team has 10 championships in the same time frame. The men’s practice gym has an impressive wall filled with all the NBA draft lottery picks from the program. But when you take the short walk across the practice facility to the women’s side, you’ll see an entire wall of Olympic gold medalists — some with multiple appearances. Yes, an entire wall of Olympians.
“It’s all about extreme confidence on game night. If I’m yelling at my players on game night, I suck as a coach.” Dan Hurley
In Hurley’s view, it takes an attitude to coach at UConn — some of which stems from the program’s best-ever coach being Jim Calhoun, known for his national titles, news conference rants and sideline eruptions.
“Certain styles of coach or certain styles of personality are not going to make it here,” Hurley said. “UConn could only be UConn again if they get an elite head-coaching performance with a certain type of edge to them. …. Coach Calhoun instilled a toughness in his teams. That started with him on the sideline.”
Hurley certainly conveys the message during practice, yelling at his guards to “Go score like a UConn guard!” during one drill. It’s hard not to think back to the Kemba Walkers and Ben Gordons of the Huskies’ glory days.
With Hurley in place, the UConn brand is still strong.
“That goes all the way back to the Jim Calhoun days,” guard Jordan Hawkins said. “Just having those tough guards that play hard. They can score, they can defend, they can make plays. That’s the UConn way.”
The UConn edge doesn’t come as a surprise to the players when they arrive on campus. During the recruiting process, Hurley makes it clear how intense their time at UConn will be.
“People love to watch my teams because of the passion,” he said. “You don’t play with that type of passion if you are sitting on the bench like you’re in a board meeting. You could either fight or could coach with fright. And I go with fight.”
Hurley rarely yells at players during games. Sure, a barrage of choice words will fly during practice, but it’s rare to see him lose it on a player from the bench.
“It’s all about extreme confidence on game night. If I’m yelling at my players on game night, I suck as a coach,” he said. “These players are in a tough enough spot. … We become more like the cornerman in boxing who is trying to pump up their fighter.”
‘There was no joy, man’
ON A FRIDAY afternoon in early January, UConn is on a two-game losing streak after defeats at Xavier and Providence, back-to-back losses after a 14-0 start that saw the Huskies soar all the way to No. 2 in the polls. Outwardly, there’s very little frustration or nervousness from Hurley. On one table in his office is the David Goggins book “Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds.” The other book he’s currently reading? “The Mountain Is You: Transforming Self-Sabotage Into Self-Mastery” by Brianna Wiest.
Earlier in the afternoon, Hurley coached an entire practice without shoes. It was originally intended to convey a message: The Huskies were back home after a couple of games on the road. But he liked the way it felt, so he decided to not wear shoes for the full three hours.
This wasn’t always Hurley, though. The even-keeled, mild-mannered, off-court Hurley has been a long work in progress. Hurley, who just turned 50, didn’t always have the same balance.
Wins and (especially) losses consumed him.
“I was under my desk, man,” he recalls. “I was under my desk 90 minutes before my Wagner games. Like, people knocking on my door like, you gonna take a shower and put on a suit?”
The thought of losses terrified Hurley. And he can trace that feeling back to the family business of coaching basketball.
“Both me and Bobby, we mirror my dad — like how personal he took St. Anthony winning and losing and how debilitated he would be — like nonfunctional — if he ever lost,” he said. “So we take this incredible shame from losing when our teams fail, and we have a hard time functioning. The day of a game you’re almost so paralyzed with fear of losing and failure.”
“It was all suffering with the temporary relief of winning and then immediately back to suffering. I didn’t want to do it. I was getting close to getting out if I was going to experience it like that.” Dan Hurley on coaching earlier in his career
He chuckles thinking back about those days at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey and Wagner, constantly thinking he was going to get fired if he ever lost.
At the time, though, it wasn’t funny.
“There was no joy, man,” he said. “It was all suffering with the temporary relief of winning and then immediately back to suffering. I didn’t want to do it. I was getting close to getting out if I was going to experience it like that.”
Hurley called a few of his friends in coaching for advice, including then-Florida coach Billy Donovan. Donovan shared some ideas for Hurley and suggested a doctor down in Florida, and Hurley began reading the book “The Power of Full Engagement.” He got into meditation and religion, picking up visualization techniques, and was able to better deal with his off-court emotions.
UConn assistant Luke Murray, who was with Hurley at Wagner and Rhode Island before joining his staff in Storrs after the 2020-21 season, has noticed a dramatic change in Hurley since those early days in college coaching. He says Hurley’s continuous consumption of books and podcasts has allowed him to bring a different frame of reference to coaching.
“He coaches with such intensity and passion and focus and desire, but he can now blend that with the levity of a funny moment, a more broad perspective and scope on life and the world — even in a really tense pregame environment,” Murray said.
Added Hurley: “If you don’t have some things in place to help you manage that pressure, that stress, that anxiety, you’re in trouble.”
The coaching profession doesn’t often lend itself to midcareer self-development or self-improvement. Once a coach finds consistent success coaching one way, it can be difficult to change. Hurley’s quest to better himself from an emotional perspective is its own story, but it’s happening while he’s also adapting to a new era of basketball. Name, image and likeness, the transfer portal — it’s not quite the same sport as it was when Hurley made the move from high school to college or when Hurley played at Seton Hall in the 1990s.
When building a roster, Hurley’s preferred identity revolves around toughness, defense, dominating around the rim and winning a mostly half-court battle. His past two UConn teams ranked in the 300s nationally in tempo, and he hasn’t had a team rank inside the top 200 in 3-point attempt rate since 2013. He would rather recruit high school players he can develop over the course of four years. Last year’s team had only two transfers — and one came from Hurley’s previous stop at Rhode Island.
But despite a 1-5 stretch in late December and early January, this year’s UConn team remains on track to be Hurley’s best team in college (and according to KenPom, UConn’s best group since the 2009 Final Four team). It’s happening in a very un-Hurley-like fashion. The Huskies are the most prolific 3-point shooting team Hurley has ever had, ranking in the top 50 nationally in 3-point attempt rate and getting almost 35% of their points off 3-pointers, according to KenPom.
This team pushes the tempo and looks to get out in transition. And four of its top nine players — essentially the entire backcourt — were plucked out of the transfer portal last spring.
“This is more fun to coach,” Hurley said.
The transformation didn’t happen by accident.
Despite good regular seasons the past two years — 24 Big East wins in two seasons was UConn’s best two-year run since 2008 and 2009, when Calhoun was in charge — UConn was bounced in the first round of each of the past two NCAA tournaments. Hurley wanted more firepower moving forward, and with four of the team’s top five scorers leaving after last season, the Huskies needed immediate production. Andre Jackson, Hawkins and preseason Big East Player of the Year Adama Sanogo were going to be the core, but how they surrounded those three anchors would determine how the team fared in 2022-23.
“In April, you’re not going to be able to replace that with high school players. The portal was the way to go,” Murray said. “I think Danny made the determination in his mind that he wanted to really place a greater emphasis on spacing and ball movement. We absolutely went into the portal saying shooting, shooting, shooting. That was intentional.”
‘It’s getting worn’
WHEN SOMEONE WALKS into a UConn practice, it’s hard not to notice a sizable cardboard cutout of a trophy on the sideline. Right now it’s the Big East regular-season trophy. Earlier this season, it was the Phil Knight Invitational trophy — which the Huskies secured back in November with consecutive wins over Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State.
It goes everywhere with the team. On the road, on airplanes and in locker rooms, and it is present at every practice and pregame shootaround. It’s been a staple of Hurley teams for several years, dating back to Rhode Island.
After the regular season ends, the cardboard cutout will change to the Big East tournament trophy and then, of course, the NCAA championship trophy.
“It’s getting worn,” Hurley joked. “We’ve got to get one before it’s completely beat up.”
The ultimate trophy feels a little further away than it did a few weeks ago, when UConn was 14-0 and No. 2 in the country. Five losses in six games dropped the Huskies to 4-5 in the Big East and out of the top 10, but they rebounded to beat Butler and regain some momentum entering Wednesday’s game against conference leader Xavier.
The cardboard trophy on the sideline represents one of Hurley’s key coping mechanisms: visualization. It not only shows what UConn is working toward but also is a reminder that there’s still plenty left to play for. Hurley likes to say the Huskies are in the midst of the “we season,” with the “me season” — NIL, portal, NBA — coming after they lose their final game, and the hope is that players looking over and seeing a trophy helps refocus for the stretch run.
“It gives you a why,” Jackson said.
Earlier in his career, Hurley was on the path to becoming a coach who shined brightly and burned out quickly. Now, he’s in it for the long haul.
“I want these kids authentically to want to play for me,” he said. “Because of how much I love coaching.”