- Dan Hurley relishes the challenge of turning around a UConn team coming off a 14-win season. He spoke to SI about taking over the Huskies, his thoughts on proposals to allow players to profit off their own likenesses and more.
This offseason could have been very different for Dan Hurley. Had he stayed at Rhode Island, he’d have been spending many of his Saturdays relaxing in Newport, maybe some Sundays at Narragansett Beach, his principal task being keeping the Rams rolling at the level that had taken them to the second round in each of the last two NCAA tournaments. Instead Hurley signed up for a new challenge: reviving a UConn program that had slid into mediocrity since its 2014 national title. That’s meant a lot of changes, not least among them daily 80-minute commutes to his new office (at least until he moves to Connecticut next month) and a disruption of his usual early-morning routine. “I’m a creature of habit,” Hurley said last week, seated on a plush couch not far from his desk. “So I’m a little disheveled now.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s complaining. Hurley, who was hired in March after Kevin Ollie was fired following consecutive losing seasons, has come to relish the rebuilding process. In the 2000s he transformed Saint Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey into a national power, then in 2010 took over a five-win Wagner team that he guided to 25 wins two seasons later. In 2012 he took over a Rhode Island program coming off a 7–24 season and gradually built them into a team that sent home Creighton and Oklahoma in consecutive Marches. “I’ve been through this,” said Hurley, who was also pursued aggressively by Pittsburgh. “It’s almost like I have a manual.”
With that in mind, Hurley sat down with SI.com to discuss what sorts of things that manual might entail, what he’s learned from Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun, and how he feels about potential changes to NCAA amateurism rules. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Sports Illustrated: There wasn’t a big player exodus when you took over. What was your message to returning players?
Dan Hurley: In the locker room before the press conference, I explained my background as a player, as coach, my family, and then the approach that I was gonna take with these guys. I’m taking a holistic approach with their development. I’m trying to make them better men. ‘You’re gonna be better players and have better careers and we’re all gonna be very successful together.’ I had to explain to them that I expect them to be excellent in every part of their lives. We’re gonna be better than we were last year. We’ll carry ourselves better, the product on the court has gotta look different in terms of how hard we play and how well-connected we are to each other. We gotta see that UConn toughness that has produced four national championships in the last 20 years. I’m gonna set really high standards. I’m gonna develop all-around people. And this is UConn. We just came off two losing seasons. We gotta get this fixed, fellas. Because this is UConn and you can’t really do this here, this whole losing thing.
SI: To go from the success in the tournament to being the toast of the coaching carousel, what did you learn from that experience?
DH: I learned how to compartmentalize. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aware of my name, even before the season ended, being bandied about. You read stuff. You hear stuff. In this age we’re in, we’re not oblivious to articles that are being written, and people coming up to you and players on the team and their families texting you asking if it’s true.
I was aware of the noise but I didn’t think about it really until that Sunday night [after Rhode Island lost to Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament] and then Monday when I had those meetings. All I thought about all season was day after day preparing my team well for the next day or game. It sounds corny, but I never thought for a second about anything other than coaching Rhode Island and coaching those players because I was incredibly grateful to be the coach at Rhode Island. I loved the kids I coached. I loved my team. I love what we built there. I had to compartmentalize and think about where you’re at. When that Sunday came, that went up in smoke.
SI: You had a few different options. Ultimately what brought you here?
DH: UConn was the first school that met with me. We met that morning, that Monday. Then I met with Pittsburgh later in the day. UConn, for me, just represents a chance for me to coach at a place that has the best basketball tradition in all of college, both men’s and women’s. The best college basketball brand in the country is in Storrs, talking about both sides. On the men’s side, no one’s had more national championships in the last 20 years. You’ve got NBA players, first round, lottery picks for days, All-Americans for days. You walk in here, man, you’re part of history. You sit in this office and you’ve got nets and trophies and banners and first-round picks staring at you.
I wanted a chance at the challenge of bringing it back, and the challenge of bringing it back not from the Big East but a different league, coming off two very difficult years for UConn. I love challenges. I love the idea of fixing broken things, broken organizations, kids that are hurting that need someone like me to come in. That’s incredibly exciting for me.
SI: What is it that needed to be fixed at UConn?
DH: Obviously here, the kids suffered a great deal. It’s hard to be a men’s basketball player at UConn and have the two years that these guys just experienced here, at a place that’s been about excellence both in men’s and women’s [basketball]. These guys struggled and suffered the last couple years, so the relationships need to be built with these players.
Obviously there’s things on the court that need to be fixed in terms of how hard the team played, or just things you can do better by... doing it better. Also recruiting. You gotta recruit high-level guys here. This is UConn. You get judged here by Final Fours and first-round picks. Hiring a great staff. Building a relationship with these players. Creating a work ethic. A toughness that comes with having a great work ethic. Teaching these guys how to compete at the highest level. Just watching some of the game film, these guys gave in at times and played soft at times. So changing that mindset, getting that mindset back to being the aggressor, to being tough-minded, a team with grit and will, like all the great UConn teams have always had.
SI: You’ve mentioned a couple of times the women’s tradition here. What’s your relationship been like with Geno?
DH: Geno’s been great. He reached out to me once I think it had gone public that I took the job. They were playing in the tournament. Then when he got back we got a chance to spend time together. He’s been incredibly gracious in terms of taking the time to give me an idea of how the place operates, who the people that I need to get to know here are. We’ve talked about recruiting, coaching philosophy, what he’s seen with the program in recent history. He’s one of the great coaches in our sport the last 20, 25 years. What a resource to have.
SI: What’s the best thing you’ve picked up from him?
DH: I’m not sure it was anything necessarily on the court, but doing a lot of the promotional stuff with him, with the donors, just watching how he handles himself at those different functions, how he handles the interactions. It kind of sucks when you have to speak before or after him. He’s a super-smart guy and a super-polished speaker. He’s got a tremendous presence about him.
I would say this: the one bit of advice I would say [Auriemma gave] was: Recruit your type of people here. That may mean the guy’s not ranked as high as another player, but stick what’s true to you in terms of what you want on the floor. Trust your eyes in recruiting, don’t get caught up in a lot of the ranking stuff because a lot of that stuff is crap.
SI: What’s your relationship like with Calhoun?
DH: He recruited some of my players at Saint Benedict’s—not successfully, unfortunately for those guys. I talked to him before the [introductory] press conference about UConn, what it means to be here. He talked to me about the same things as Geno: stick to your philosophy. Think about this with the media. This is what the place is like. This is how I built it. Then for me, [Calhoun’s office is] 300 feet from me. I would say once every 10 days or so, if I’ve got a couple things that I want to bounce off him that I can’t bounce off my dad [legendary high school coach Bob] or can’t talk to [older brother and Arizona State coach] Bobby about, or if I just need a little bit of a pick-me-up, I’ll go in there and talk for 45 minutes, a half hour, and he helps share his wisdom. He’s still so passionate about basketball coaching that as much as I need it, I think he enjoys it, being able to share what he knows.
SI: You mention the brand and tradition of UConn as a whole. Obviously on the men’s side it’s been a rough couple of years. So when you try to sell a recruit on the program, how do they receive it?
DH: It’s been well-received. Four years ago we won a national championship. Four years ago in sports may seem like a long time, but it’s really not that long ago. These kids remember Kemba [Walker] and Shabazz [Napier] and Andre Drummond at UConn. These guys are obviously starring in the NBA now. UConn is still UConn. It’s kind of reigniting or re-educating them on the tradition and history of the players that have played here, what the brand means in college.
For me right now, for kids that we’re recruiting, [I’m] expressing to them that we’ve got playing time. What we have to offer right now is the UConn brand. We also have to offer a brand that my father helped create for our family in basketball, which is a pretty great brand too, in the Hurley brand. I think that’s pretty well-received by coaches, players’ parents—they trust us with their kids because they know we’re about the right things in coaching. They respect our family because of our reputation, the things former players say about us and the way our teams look on game night. So you’ve got this Hurley brand, this amazing UConn brand—it’s getting these recruits to come and allow me and the UConn brand to help build their own. A kid’s gonna have the opportunity to come in here and be the next great UConn guard like Kemba, or the next great UConn wing like Ray Allen, or the next great UConn big like Andre Drummond. You’re gonna have a chance to come here and hopefully help us win our fifth national championship.
SI: Some news came out recently about a meeting that was disclosed to the NCAA between a former UConn assistant and some of the people involved in the FBI scandal. There’s the other ongoing NCAA inquiry into the program. Does it affect recruiting?
DH: No, it hasn’t. It hasn’t at all. I asked the question during the process of getting here and I felt walking out of the meeting that whatever is decided isn’t gonna have a major impact on my job rebuilding this thing. There are those questions and obviously that’s a conversation I’ll have with them, but I’m here, you know? I left a top-25, top-30 program with a top-25 recruiting class coming in. If I thought it was gonna be a concern—I was in a pretty special place. Meeting with [athletic director] Dave Benedict and the president of the school, I felt good, because I asked those same questions.
SI: In a larger sense, being the first offseason since that scandal broke last fall, how does that impact the recruiting world and how you go about it?
DH: Because of the legacy my father created and the reputation of who he is and what he always stands for, I think people looking for those types of [benefits] kind of eliminate themselves, in terms of a Hurley recruiting them. The prospects and the people know that everything we do in recruiting is gonna be ethical and above board. The people that are looking for things probably won’t even consider us because they know not to ask. So for me it’s kind of a zero-impact thing. Did I find it interesting? Did I think it was crazy? Have I heard all of the innuendo and rumors for years, as a high school coach? Did I hear whispers of even things with my own players that potentially could have been going on? Yes. Does it impact me at all in college? Zero. It’s just like reality TV or something—something I watch or read, but then I get back to my own world.
SI: There’s been talk of responsive changes and the possibility of players profiting off their own likenesses. What do you think of those proposals and things moving in that direction?
DH: Anything you can do to enhance student-athletes’ experience in college is a great thing. I think these guys are given a great opportunity to get their education, to play Division I athletics, where playing Division I basketball is a completely different level of education, where maybe you can learn even more about yourself from competition and that type of an environment. But a lot of kids that come from the backgrounds that we get kids from, any way that we can make it more comfortable for them while they’re here, so that they’re able to live better, I think is a good thing.
SI: So it sounds like you’d be open to that.
DH: Yeah, obviously I would love to see the specific details. But my experience at Rhode Island, going from a barren, empty arena, completely irrelevant in the world of college basketball, to selling out the arena and becoming a social event in your state, to being the toast of the town, seeing how the university and whole feel of the place during the university, the whole pride the state had in the team, the crowds, the interest, the more URI shirts and hats—in a program that plays a certain way, carries themselves in a certain way, wins, has the crowds, they bring so much to the university. I’d love to see them to be able to benefit from their efforts beyond education.
SI: You’ve called Jalen Adams the team’s most talented player and said you’ve been very honest with him about his future. How would you go about trying to build around him and what does he need to improve?
DH: I don’t know if we talked about the NBA probably the first two times I met with him. I love to just sit down and talk with my players, especially when you first get the job, just getting to know them. With him it was like, ‘Here’s where you’re at, here’s what I see. I saw you back in AAU, and I know where you were ranked [in the top 25], I know what was expected of you in terms of your journey to the NBA. You probably didn’t expect to [still] be here. You are. I don’t think you’re ready for the next thing yet. I do think you’re an NBA player, but the only way you’re gonna get there is by making a complete, full, total commitment to doing everything the right way. To getting in the best shape of your life, to having your game razor-sharp.’
Quite honestly, I said, ‘That hasn’t been who you’ve been. From the outside looking in, you’ve been a little bit sloppy. You haven’t been as locked-in. Your body needs to get better. Your game needs to get sharper. Your stuff’s a little sloppy, man, and that’s not gonna work on that next level. I promise if you stay here I’m gonna push you every single day. Some days you’re not gonna like me very much. I’m gonna push you everyday to be the guy that you’re supposed to be.’
He communicated to me that that’s what he wanted, and he stayed. We’re both holding up our end of the bargain here. He’s a draftable player. He’s got tons of game. It’s about just doing every single thing right, from what you put in your body to when you go to sleep to what you do in the gym to improving his perimeter shot, where he shot around 30% from three, to push that into the low 40s, to winning, changing the narrative of your career here. It’s a lot of things.
SI: What more might people see from him if he does those things?
DH: I think he’s got enough talent to be the best player in this league. The experience he has and the game he has, and the way my system is really beneficial to guards, I think he has a particular chance to thrive here. I think he has the chance to be one of the best guards in college basketball because of his game, his experience, and hopefully a newfound focus and commitment.
SI: At Rhode Island you would use smaller lineups and have that very aggressive defense. Is that the same model you’re going for here?
DH: I think being a high school coach serves me very well in college, especially the first year or two when I’m taking over a program. I can’t necessarily pick the groceries, as [Bill] Parcells said. I’m not necessarily coaching what I would recruit, and that’s similar to being a high school coach; I couldn’t always control what guys came to St. Benedict’s. I think in my sixth or seventh year there, Tristan Thompson played the wing for me—he was like a three man. Not that I’m complaining. So we played a lot of zone, a lot of 1-3-1, and I’m not really much of a zone coach but I learned to coach it because that’s what my roster dictated.
This year it just so happens we have depth. Knock on wood, we’re gonna be able to play 10 or 11 people and pick up our opponent, pressure our opponent with our man defense and get the ball down the court quickly and play the attacking style that I like to coach. I like to make my opponent uncomfortable. I like to dictate the terms of the game and how it’s gonna be played at both ends. We’re going from a team that played a lot of zone last year and played a lot in the half court to playing like a frenzy. I think it’s a style most guys want to play. It’s a matter of can we instill it and install it by November?
SI: How do they seem to be responding to it so far?
DH: Pretty well. Practices have been intense. These guys wanna be good. They came to UConn. That means that they have the confidence to play in a program that’s gonna have the highest of expectations, that’s gonna be highly scrutinized, with a heavy media following. So you’ve got to be made of some special stuff to wanna play here. These guys have embraced it. They’re practicing hard. They wanna be part of bringing this thing back, sooner rather than later. Their goal and our goal is to surprise people. Most people think this is gonna take multiple years to get this thing back. This group I’m working with, they wanna shock people next year.
SI: Along those same lines, what are your expectations for Year 1?
DH: We could say the obvious here. This isn’t a Disney movie. This isn’t The Mighty Ducks or Remember the Titans. This isn’t gonna be a flashback to 2011. When you’re rebuilding your program, the first thing you have to show is we’re gonna go from a really soft team to being one of the hardest-playing teams in the country. When you play UConn next year, when you’re watching the film, you’re gonna understand it’s gonna be a physical game. The team’s gonna have to show up and play at a high level to beat us because we’re not gonna beat ourselves. We’re gonna be a well-connected team, a tough team. Beyond that, I owe it to Jalen Adams, Eric Cobb, our seniors that decided to stay here and return when they could have run away [and to] all the returning players that decided not to transfer to push them as hard as I can, to put them in position to play in the postseason, to compete for a conference championship.
Yes, we’re rebuilding a program. Yes we’re coming off two of the worst years in the last 30. It’s a rebuild. But I won’t be making excuses during the season. Every game we go into we’re trying to win. And when the conference season starts, we’re trying to compete for a championship. When the conference tournament starts, we’re trying to compete to win the conference and get to the NCAA tournament. I’ve been there the last couple years. I’ve won games in that tournament. I kind of like playing in it, man. I wanna get back in that tournament. That will be the goal. Whether it’s realistic or not, we’ll see where we’re at when the ball goes up.