After years of struggle, Bobby Hurley returns to NCAA tournament

More than two decades after leading the Blue Devils to back-to-back national titles in 1991 and '92, Hurley makes a triumphant return to the NCAA tournament on Friday.
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COLUMBUS – With his hair cropped tight, lean sprinter’s physique and skin pale from the glint of gymnasium halogen, Bobby Hurley doesn’t look much different than his days as Duke’s precocious point guard. More than two decades after leading the Blue Devils to back-to-back national titles in 1991 and '92, Hurley makes a triumphant return to the NCAA tournament on Friday. It’s a moment we all could have imagined a generation ago, executed via a circuitous path no one could have fathomed. Hurley, 43, has basketball blood the finest hue of blue. He’s the son of Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley, prized protégée of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his collegiate career is celebrated as the embodiment of every possible cerebral and selfless point guard cliché.  

But when No. 12 Buffalo tips off against No. 5 West Virginia on Friday afternoon, the most fascinating part of Hurley’s return to the pinnacle of college basketball comes from what he’s overcome, rather than where he came from. Hurley’s circuitous route back to the NCAA tournament includes facing physical, mental and financial adversity that few could have imagined of a player with such a celebrated heritage. A car accident nearly killed him during his NBA rookie season in 1993, cutting short his career. Hurley became bitter and resentful toward the game when his career ended unceremoniously with a torn ACL in 1999. That drove him away from basketball for a decade and into horse racing, where Hurley found a competitive outlet owning horses but ultimately lost millions.

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​His return to basketball in 2010 came more out of necessity than destiny, but the result has perhaps even exceeded the grandest expectations. Just five years after joining his brother, Danny's staff at Wagner, Bobby Hurley has faced his demons, finally re-embraced the game and, perhaps, started an ascent through college basketball to end up where we expected all along. 

“It’s amazing that Bobby has fought through all that stuff,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who coached him as an assistant at Duke. “With him, it’s a little of his fate to be put on the mat a couple of times and fight his way off. That may be his lot in life, but dang if he doesn’t come up swinging.”

The physical torture that Bobby Hurley endured began a few months after the Sacramento Kings picked him with the No. 7 pick in the 1993 NBA draft. Hurley was averaging 7.4 points and 6.1 assists as a rookie when a 1970 Buick Station Wagon slammed into his Toyota 4Runner in December 1993 and thrust his body more than 100 feet out of his vehicle. He landed in a water-filled ditch by the road, as paramedics scrambled to save his life.

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He immediately underwent eight hours of surgery for 12 different injuries, which included two collapsed lungs, a torn ACL, his trachea ripped from his left lung, broken ribs and a fractured shoulder blade. Hurley eventually, and miraculously, returned to play five more seasons. But he was never the same after, physically and mentally.

“I think the accident soured him in some way on the game, the fact that he couldn’t play anymore,” Krzyzewski said in a phone interview. “I’m not saying he did that consciously, but he needed to get away from it.”

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Hurley rehabbed to return for NBA training camp in 1994, but slogged through the remainder of his NBA seasons. He chased his former self, and never caught up. Hurley eventually viewed the game like a lost love, something he’d invested so much in and received only diminishing returns. All that drive to be great, all that performance anxiety instilled by his hard driving father, suddenly lacked an outlet. “I felt extremely frustrated how I didn’t achieve what I set out to achieve as a pro,” Hurley said in a phone interview this week. “I felt short of a lot of my goals as an NBA player. I suffered through years of being an 11th and 12th man. It was tough for me to handle considering what I had done prior to that as a player.”

And that physical pain led to mental demons, as Hurley’s return to basketball as a coach meant facing his perceived shortcomings in his career. After achieving at the highest possible level in high school and college, Hurley faced something his family never tolerated growing up—mediocrity. “He loved the game so much and was such a great player, I can only imagine what it took out of him physically,” said former Duke teammate Chris Collins. “But emotionally, I think he needed that time to find himself.”

Two years after his NBA career sputtered to an end, Bobby Hurley appeared to embark on sun-kissed run in horse racing that rivaled his storied college career. In 2001, he opened Devil Eleven Stable, named after his jersey No. 11 at Duke. And his career as a horse owner (at least the start of it) portended a similar level of success. Hurley bought a horse called Songandaprayer for $1 million at a sale for 2-year olds in 2000—a monstrous sum for a horse at the time.

When Hurley told his wife, Leslie, about the Songandaprayer purchase she hung up on him. Later, she joked that she pondered killing him. But the horse won the $200,000 Grade 1 Fountain of Youth in 2001 and ran in the Kentucky Derby that year. There are plenty of millionaires and billionaires that never sniff the Derby. “At that point, there were 35,000 foals born a year, and only 20 go to the Derby,” said Francis Vanlangendonck, one of Hurley’s former partners.

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​For a while, it appeared his success on the track could be just as distinguished as his Duke career. Songandaprayer finished 13th in the Derby, but more importantly brought in $500,000 in stud fees in 2002. As he shunned basketball because of the injuries and bitterness, Hurley saw a business opportunity that coalesced with his competitive leanings. But Hurley spent the rest of his horse career chasing that high, and not coming close to reaching it. Hurley’s Devil Eleven Stable earned $269,760 that year. Over the next eight years, Hurley failed to match that. And in some years, he didn’t come close. “I see people come into the game, have tremendous success and then you can’t find them with a search warrant,” said Eddie Plesa, one of Hurley’s former trainers. “You keep thinking the next horse is going to be the next star.”

For Hurley, the next great horse never came. Hurley’s NBA earnings are listed at $16.9 million, but about half of his biggest salary—$4 million from his final year in 1998-99—didn’t materialize because of the lockout. Take away half of his approximately $15 million in earnings for taxes and Hurley had about $7 million to invest in the horses. While that’s an exorbitant amount by conventional standards, it’s pocket change for the oil barons and trust fund types that populate Millionaires Row at the Derby. “It is damn near impossible to make money,” Vanlangendonck said. “When you play in the thoroughbred game, you’re paying for fun. It’s almost like making money fishing or hunting. You play at the level you can afford.”

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Hurley didn’t grow up around horses, as his father Bob Sr. jokes that he still knows nothing about the sport even after his son’s decade-long run in the horse game. Eventually, that lack of sophistication caught up to Hurley. “You get into a game that you love,” Plesa said, “but your knowledge isn’t what you’re used to in your world. You don’t have the skill, the knowledge or the luck.”

​Hurley’s luck running out led to some unflattering headlines. He never declared bankruptcy, but did experience significant financial problems. The first signs appeared when PNC bank in Lexington, Ky., sued him after defaulting on a $1 million loan in 2009. He left the horse business in the summer of 2010 after his debt rose to $3.3 million in defaulted loans and fees. Hurley’s financial issues centered around a 140-acre horse farm he bought in Ocala, Fla., for nearly $3 million in 2006. In June 2011, the farm sold for less than $1.3 million. While Hurley couldn’t talk directly about the details of the farm, a source said it was sold through a short sale and Hurley ended up reaching an agreement with the bank that included the bank seizing shares of Songandaprayer. “The longevity of doing it in that business isn’t easy,” Hurley said. “It’s very unforgiving and mistakes are going to be made in the selection process.”

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​And that’s how Hurley found himself back in basketball, as he joined his brother, Danny, when he took the job at Wagner College in 2010. While the New York media lapped up the story of the noted former college stars (Danny at Seton Hall) taking over a local mom-and-pop shop program, the reality was that Bobby Hurley needed a job. His brother threw him a lifeline. “The way a lot of former college superstars or lottery picks [are treated], the opportunities that were afforded to them in their first position were starkly different than Bob’s,” Danny Hurley said. “I know Bob loves me. But do you think for a second if he could have been the third assistant at Duke, he wouldn’t have gone to Wagner?”

That first April day wasn’t exactly out of the Hurley family playbook. Danny ran around and took care of media obligations. Bobby studied the NCAA rule book and barely passed the compliance test. Soon after, a Wagner official informed the brothers that it was an NCAA open period and they should be on the road recruiting. “We didn’t know where we should go, so we drove around a couple of the boroughs to no avail,” Danny Hurley said. “We did not actually see a player. But we put the miles in. We just drove around Queens, went to Christ the King (High). There was no practice. At the end, we kind of gave up and said, ‘We’ve got to do better tomorrow. Or else this isn’t going to work.’”

The Hurley brothers, in a lot of ways, are meant for each other. They have the same dour Jersey cadence, the same deadpan default sarcasm and the same relentless anxiety to be great that’s helped make the family name basketball royalty. Bob Sr. has won 27 state championships in 39 years at St. Anthony in Jersey City, a career that has seen him win 1,000 games and got him inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010. The Hurleys have a low tolerance for morons, short tempers for officials and the type of dark perspective where an insult is really a compliment. So when Danny Hurley recalls driving home to Freehold, N.J., after his first day of work at Wagner in 2010, his mind began to wander. “I was saying to myself, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have hired this guy,’” Hurley said, cackling with laughter and cautioning that his tongue is in his cheek. “Maybe I shouldn’t have hired a guy with no experience after coaching in high school for nine years. I’m on my way to Freehold like, ‘This guy really sucks.’”

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​It’s only fitting that Bobby Hurley reached the NCAA tournament before Danny, the younger brother from central casting who spent his childhood in the shadows of his brothers’ prodigious accomplishments. Danny Hurley, 42, spent four seasons as an assistant at Rutgers from 1997-01 before a wildly successful nine-season run at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark that got him the Wagner job. Danny Hurley creases a genuine smile walking through his brother’s development as a coach, as he waited to take a college job until his brother agreed to join him. After their meandering through Queens in recruiting that first day, Danny watched Bobby develop his coaching voice and become an individual workout dynamo. It only made sense. Bob Hurley Sr. recalls young Bobby, in the early 1980s, running around the house while coaches like Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Richmond’s Dick Tarrant and Notre Dame’s Digger Phelps were dinner guests. He tagged along at every camp before eventually working them all. “Our childhood,” Danny Hurley said, “was a coaching clinic.” 

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It carried over. In recruiting, Bobby Hurley wore one of his Duke championship rings at Danny’s request, and while most of the kids had no idea who he was, the kids’ dads couldn’t get enough. In the Hurley brothers’ second year at Wagner, they won at Pittsburgh and finished with 25 victories. Danny got the Rhode Island job after that season and Bobby Hurley turned down a chance to be the head coach at Wagner. “He told me, ‘I think I need a little bit more experience,” said Wagner athletic director Walt Hameline. “I was really disappointed. We were really fortunate to have him and Danny here. They did a fabulous job.”

Bobby Hurley’s chance came soon enough. After a year with his brother at Rhode Island, he interviewed with athletic director Danny White at Buffalo in 2013. Danny White is a former walk-on at Notre Dame and the son of Duke athletic director Kevin White. He leaned heavily on his father and Krzyzewski in researching Hurley. And while Hurley only brought fives years of coaching experience, Danny White saw the hire as a potential replica of when the University of San Diego hired Jim Harbaugh in 2003. What Harbaugh lacked in coaching experience, he compensated in extensive playing success and growing up in a coaching family. Harbaugh’s father, Jack, won a Division I-AA national title at WesternKentucky and served as an assistant coach everywhere from Iowa to Stanford to Michigan.

“We interviewed quite a few people,” Danny White said. “Bobby wasn’t speculating what he might do. He knew exactly what he would do offensively, defensively and in player development. He wasn’t going to be learning on the fly. He was ready.”

Buffalo went 19-10 in Hurley’s first season, winning the program’s first-ever MAC East title. But a dip was expected after losing MAC Player of the Year, JavonMcCrea. Instead, Buffalo led both Kentucky and Wisconsin at halftime of their games. After slipping to 6-6 in MAC play on Feb. 14, Hurley brought everything back to basics. He showed his team film of the 1990 national title game, when UNLV blew out Duke 103-73, and talked about how hard they worked the next season to reverse course. Duke, of course, beat UNLV 79-77 in the national semifinals in 1991. And after Hurley’s motivation—plus a re-focus on skill work—Buffalo went on a streak of its own. The Bulls (23-9), led by forward Justin Moss (17.7 ppg) and guard Shannon Evans (15.4), have won eight straight games. They’ve become such a trendy upset pick that even President Obama selected them to upset West Virginia. “We lost three really heartbreaking games, our psyche was damaged,” Hurley said. “Give credit to the kids, it wasn’t easy to do. There was a lot of soul searching, but they took the season in a different direction.”

And while Hurley’s rise is meteoric by any standard, this run has many speculating on where his ascension could continue. This year, anyway, it looks like he’ll return to Buffalo. He brings back four starters and has secured a top-flight recruiting class.

With no high-end jobs open, perhaps he stays for another few years. A few members of the Duke family hinted that they wouldn’t be surprised to see Hurley replace Krzyzewski one day, another name to add to the usual suspect list of replacements like Collins, Brey, Steve Wojciechowski, Tommy Amaker and Johnny Dawkins.

And while projecting that Hurley will succeed Coach K may seem premature, so would have imagining him leading a team to the NCAA tournament five years after entering the business. If you believe in serendipity, Hurley Sr. points out that the oldest of Bobby’s three children, daughter Cameron, is a freshman at Duke. Yes, she’s named after Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Krzyzewski chuckled when asked about the Hurley theory floating around the Duke family. “Who knows?” Krzyzewski said, sounding a bit annoyed. “After the next week, if we don’t win, they might want a guy to come in sooner than later. He’s certainly one of the guys mainly responsible for me still being here. It was a lot easier to coach with Bobby Hurley as your point guard.”

In Buffalo, Hurley has made history by capturing the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth. And while a bumpy path led him to Buffalo, his basketball pedigree and accelerated success certainly hint at a level of success in coaching that will leave him more satisfied than his playing career.