TEMPE, Ariz. — The career arc of Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley has launched at a mind-bending trajectory. After taking an assistant coaching job for his brother at tiny Wagner College in 2010, Hurley has already taken Buffalo to the NCAA tournament and landed a plum gig in the Pac-12.
In just six seasons coaching, Hurley has shown signs he could end up as one of the next generation’s great college basketball coaches. Just as he was one of the last generation’s top players at Duke, where he led the Blue Devils to a pair of national titles. As a coach, Hurley’s in-game feel, knack for player development and ability to connect are considered elite.
The same trait that allowed Hurley to obtain this sudden success—the fiery edge sharpened by growing up in Jersey City in a family of basketball royalty—also fuels his biggest weakness.
Bobby Hurley has a referee problem. It’s an issue that folks grumbled about in the MAC the past two seasons, but it became national fodder during his Pac-12 debut on Sunday. Hurley didn’t make it through a 94–82 loss against No. 8 Arizona, picking up two technical fouls arguing calls in a 14-second span. And when he got thrown out with 59 seconds remaining by veteran official John Higgins, Hurley left the court as if auditioning for a WWE villain role. Hurley waved his arms upward to egg on the crowd to continue taunting the officials. He then spun back to hurl one more insult to the crew, pointing his finger as two staff members nudged him toward the tunnel. After the game, the edge stayed sharp.
“I really wouldn’t have changed anything that I did today in terms of anything that happened,” Hurley said.
After saying he wouldn’t comment anymore, Hurley accidentally issued himself a challenge while trying to take a subtle jab at the officials. “I always want the spotlight to be on the performers, the guys in the game,” he said. “It shouldn’t be about anything more than that. That goes for all of us—coaches, officials. It should be about the players. The players should decide the game.”
But on Sunday, Hurley’s implosion made him and the officials the story. His temper tantrum went viral, part of which is the burden of being one of the greatest players in college basketball history. In other words, Ernie Kent getting thrown out of a game at Washington State doesn’t draw the same type of clicks. While Hurley earned raucous approval from the crowd and tweets like “Coach Hurley for President” from star ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici, the ramifications from the ouster will far outweigh the sophomoric gratification of the moment.
From this point on, Hurley will be a marked man in the Pac-12. Getting thrown out the way he did in his debut loses him the benefit of the doubt, as he’ll be operating squarely in the officials’ crosshairs this season. Hurley already has four technical fouls in 14 games at ASU. He picked up seven during his first season at Buffalo, a number he cut to four last year. Part of that may be the officials and coach adjusting to one another. But Hurley needs to find a better way to channel that competitive fire, and like so many elite athletes and coaches his greatest strength moonlights as a glaring weakness.
After his press conference, Hurley didn’t back off his statement about having no regrets but was smart enough to admit he needs to alter his behavior. “I have to pick my spots better,” he told SI.com. “There’s got to be a pause button.”
Hurley grew up with dinner table conversations about referee persecution. His brother Danny, the head coach at Rhode Island, and father Bob, the Hall of Fame coach at St. Anthony’s in New Jersey, are demonstrative on the sideline. What Hurley sees as holding an official accountable, the rest of the world sees as over-the-top.
What Hurley needs to realize for the sake of his team is that officials at this level have egos just as big as the coaches. Was the game well officiated on Sunday? No. Did Hurley have some legitimate arguments? Certainly. But there aren’t many better crews the Pac-12 will trot out than Higgins (six Final Fours), Mark Whitehead (three Final Fours) and Tony Padilla (NCAA tournament-level referee).
Higgins and Hurley sparred earlier in the season when ASU played against Kennesaw State, and there appeared to be some carryover here. Ultimately, Hurley is going to need to find that pause button, as Higgins isn’t going away. And much like coaches sit around in the summer at AAU events and complain about officials, officials sit around and complain about coaches.
Hurley didn’t cost his team the game Sunday, but it certainly didn’t help as it was down six points when both technicals were whistled. But what Sunday’s antics put him in danger of is costing his team a game sometime during Pac-12 play, as officials will subliminally be carrying the WWE image of Hurley with them into every game. With ASU at 10–4 and a fringe NCAA tournament team—No. 26 RPI and No. 59 KemPom—Hurley can’t have something similar happen that costs the Sun Devils a game during Pac-12 play. The line is too thin. The Sun Devils aren’t particularly talented, but they’ve managed to beat projected NCAA tournament teams Belmont, Texas A&M and UNLV with a roster of players who likely won’t get an invitation to the Portsmouth Invitational for fringe NBA prospects. Credit for that goes to Hurley.
The best example for Hurley may have been across the sideline on Sunday. Arizona coach Sean Miller certainly isn’t a prude with officials, as he’s been fined $25,000 by the league for confronting an official after the game. (Former Pac-12 head of officials, Ed Rush, resigned after reportedly offering to give officials $5,000 or a trip to Cancun for issuing Miller a technical or throwing him out of a game). Miller is a similarly fiery son of a successful high school coach who overachieved as a player, and he’s clearly gotten under some officials’ skin. But Miller has managed in 12 years at Xavier and Arizona to not get thrown out of a game. Hurley didn’t make it through his first league contest.
For Hurley’s upward trajectory to continue through the profession, he needs to learn to find the pause button. All it cost the Sun Devils on Sunday was some embarrassing headlines and viral videos. The stakes and pressure will be higher the next few months, and the sad part for such a promising coach is that his actions in 14 seconds on Sunday could take years to overcome.