At UConn, Dan Hurley Is Taking On "The Ultimate Challenge"

The son and younger brother of hoops legends, Dan Hurley once declared himself “done with basketball.” Now he's trying to help UConn regain its place among the college basketball elite.

  • 17 min to read
At UConn, Dan Hurley Is Taking On "The Ultimate Challenge"

It was the perfect hire, almost universally applauded as the ideal fit.

When Dan Hurley was named the 19th head coach in UConn men’s basketball history in March, it was clear that he was the right man at the right time for a reeling program.

UConn has largely been off the national radar the past four seasons, no longer in the Big East but instead the relative anonymity of the American Athletic Conference — where the Huskies have underachieved in the regular season since the league’s inception in 2013-14. UConn is the lone program to have won four national titles over the past 20 years — not Duke, not North Carolina, and more than Kentucky, Kansas and Louisville combined. But since the improbable 2014 national championship, the program has been mired in mediocrity, and at times, much worse.

It’s an important hire. UConn isn’t just a basketball team in Connecticut. It’s the closest thing the state has to a rallying cry. In a state that agrees on little — Connecticut is the dividing line of Red Sox/Yankees fandom — one of the few things residents can get behind is the Huskies. The program is so enmeshed in the state’s identity that atop U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy’s Twitter page sit photos of five UConn men’s legends: Kemba Walker, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin and Emeka Okafor. UConn basketball is Connecticut’s brand ambassador.

NCAA BASKETBALL:  FEB 03 Rhode Island at Davidson

Tough love: Unlike Jim Calhoun, Dan Hurley is known for being a cheerleader to his players during games and a drill sergeant at practice.

Into the breach steps Hurley.

“It seems like the perfect marriage,” says George Blaney, the former longtime UConn assistant who was Hurley’s head coach at Seton Hall.

A former college standout who had a mercurial playing career at Seton Hall, even quitting the game at one point, Hurley understands the pressures of being a Division I player. The son of Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley Sr., architect of the powerful St. Anthony High School program in Jersey City, New Jersey, he’s got coaching in his blood.

“As a teenager, he probably heard things like, ‘Scheduling is important’ — things kids don’t hear about,” says another Hall of Fame head coach, Jim Calhoun. “Being a coach, you evolve into it. He was born into it.”

Ah yes, Calhoun. It’s hard not to see similarities between Hurley — a hard-nosed Irishman from the Northeast, tough yet fiercely loyal to his players, never a great ally of the refs — and the man who originally brought the UConn program back from the dead.

“Blue collar, that’s how I always felt about UConn basketball,” says Hurley’s older brother, Bobby, the former Duke star who was Dan’s assistant at Wagner College and the University of Rhode Island. “They really competed and got after you, and that was a reflection of Coach Calhoun. My brother certainly possesses those things. He’s got a lot of fire, and he gets players to play for him at a very high level.”

Jeff Calhoun, a walk-on player at UConn for two seasons in the early ’90s who shares a bond with Hurley as the son of a Hall of Fame coach, noticed it when Hurley brought Wagner into Gampel Pavilion in the fall of 2011.

“He kind of reminds me of my father,” Jeff remembers thinking while watching from the stands as Hurley spent most of the night barking at refs and pushing his players hard in an ultimate 78-66 loss to UConn. “It was two hours of, ‘Let’s go to war.’ He has that, which I think is what UConn was built on. Yet he’s strong enough to be his own man, do it his own way.”

Indeed, while Jim Calhoun was mellower in practices but at times a madman on the sidelines, subbing players in and out for the slightest mistake, Hurley is tougher in practices but more of the players’ friend during games. He’s even been easier on the refs the past couple of seasons. “That goes out the window this year, by the way,” Hurley says, perhaps joking, perhaps not.

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While he boasts a similar acerbic wit as Calhoun (“Maybe the surgeon helped [UConn guard] Alterique Gilbert with his shooting mechanics. A couple of other players should go see him.”), it’s usually more light-hearted, sometimes bordering on dad-jokey (“Knock on wood,” he likes to say, while tapping his knuckles to his head).

Like Calhoun, Hurley has a knack for turning programs around.

He’s called the process of rebuilding from scratch “addicting,” to the point where you get the feeling he actually prefers the challenge of flipping a UConn back to relevancy over a more comfortable job at a Georgia, a Louisville or, shudder to think, his brother’s alma mater.

“I find the work to be incredibly fulfilling and rewarding,” Hurley says. “All the mini-victories along the way: winning those recruiting battles, watching your players improve and change their habits, watching the crowds grow. People here have experienced so much success, but there’s something that’s a lot of fun about the climb back up.”

He spent the last six seasons rebuilding what was a mess at URI, which had won just seven games the year before he took over and hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1999. Hurley guided the Rams to NCAA tournament appearances the past two seasons, advancing to the second round both times.

Prior to that, Hurley won 25 games in his second and final year at Wagner, which had won a mere five games the season before he took over.

His pièce de résistance so far, however, may have been at St. Benedict’s Prep. Hurley, along with Father Ed Leahy, took over the program, which is located in a dilapidated section of Newark, New Jersey, in 2001 and built it up to where “it was like a college program,” according to Blaney, churning out future college and pro players like J.R. Smith, Lance Thomas and Corey Stokes.

Calhoun, who recently came out of retirement to run the new University of Saint Joseph men’s basketball program, took over a lifeless UConn program at age 44 and led it to three national championships, four Final Fours and seven Big East tournament titles over 26 seasons. Fellow Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim of Syracuse has called it the single greatest job of program-building in college basketball history.

At 45, Hurley inherits a program that has lost 35 games the past two seasons, including an unprecedented eight by margins of 20 points or more a year ago. Getting back to past excellence will be far from easy.

“He likes to complain,” Bob Hurley Sr. says, only half-jokingly. “This is perfect for him. His way of telling you things are going well is, ‘We need a lot of work.’ ”

There will be far more scrutiny at UConn than at Wagner or URI. At least three or four media outlets cover most if not all of the Huskies’ road games, and it can be two or three times that at home.

“There’s nothing worse than fighting for attention, trying to constantly promote your program and get attention,” Dan Hurley says. “Here, it just happens organically.”

As Hurley looks over the court from his second-floor office inside the Werth Family Champions Center on the Storrs campus on a late-summer afternoon, he seems perfectly ready for the task at hand.

“I don’t know if these types of jobs find me,” he says, with a chuckle, “but I also love the challenge. St. Benedict’s, Wagner, Rhode Island — it was kind of creating something from nothing. Obviously, UConn’s a different animal. But it’s also the challenge of taking a program of this caliber from some hard times, potentially back to the top of the mountain.

“It’s the ultimate challenge.”


Outside the family

Hurley was an eyewitness to two of the early, seminal moments in UConn men’s basketball history.

On March 22, 1990, at Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, UConn’s “Dream Season” became official when Tate George caught a full-court, inbounds pass from Scott Burrell, spun around and hit a 17-footer at the buzzer to give the Huskies a Sweet 16 victory over Clemson.

Seated behind the basket from where Burrell made his throw was Hurley, a St. Anthony High junior. His brother, after all, beat UCLA in an NCAA Regional semifinal that same night.

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Hurley faces “The Horde,” a media contingent the likes of which he has not encountered at previous coaching positions.

Two nights later, Duke’s Christian Laettner gave UConn a taste of its own medicine, hitting an elbow jumper at the buzzer to thwart the Huskies’ bid for the Final Four and end their “Dream Season” in nightmarish fashion. Both Hurley brothers were there — Bobby, the Blue Devils’ freshman point guard, on the floor; Dan sitting a couple of rows up at midcourt. “I had a great look at the Laettner shot … unfortunately [for UConn fans],” he says, with a smile.

Hurley would go on to play against UConn numerous times while at Seton Hall and coach against the Huskies as an assistant at Rutgers and head man at Wagner. However, he is the first head coach hired from outside the “UConn Family,” with no direct ties to the program, since Calhoun arrived from Northeastern University 32 years earlier.

Preceding Hurley was Kevin Ollie, the former UConn point guard who returned to the program after 13 years in the NBA, first as an assistant for a couple of years, then as head coach following Calhoun’s abrupt retirement in September 2012.

Ollie guided the Huskies to their fourth national title in 2014, but the program has wildly underachieved since then, making just one NCAA tourney and ultimately flaming into an unsightly mess of terrible losses, a mass exodus of players, an NCAA investigation and a fight over the $10 million still left on Ollie’s contract.

Now Hurley arrives, and the pieces seem to be in place for another rebuild. He’s hired a dynamic staff, keeping ties to the UConn family with Tom Moore, the former Calhoun assistant who was on Hurley’s staff last season at URI, as well as former star Huskies point guard Taliek Brown.

Moore, who was head coach at Quinnipiac for 10 seasons, remembers going up against Hurley at Wagner. “There was an energy that came from their bench that was palpable, that you could feel,” Moore recalls. “A toughness that emanated from the whole program. Very rarely did I ever feel anything like that coming from the other bench. But his teams do a great job taking on his personality.”

Moore and fellow assistants Kimani Young and Kenya Hunter are bulldogs on the recruiting trail, recently nabbing a pair of four-star recruits on consecutive September weekends.

Alongside all the way will be Hurley’s wife, Andrea, who has never picked up a basketball in her life, has seen thousands of games and still, by her own admission, has “no idea what’s going on — nor do I want to,” but serves as the ultimate team mom.

“The only thing I can bring is the motherly part of it,” Andrea says. “Some of these kids, they’re from all over the country, they don’t have family around here. This is tough, to play a sport like this, then to have to go to school, be away from their family. It’s tough. I want them to know they have support on the female side.”

It’s mi casa, su casa for the players at the Hurleys’. URI players would frequently have dinner at the head coach’s home in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, sometimes without the head coach even there. Since the Hurleys moved into their new Glastonbury home over the summer, players and recruits are frequent weekend visitors — as evidenced by video of an impressive, well-orchestrated slam dunk by nine teammates in the backyard pool on Labor Day that went viral on social media.

“She develops a relationship with these guys that, I think, helps them understand what I’m trying to do more,” Hurley says of Andrea. “It improves my relationship with the players.”

The players seem to like Hurley’s vibe. Consider: Three players and a prized recruit bolted the program after the team’s 16-17 horror show two years ago. Another exodus seemed inevitable after last season’s 14-18 embarrassment, even after Ollie was fired.

Since Hurley has taken over, however, not a single player has left.

“That was important to me,” Hurley says. “I think it was real important for them to understand that I wasn’t coming in looking to make transactions to change this place.”

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Against the backdrop of UConn’s four national championships, Hurley has his work cut out for him to restore the program to glory. Jim Calhoun was the Huskies’ head coach for three of those titles.

And so here he is, a man with no prior ties to the program, whose very last name (thanks to his older brother) was a curse word to Duke-hating UConn fans for so many years, in charge of a rebuild.

The right man at the right time.

If — when? — UConn returns to prominence, whether as a perennial NCAA tournament team, a frequent Sweet 16 participant or — dare we say — a national champion for a fifth time, it isn’t hard to picture Hurley standing atop a podium, a freshly cut basketball net draped around his neck, pumping his fist in the air triumphantly and sporting the satisfied grin of yet another turnaround completed.

It would be the latest in a long string of great moments in UConn’s history.

And it would be the latest high point in Hurley’s remarkable basketball odyssey. 


‘I knew I was done with basketball’

Two years after watching his brother vanquish UConn, Dan Hurley was playing his home games at the Meadowlands as a freshman point guard at Seton Hall. Already overshadowed by Bobby, who had helped lead Duke to a national title the prior season and would do so again, Hurley struggled. He averaged 2.8 points per game as a freshman and 6.1 as a sophomore while the Pirates couldn’t match the success of a few years earlier, when they lost to Michigan in the 1989 national championship game.

“When he got there, the expectations for the team were extremely high,” Bob Hurley Sr. says. “The comparisons to his brother were just brutal. He was not enjoying being there. The pressure to win was unbearable.”

Coupled with the new freedom of college life — after growing up in a very disciplined home and school environment at St. Anthony — Hurley says he “kind of lost my mind a little bit.”

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Hurley was a standout at Seton Hall, but the pressures of basketball and college life took their toll. 

“I wasn’t playing well, and I’d always had a little bit of a rebellious thing about me, too,” Hurley recalls. “So, my way of dealing with failure was: go out, drink, stay out late and act like a crazy college kid.”

He wasn’t exactly drinking on the day of a game — but not far from it. Hurley remembers one night partying until about 2 a.m., then playing powerful Ohio State in a nationally televised game at noon at the Meadowlands.

It all came to a head in Hurley’s junior season. On Dec. 4, 1993, it was a veritable “Hurley Day” at Madison Square Garden. Bobby, a first-round draft pick by Sacramento the prior June, was in town to face the Knicks in an afternoon game. Later that night, Seton Hall kicked off its Big East schedule against St. John’s.

Neither Hurley brother played particularly well that day, but Dan (who went 0-for-6 from the floor in a Pirates loss) took it the hardest. Later that night, he met up with his brother in Manhattan for a “late dinner,” and had a confession to make.

He was done with basketball.

“I didn’t want to play anymore,” Hurley says. “I remember being at the game and the anxiety, the struggling, the nervousness, the depression of failure. It was just overwhelming, suffocating. I really just met him that night to say to him, ‘Hey, I’m checking out of this basketball thing for at least a little bit.’ ”

He was looking for support from Bobby. Not from his parents, coaches or anyone else, just Bobby.

“I felt like I had to get clearance from him to quit, to try to get myself better,” he says.

He got it.

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Hurley was a standout at Seton Hall, but the pressures of basketball and college life took their toll. When it came time to ask for help, he looked to his older brother, Bobby. Years later, Bobby would be Dan’s assistant coach at Wagner and Rhode Island.

“I saw,” remembers Bobby, who’s now the head coach at Arizona State. “It looked like he was not having fun playing. We had talked about it prior, and I just saw the pressure of all the expectations for a young kid. I thought he made a very mature decision. We talked for a long time that night.

“We relied on each other a lot. We’ve always been there for each other most of our lives. I think the most important thing was Dan, the person, not Dan, the basketball player, and to know that he could talk to me at any time. I had his back.”

Dan Hurley went underground for a couple of days, hiding in his dorm room (his roommate was home on holiday break), skipping practices and keeping out of contact with everyone, including his parents. Only Bobby knew where he was.

“I was in a very deep, dark depression,” Hurley recalls. “I didn’t know if I was ever gonna leave the room.”

He wasn’t suicidal, he just didn’t want to face anyone, feeling ashamed, “useless, worthless.”

“My brother’s at Duke, then in the NBA making millions, and I literally can’t make a basket,” he says. “My grades weren’t good, my life had no balance. It was like, every leg on the table was wobbly or broken.”

His mother, Chris, who used to be the scorekeeper at St. Anthony, where Hurley shot 60 percent from 3-point range as a senior (“Obviously, she fudged my numbers,” he jokes), finally tracked him down and brought him to a psychiatrist. Both decided that wasn’t the right route. He wound up seeing a psychologist on campus, Sister Catherine Waters, with whom he would develop “an incredible bond,” and would see once or twice a week for the remainder of his time at Seton Hall.

But it would be a while before Hurley was ready to play basketball again. He missed the Pirates’ next game (against UConn, ironically) and the school eventually announced he was taking a leave of absence for personal reasons. He had to get away from basketball, find a way to fall in love with it again.

Then, something happened that put everything in perspective.


Help from an old friend

On Dec. 12, 1993, a week and a day after Hurley had received that much-needed affirmation from his older brother, Bobby was involved in a horrific car accident in Sacramento.

Blindsided by a driver who didn’t have his headlights on, Bobby suffered a severed trachea, two collapsed lungs, a fractured left shoulder blade, five broken ribs, a small fracture in his back, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, a fractured right fibula and a sprained wrist. He was lucky to have survived.

When Dan Hurley went out to visit him in the hospital, he was overcome with emotion, much of it guilt about how he hadn’t appreciated the opportunity to get an education and play college basketball.

“I was in a good position in life,” Hurley says, “but I was ungrateful and had no perspective. Bob’s accident helped me with that.”

Hurley returned to St. Anthony to get back in the gym and work out, and started feeling better about the sport again. Then, Bob Sr. got pneumonia, and Hurley stepped in to help coach the team.

“Even though he was a knucklehead, he commanded the kids’ attention,” Bob Sr. says. “In the recesses of his brain, he knew he still loved the sport, loved teaching it, and wanted to continue to play.”

Hurley re-enrolled at Seton Hall for the second semester and started practicing with the team, playing well. Late in the season, head coach P.J. Carlesimo asked him if he wanted to play out the season. But Hurley declined, instead taking a redshirt. He wanted a fresh start the following season.

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Father figures: Legendary New Jersey high school basketball coach Bob Hurley Sr., left, and former Seton Hall coach George Blaney were major influences on the young Hurley’s life and career.

Carlesimo was an excellent coach, but he was tough on his players and employed a style not conducive to a point guard. After that 1993-94 season, he left to coach the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. In came George Blaney, who was like a godsend for Hurley.

Blaney had grown up in the same Jersey City neighborhood as Bob Sr. His younger brother, Jimmy, was Bob Sr.’s teammate in the backcourt at St. Peter’s Prep. When George would return home for the summer from college at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he was a star player, he’d come to the local playground to shoot, and Bob Sr. would retrieve balls for him.

As a coach, he had a more wide-open style of play and, perhaps most importantly, was someone with whom Hurley could talk to about anything. The type of stuff he couldn’t talk about with his dad.

“When Coach Blaney came in there, it was the weirdest experience, going into his office and talking about relationships with girlfriends, family,” Hurley says. “As a coach, aren’t you supposed to be asking about my ballhandling and assist-to-turnover [ratio]? He showed me a valuable lesson that coaching is a connection you need to make with people you work with, the people that play for you, so you can truly have an impact on their life.”

Hurley played much better his final two seasons at Seton Hall, averaging 13.8 points per game as a junior and 14.3 as a senior. The calming influence of Blaney and Sister Catherine had a lot to do with that.

But it was late in his senior year, after his basketball career was over, that Hurley met the most important person in his life.


A wild, unpredictable ride

Andrea Sirakides was a Jersey girl, growing up in Freehold, then Toms River. Her parents, Ken and Patty, had grown up in Jersey City, and Ken was an avid sports fan, a Mets and Giants season-ticket holder. He knew of Bob Hurley Sr., and Andrea would accompany him to watch Hurley’s St. Anthony battle Christian Brothers Academy in a rivalry game each year.

No doubt Dan Hurley was the starting point guard in a few of those games. Not that Andrea knew, or cared.

“I hated it,” she recalls, with a laugh.

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A few years later, with dreams of becoming a clothing designer, Andrea wanted to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. But mom and dad didn’t think she was street-smart enough for the Big Apple, and made a deal: go to Seton Hall for a year or two, get your core curriculum under your belt, then transfer to FIT.

And, after all, “Danny Hurley goes to Seton Hall,” her dad told her.

“Who cares?” she replied.

In late March of her freshman year, Andrea’s friend, Emily Griffis, took her out to The Hall, a popular campus bar. She was introduced to Hurley, who was “totally rough around the edges” but gave her a ride home that night. They agreed to go out again.

Andrea has naturally curly hair but had straightened it the night she met Hurley. When he picked her up for a date about a week later, her hair was curly again. Hurley’s first words: “You’re not the girl I met at The Hall. You don’t look like her!”

Rough around the edges, indeed.

Later that night, they went back to Hurley’s apartment, where Andrea started getting nervous. Hurley turned on the TV to watch golf, opened up a package of Ritz crackers and barely spoke. When she asked him to take her home, he got up, went outside, then came back in to inform her that his car had been stolen.

Andrea wasn’t so sure, thinking it was a ploy to get her to stay over.

“Are you gonna call the cops?” she asked.

“No, tomorrow,” Hurley said.

“Your parents?”

“No, tomorrow.”

Andrea slept the whole night sitting up, with shoes and coat on the entire time, in case she had to run out of the apartment. And yet …

“I kinda liked it,” she confesses. “I was like, ‘This guy’s nuts.’ I can’t stand clingy people, too-affectionate people. I got somebody who wasn’t that lovey-dovey kind of guy.”

Dad was happy, too, proclaiming, “I can’t believe you found Danny Hurley!”

In truth, Andrea helped Danny Hurley find himself.

“Andrea was the best thing ever to happen to me at Seton Hall,” Hurley says. “I was just bad in relationships. But I knew I met a special woman.”

Dan and Andrea’s relationship grew quickly. He had the opportunity to play professionally in Europe that summer, and asked Andrea to come with him.

“You’re not married, you’re not engaged,” Patty Sirakides told her daughter. “You’re not going!”

The couple got engaged in August, but Hurley wound up not going to Europe, either. He coached with his dad and worked as a health teacher at St. Anthony for a year, then got a job as an assistant coach at Rutgers, a month before he and Andrea got married in August 1997.

It’s been a wild, unpredictable ride ever since. Their first child was due July 7, 1999, but Hurley needed to be out on the road recruiting from July 5 to Aug. 1. So Andrea drank a couple of bottles of castor oil, then walked around their neighborhood all day to induce labor.

Danny Jr. was born on July 1. He’s now a sophomore at Seton Hall. Andrew, 16, is at Glastonbury High.

Hurley turned around St. Benedict’s, Wagner, then URI, where Andrea developed friendships that will last a lifetime. Ollie was fired on March 10, 2018. A week later, URI was unceremoniously bounced from the NCAA tournament by Duke.

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That kicked off an intense week for the Hurleys. On Monday, March 19, UConn athletic director David Benedict met with the Hurleys at their home with a contract offer. Later that day, the couple drove up to Providence to meet with Pittsburgh officials, who offered more money. The following day, URI came in with an offer.

Andrea had to get out of the house for a bit as Hurley wrestled with a decision that would change the family’s lives. At one point they were going to stay at URI. Then, no, it’s UConn. Then he called his agent: “I’m not going to UConn anymore.”

“Monday through Wednesday was a blur,” she says. “For something that should have been so exciting, it was awful. He second-guessed himself 27 times.”

Finally, the decision was made. Hurley was moving on to yet another rebuilding challenge.

“This is what I do,” he told Andrea. “I build programs.”


This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.You can can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here.

David Borges covers UConn men’s basketball for Hearst Connecticut Media. He has also covered the Boston Red Sox and is the author of Rebound! The Incredible Story of UConn Basketball’s Comeback from Defeat to Dominance, which chronicles UConn’s 2014 run to the national title.