Bobby Hurley was the best college point guard I ever saw. In his days at Duke, he was a basketball visionary, a skinny 6-foot kid with a sad, sleepy expression and a relentless style. Hurley had that rare gift to play at a high speed and still see everything around him on the floor.
Hurley was a great passer and leader, a clutch shooter. He played in three NCAA title games and won back-to-back championships in 1991-92. At the end, I was convinced that Hurley, not Christian Laettner, was the most valuable player on those great Duke teams.
Most of all, I remember him as a tireless competitor. Hurley would play 40 minutes, his feet impossibly quick on defense – he was a great on-ball defender – or lead Duke upcourt on the fastbreak. When the game ended, he seemed eager to go 40 more.
Hurley talked about having “a ton of energy” when he was introduced as UB’s new head coach on Tuesday. He’ll need every bit of it. He has an exhausting job ahead of him, and I’m not sure he knows what he’s in for.
Funny, Reggie Witherspoon was dismissed as an unconventional choice who hadn’t paid his dues at the Division I level. A rookie athletic director, Danny White, replaced him with a virtual novice with three years’ experience as an assistant under his brother, Danny, at Wagner and Rhode Island.
Yes, Hurley is the product of a legendary coaching tradition. His father, Bob Sr., might be the best high school coach in history. Having watched his college coach, Mike Krzyzewski, lead the U.S. to two Olympic gold medals, I now consider Krzyzewski the best hoop coach, period.
That’s a nice coaching tree. There are reputable basketball people who think Danny Hurley is the gifted son, a rising star in the sport. You’d think anyone who sat at the Hurley dinner table would know a thing or two about coaching the game.
It’s one thing to play for a master, though. It’s another to be king of an entire operation. Hurley has to deal with alumni, recruiting, community relations, compliance. He has to be mentor and psychologist to a bunch of college kids. Oh, and he’ll be the one making the calls on game nights.
White is gambling that Hurley is born to the job, that his basketball vision will translate to the coaching box and he’ll elevate the program to a new level. As I said when Witherspoon was fired, White is putting his reputation on the line with a bold, risky hire.
In a sense, they’re not hiring a coach, but a brand. Witherspoon said White told him the move was largely about marketing. And Hurley is already winning PR points for the UB brand. He was on two national radio sports shows (Mike & Mike and Dan Patrick) Wednesday morning. On his radio show, Duke grad John Feinstein pointed out that UB was in the MAC, not the MAAC, and wondered why it’s the University “at” Buffalo, not “of.”
That’s the sort of attention a school usually gets when it makes the NCAA Tournament. There’s a curiosity that tends to be short-lived (unless you’re Florida Gulf Coast). A mid-major gets its 15 minutes of fame. But in this case, Hurley has a chance to give the Bulls a lasting national profile.
Some prominent Canisius College alums wanted their school to hire Hurley when Tom Parrotta was let go last spring. But the Canisius people chose the safe route and went for Jim Baron, a proven head man.
After the fact, I heard about the Hurley-to-Canisius idea and was intrigued by it. There are obvious benefits to having a brand-name coach with connections. You can attract attention, recruits and money.
One UB insider told me Hurley could be as important to the athletic program as the downtown medical campus is to the medical school. History shows that a strong sports program can do wonders for the overall fiscal health of a college.
The question, of course, is whether Hurley can coach. Not every son of a coach inherits the skill. He’ll need to hire a strong staff. He’d be wise to bring in a godfather type, an older assistant who has been a head man and would help with some of the nuances of the job.
Hurley needs to win now. He inherits a veteran team with a potential MAC Player of the Year in Javon McCrea, a solid talent in Nichols grad Will Regan, and a senior point guard in Jarod Oldham. The Bulls will be expected to contend for a MAC title, which would legitimize Hurley and anoint White as a rising star in the AD fraternity.
In the end, it comes down to players. Witherspoon had a knack for developing average players, but he didn’t recruit enough depth onto his roster in later years. There were too many borderline Division I talents on his bench.
Hurley needs to use his name and his connections to attract a better caliber of athlete. He intends to play a more wide-open style. Most new coaches promise to play fast. But you need a deep roster with players who challenge each other for playing time and develop an edge in practice.
That means recruiting at a high level. Hurley should expand the UB reach into New York City and his native New Jersey. It helps to have a fertile recruiting ground. Niagara’s Joe Mihalich has tapped Philadelphia’s secondary player market for years.
UB is trusting that Hurley, like his predecessor, will do things the right way, that he won’t cut corners and bring in indifferent students who embarrass the university. When you aspire to the big time, as White clearly does, the temptation to bend the rules becomes greater, too.
Hurley made a good first impression. At his first press conference, he recognized Witherspoon for all he did for the program. It was a classy gesture by the son of a coach, by a man who respects the sport and the profession.
It’s easy to root for Hurley, whose elite athletic talents were robbed in an auto accident that nearly took his life early in his rookie NBA season. It took him years to get over the loss of his playing career and find his way into coaching.
Maybe, two decades later, the little Duke point guard will be a basketball visionary again, only this time in the head coach’s chair. Wish him luck.
He’s going to need it.