Twenty years ago, Bobby Hurley sat on top of the basketball world, UB resided with the dregs and any thought the two might someday meet qualified as absurd.
Hurley oozed discipline, grit and success. A slight 6-foot point guard self-driven to extremes, he guided Duke to two national titles and set the NCAA career record for assists, accomplishments that helped convince Sacramento to select him seventh overall in the 1993 NBA draft.
As for UB basketball, season No. 1 of a return to Division I was in the books but less than compelling reading. The Bulls opened the 1992-93 campaign with a humiliating 106-36 loss to Iowa State and won just two of 28 games as an independent.
Unlike Hurley, who from grade school opted for total basketball immersion, UB at the time seemed content to dabble in the sport, and pretty much athletics as a whole. Yet a couple of decades later the two are tethered by shared ambitions. UB Athletic Director Danny White opted for
a change in the program’s leadership, Hurley yearned for a head coaching job and what had once been unimaginable came to pass in late March. The once polarizing, love-him-or-hate-him Dukie was hired as UB basketball’s 12th lead man.
“He’s back with the game he loves,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said by phone. “I’m happy for him but I’m also happy for the game because the game needs Bobby Hurley.”
National talk show hosts relished Hurley’s ascent from Rhode Island assistant to UB head man. His appearance schedule stacked up like planes over O’Hare. Producer after producer secured him for 10 minutes here, 20 minutes there. Neither the 2005 hiring of former Heisman finalist Turner Gill nor UB’s subsequent Mid-American Conference football title and International Bowl appearance created a comparable stir. UB basketball bathed in national exposure to a degree not even the marketing-savvy White envisioned when he moved to retool the program’s image, heighten brand awareness and cultivate a national relevance by dipping into the well of name recognition.
Candidates for the job abounded. Former coaches and current ESPN personalities Fran Fraschilla and Seth Greenberg were among those on UB’s radar. But once Hurley interviewed, White knew he had his man. For just as White is the son of a prominent athletic director, Duke’s Kevin White, Hurley is the son of a prominent Hall of Fame basketball coach, Bob Hurley of hallowed St. Anthony in Jersey City, N.J. White affirms the parallels had some influence in sloughing off Hurley’s limited coaching experience, and Coach K agrees that genetics can’t be dismissed.
“Look,” Krzyzewski said. “The DNA was passed on.”
A defining moment
Elite college point guards see the game in slow motion and possess the gifts of anticipation and recognition. If there’s a moment that defined Hurley’s career at Duke, it came in his sophomore season, in the national semifinals against an unbeaten UNLV team favored to capture a second straight title.
The previous season, the Runnin’ Rebels laid Duke to waste in a conquest so resounding it nearly drove Krzyzewski out of the college game and into the NBA. Yes, everybody has an off night. Granted, sometimes it’s impossible to muster the energy and the will to carry the day. But in the national championship game? With the whole hoops world watching? Critics laid the whole 30-point defeat at the feet of the freshman Hurley, claiming he was overwhelmed, outclassed, not made for the moment.
The perceived disparity between the teams had narrowed a season later even though UNLV carried a 45-game winning streak into the national semifinals. This time the lead changed hands on 21 occasions. Duke became the first team all season to lead the Runnin’ Rebels with under 13 minutes remaining. Although faced with unfamiliar circumstances, UNLV showed a steely resolve, opening a five-point lead on a George Ackles put-back with 2:31 left.
Krzyzewski felt the upset bid slipping away. His concern magnified when UNLV switched defenses. The coach came up with a counter, a play that fit the situation. His point guard beat him to the call, signaling the same play before any prompting from the bench.
“They went to the zone, which they were really good at because they were so athletic and so long and they could close out really well,” Hurley said. “It was a defense that was really effective for them and Greg Anthony had fouled out so I think that’s probably even more of a reason for them to do it because he was so good on the ball and pressuring and things.”
“I saw it and I was ready to call out something to get in to and Bobby just had it in his mind, like he just saw an opening and raised up and hit a three and cut it from five to two,” Krzyzewski recalled. “And you could see the look in the UNLV players’ faces, not that they lost but that they had hit us with a huge punch and right away we hit them – well we didn’t, Bobby did – hit them with an even bigger punch. I think it’s as big a shot as we’ve ever had at Duke.”
“It was probably the cleanest shot I’ve ever taken,” Hurley said. “It didn’t really hit the rim, it was all net, and we went on from there.”
Duke’s 79-77 victory proved Hurley’s redemption and sent the Blue Devils onto the first of consecutive national titles. It was the game that validated all the qualities Coach K saw when he anointed Hurley the starter before his freshman season and declared he’d run the show. Not everyone immediately embraced the decision.
“Once Coach K did that ceremonious thing where he handed Bobby the ball at the first practice, I was like ‘Oh my God,’ ” said Angola native and Nichols graduate Christian Laettner, a Duke sophomore when Hurley came aboard. “Ever since then, I was rough on him.
“Another reason was that Bobby was so important to our team. He was so good. He was the quarterback. He has the ball most of the time. We needed him more than anyone, probably more than me, to be performing at a high level. He was so important. Even though I was hard and demanding on him, there was nobody I would have rather played at Duke with than him.”
Elite point guards seem to see all that goes on around them – the overplay that busts open the back door, the cut that begs for an alley-oop, a switch in defenses designed to confound. The only prerequisite is that the lights are on. Darken the arena and their gift of foresight is negated.
On Dec. 12, 1993, following the 19th game of his NBA career, Hurley brought his Toyota pickup to a halt at the unlit rural corner of Del Paso and El Centro roads in Sacramento. The car ahead of him, driven by Mike Batham, made a left turn and proceeded along El Centro.
“As I had turned and gone on to the traveled way heading south, there was a car coming north and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, here’s an accident waiting to happen,’ because the guy either didn’t have lights on or if he did it was only like a parking light,” Batham said in a phone interview.
Hurley made the same left-hand turn as Batham. He was not wearing a seat belt. The unlit station wagon, driven by Daniel Wieland, T-boned Hurley’s truck and ripped open the passenger door, through which Hurley was ejected.
“I immediately backed up as fast as I could and jumped out and his pickup was still on the roadway, slightly off the traveled way but nonetheless on the road,” Batham said. “And there’s a very deep ditch on the left side of the road and a less deep ditch on the right side. As I approach his vehicle looking for somebody, there was nobody inside.
“I walked along the side of the road in both directions looking for a person or persons. I came across the other car, which was a station wagon, in the deep ditch, probably in 2 feet of water. And about that time I heard Bobby calling out in a muffled voice. I use his name because in retrospect I know who he was but at the time I had no idea.
“It was a person on his hands and knees, in the water. It was about 2 feet deep. He was very much disoriented and in shock in my opinion. And I called down and said, ‘Are you all right?’ And he turned towards me and fell over into the water. So that’s when I started to climb in but fell into the ditch and grabbed him and pulled him out of the water so he wouldn’t drown. That was my main concern first was drowning.”
The water in the ditch typically runs deeper but Sacramento endured below-average rainfall that month, Otherwise, Hurley may have been submerged, out of view, unreachable.
Batham sat in the ditch, cradling Hurley’s head in his lap. The temperature hovered in the low 40s. Both shivered as Batham awaited further assistance.
“Wow,” Hurley said in response to Batham’s recollection. “I don’t remember. I just remember going into the ambulance. I remember feeling tremendous pain. My back was like someone was stabbing me with a knife. My lungs, I tore my trachea, that’s probably what I was feeling in terms of pain.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it. You kind of know when you’re in really bad shape like that. I just remember saying, ‘Tell everyone I love them,’ and as soon as I went into the ambulance I was out until the next morning.”
Just as fate conspired against Hurley in staging the accident, it performed a rapid about-face in sparing his life. Bob Hurley Sr. marvels at the fortuitous circumstances that followed the crash, including the on-scene arrival of one of Hurley’s Sacramento teammates, Mike Peplowski.
“The doctor himself was flying over coming back from Los Angeles,” Bob Sr. said. “He saw the accident, saw the lights on the road and just made a call into the hospital, went to Cal-Davis and there was an eight-hour surgery.
“If not for Mike arriving on the scene with a cell phone, Mike Peplowski being on the scene to comfort Bobby when they found him in an irrigation ditch, the doctor understanding exactly what it was, the other doctor who is the expert coming on the scene … there was probably 10 different things that happened and all of them had to happen or he would not have made it.”
A workout warrior
The Bobby Hurley they put back together dived into rehab with the same ferocity that made him a Duke workout legend. Krzyzewski recalls Hurley hitting the Stairmaster after practices and leaving notes for teammates, challenging them to meet his time and distance standards.
“Bobby literally was the hardest worker or as hard a worker as I’ve ever had as a coach,” Krzyzewski said. “I would be amazed even when Tommy Amaker was an assistant here during that time and at times we would look at each other and say, ‘I can’t believe this kid is working this hard.’ ”
In those days, Hurley had a clean bill of health. But the accident that nearly claimed his life left him damaged goods. Miraculously, he worked his way into uniform by the start of the next season. But at what price? To what benefit?
“I don’t think one in a hundred come back from the amount of injuries he had, come back to honor the rest of his contract,” Bob Sr. said. “Just with the left shoulder alone, with the collarbone and the shoulder blade pretty much destroyed. He lost the ability to raise that arm up over his head like he would need to to do the little things. He tore both his ACLs. There was a lot of stuff that went into that that you’re not going to come back from.”
“I thought Bobby came back too quickly,” Krzyzewski said. “You don’t go through a near-death experience with all the injuries that he had and then play seven months later. My feeling is that there was something missing then. And you can sour on the game when something that you loved was missing. My feeling is he needed to be away from the game then.”
Hurley lasted seven NBA seasons, the last two with his fingernails dug into the cliff as the waters of retirement beckoned from below. Injuries from the crash and injuries suffered during his career had rendered him a shell of the player who ranks among college basketball’s greats. The experience left him bitter and disillusioned. He had spent virtually his whole life in the game – “He was a year and a half and I started to take him to practice on weekends,” Bob Sr. said – but shortly after reaching the sport’s pinnacle he was no longer that player. Bobby Hurley an 11th man? That stung.
“I didn’t leave on my terms as a player,” Hurley said. “I kind of limped away with injuries and without really achieving what I had planned on as a professional. So I needed to get away from the game. I was a little bit burned out from the game. I still loved watching it. I still did camps in the summer with my dad and things just to stay involved in basketball. But I needed to do something else.”
Horse racing became that release. Hurley had been introduced to the sport and Monmouth Park during his youth by a family friend involved with horses. He could relate to its competitive aspects and the desire through training to maximize each horse’s athleticism. He became an owner, an investor, and not without success. Songandaprayer won the Fountain of Youth Stakes and qualified for the Kentucky Derby, placing 13th.
Hurley’s new passion carried little weight within a family still immersed in basketball. Gatherings at Bob Sr.’s house often included his assistant coaches and Bobby’s younger brother Danny, then the coach at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark. They wanted to talk hoops. They always talked hoops.
“We’d all be sitting around talking about basketball,” Bob Sr. said. “Bobby would talk about horse racing a little bit but not everybody knew what the heck he was talking about. A lot of times there was a disconnect or it wasn’t interesting enough because we didn’t know enough about it.”
Bobby remained engrossed in his new passion, eventually purchasing land in Ocala, Fla., that he christened Devil Eleven Farm (think Duke, think jersey number). He may never have returned to basketball full bore if that investment had flourished. The economy turned for the worse and the farm made a beeline toward foreclosure.
“The farm was a bad decision,” Hurley said. “It was a huge barn and a big structure for the horses. They lived well. And there was a lot of room for them to run and paddocks and the whole thing. So it was expensive to do it and then when the real estate market and the economy went down, our business was getting hurt across the boards, in the sales and all the ways that we’re able to continue and operate the business. So I needed to try and sell the farm and at that time there were no takers.
“The farm never was foreclosed; it was short-saled. I covered the difference of whatever I owed. I lived up to my financial responsibility with it but I just couldn’t keep going.”
Hurley and his family lived in Hollywood, Fla., at the time and he maintained a link to basketball by working at camps and helping out as an assistant at the Pinecrest Academy in Miami. Guard Brandon Knight (Kentucky, Detroit Pistons) was one of the players at Pinecrest who was taken under Hurley’s wing.
Back in the game
The demise of Devil Eleven Farm in 2009 put Hurley at a crossroads, where he met up with his brother. The two had talked in prior years about whether Danny should remain a lifelong high school coach, like Bob Sr., or look to gain entrance to the college game.
“I think that early on Bob was pushing me towards getting into college and getting out of high school,” Danny said by phone. “Once I started the process of interviewing, I asked Bob whether he wanted to coach with me and when Bob said yes then we obviously got going.”
The topic of horse racing no longer wedged its way into family gatherings. The Hurleys were all back on the same page. Wagner College in Staten Island named Danny its head coach and Danny made Bobby his right-hand man.
“Once he was able to jump back into the conversation, once he went to Wagner with Danny, all of a sudden the get-togethers were different because we were all now either complaining about the players or talking about the guys or swapping stories,” Bob Sr. said. “So it was back to the way from the time he was little when I’d have coaches over to my house after a game and we’d be there for hours talking about that game, the players, the next game, and that’s the things he kind of grew up around.”
Together Danny and Bobby turned around Wagner’s struggling program in lightning fashion, setting a school record for wins in a 25-6 season in their second year. Rhode Island, having parted ways with current Canisius coach Jim Baron, came calling and Danny took the job. Wagner offered Bobby the head job and there was interest from other schools but Bobby elected to keep the familial partnership intact. (There was also contact between Hurley and Canisius at the time. A source at the college said the Griffs were contacted by someone on Hurley’s behalf, while Hurley said he thought Canisius made the first overture.)
“Someone had reached out to me, I’m not sure who with the Canisius situation,” he said. “Also, within 10 minutes of my brother telling our president and our athletic director at Wagner that he was going to go to Rhode Island, they brought me in and offered me the job and wanted me to stay, made a really great offer for me to stay.
“I just felt like there was unfinished business with my brother. I felt like I needed to stay with him. We had talked about spending more time together than two years. We had never anticipated that from where we started at Wagner that in two years we would have gotten where we did.”
They won just eight games last year at Rhode Island but there’s a feeling around the Atlantic 10 that a rapid turnaround is forthcoming. A host of transfers turn eligible this season and join a cast that includes Xavier Munford, the conference’s leading scorer.
While the Rams backtracked in Year One of the Hurley era, interest persisted in Bobby as a head coaching candidate.
“I spoke with Marist and their athletic director and I was scheduled to go sit down with them on the campus, sit down and talk about it, see everything, but it never got that far,” Hurley said. “Once I spoke with Danny White and felt great about our conversation, things moved really fast. So I focused more of my attention on Buffalo.
“I didn’t know a lot about it. Coming into the whole thing, I didn’t know a lot about the whole program. Just having a chance to do my homework, my research, looking at the conference, the facilities, looking at the entire package, it felt right.”
While there’s no questioning Hurley’s pedigree and his basketball accomplishments, the fact remains he’s taking over as the head coach in a competitive conference after just three seasons as an assistant. Those close to him don’t see that as a concern.
“His father is as good a coach as there is on any level so he was born to be in the game as a player and now as a coach,” Krzyzewski said.
“It’s kind of just what we do,” Danny Hurley said. “It’s the family business, coaching and teaching. It comes natural to us because of the environment we grew up in. That’s what it all stems from. The other stuff, the lack of experience of what have you, we’re hard workers so we’ll learn that stuff quick.”
“You just talked to the guy that’s the best in the business at communications,” Bob Sr. said. “Mike Krzyzewski is the best there is at communication. And if there’s one thing that Bobby would have learned from him it’s to open up the lines of communication with every player, make sure the door’s open, constantly be talking to them.
“And Bobby’s career was ordinary man, extraordinary desire to be successful,” Bob Sr. said. “That really I think translates in coaching more than like a guy like a Magic Johnson. I was just reading a story about him talking about a guard on the Lakers the brief time he coached and he said, ‘Don’t you see this play? Can’t you see that?’ And after a couple times, one of the assistant coaches said, ‘He’s not going to see the game like you do, Magic. We have to stop trying to have him look at the game through your eyes. Let’s figure out what he can see.’ ”
The 42-year-old Hurley has gone about the UB job his way, in what some might say is unorthodox fashion. None of his assistants – Levi Watkins from North Carolina State, Eric Harrield from St. Anthony and Nate Oats from Romulus High in Michigan – is an experienced college assistant. Two of the transfers he’s brought in – Jamir Hanner from Marshall and Justin Moss from Indian Hills Community College in Iowa – had issues at those schools. Hanner was suspended one game for academics, while Moss was dismissed from the team in mid-December for unspecified reasons.
Of his assistant choices, Hurley said, “I’m interested in high motivated, highly talented people, guys that I feel are hungry, guys that have accomplished things.”
And of his transfers, he adds, “Justin Moss was a qualifier out of high school. He was not a traditional junior college player that didn’t meet the academic standards. He met those. I’m confident that he could do the work here and that he will be able to do the work here.
“Jamir Tanner, Jamir was a qualifier and I have no concerns that he wouldn’t be able to do the work. I really don’t know specifically about that incident at Marshall. That doesn’t concern me.
“I’m concerned about some of the guys here that were in the program that didn’t get it done academically. Like Cameron Downing in the fall had three Ds and a C-minus, finishing this spring with three Fs. That’s what I’m concerned about.”
His voice hardens as he delivers that last line. He knows he’s replacing a popular coach in Reggie Witherspoon. He is aware of Witherspoon’s high standing in the community and Hurley’s tone implies the question, “Now can I have my chance?”
“There’s been too much losing here,” Hurley said. “When you play 14 years of Division I basketball and you don’t go to the tournament one time, that’s not success.”
Krzyzewski knows well the Hurley who bristles at criticism.
“That’s the Bobby who rebounded from that embarrassing title game against UNLV. That’s the Bobby who nailed the shot that sent the Runnin’ Rebs reeling and swept away the haunting past. That’s the Bobby determined to take UB where it’s never been – the NCAAs.
“If you’re a Hurley you take everything personally,” Krzyzewski said. “You were born with an edge.”