COLLEGE STATION, Texas — In some ways this seems the most ludicrous place for Bobby Hurley to launch his head coaching career. In other ways the setting teems with strange coincidence.
The absurdity is that Hurley will coach his first game tonight in a place where basketball is scarcely more relevant than snow removal strategy. In Texas the ball is either oblong or it’s misshapen. There’s a football game here Saturday. Hotel rooms are pushing $300 a night. Party on.
The coincidence is that Hurley’s first game comes in The Land of Johnny Manziel, who means to A&M football what, give or take, Hurley meant to Duke basketball back in the day. Quarterback/point guard. Freshman sensation. Undersized. Heisman winner/national champion. The parallels abound.
Where the two diverge is in their personalities, with Hurley being the ballad on the flip side of Manziel’s heavy metal blare. The coach guides his team through practice in mellow, conversant tones, the volume remaining steady soft even when he admonishes his players for their wavering intensity, as he did this week.
“He’s quiet but he’s outspoken,” says Bulls junior forward Will Regan. “So everything he says, it hits home. He’s not going to try and make a scene unless he has to.”
Phase VII in the sporting life of Bobby Hurley begins in earnest tonight at Reed Arena. Phase I saw him ascend to high school star while playing for his legendary father, Bob, at St. Anthony’s in Jersey City, N.J. From there he went to Duke superstar, to first-round NBA draft pick, to surviving a near-fatal car crash that undermined his pro career, to horse-racing owner to college assistant to first-year head coach of a UB team that he believes underachieved last season even before point guard Jarod Oldham was lost for the season in December.
“I talked to the guys about last year,” Hurley said this week. “Part of the problem even prior to Jarod getting hurt was starting 1-7 out of conference against Division I opponents. When you start that way it snowballs throughout the year, it’s hard to turn it around, like you can’t flip the switch.
“We want to experience winning. We talk about taking a game and trying to make a masterpiece when you step out there and strive for perfection. But ultimately you got to find a way to win a game and you got to make the necessary plays, get the stops, do all the things you got to do, execute late to get it done. And then you start winning and you build confidence, so it’s about like building some confidence and generating some momentum for us going into the conference.”
“Process” is the hot word in the coaching ranks. Do all the little things right and it’ll add up in the end, perhaps in the form of a masterpiece. But Hurley was on to that ideology decades ago, at both St. Anthony’s and Duke under Mike Krzyzewski.
‘Look, my family is raised in this stuff where it matters a lot,” he said. “I don’t expect us to run the offense with precision right now. I think that that’s evolving and that will continue to get better as the guys are more familiar with it. My only thing is the effort and the intensity and the togetherness on defense has to be there Friday and it has to be consistent throughout the year.”
Hurley has retooled the offense, replacing Reggie Witherspoon’s motion high-low with a style that allows for more improvisation and liberty.
“For me especially” it is good, Oldham said. “Like sometimes you don’t even have to run offensive plays. We get a good rebound and a good outlet I can push the ball. And I’ll take a layup any day. It’s way more liberating, carefree, guys are comfortable. I think it’s going to be a real good look. I think this team is going to be good.”
Texas A&M is coming off an 18-15 season (7-11 in the SEC). The Aggies’ top returning scorer is senior guard Fabyon Harris, who averaged 12 points last year. UB matches up reasonably well but its front-court depth could be tested, especially with new rules eliminating the hand check expected to result in foul-filled games throughout college basketball early in the season.
“Buffalo presents a lot of challenges for a first game usually you don’t face this early in the year,” said Aggies coach Billy Kennedy.
The Bulls return their All-MAC preseason front court of Javon McCrea and Will Regan. Oldham will start in the backcourt along with Jarryn Skeete, Oldham’s replacement at the point last season, and transfer Josh Freelove, who led Alabama State in scoring last year.
The time has come. Hurley’s journey starts tonight, in football country, in the shadow of Johnny Manziel who, like Hurley, is heralded for his competitiveness.
“Every time he goes out there he wants to win,” Regan said of his coach. “That’s the mentality he’s trying to send to us and I think it’s working.”
Hurley hopes so. He admits he’s a little nervous, as he probably should be as a first-year coach in his debut game.
“You feel so much personal responsibility,” he said. “You never feel satisfied. You always wonder if you’ve covered all your bases going into a game. You got to have the pulse of the team and what they need leading into it and get them ready. I’m going through this the first time trying to figure it out, so we’ll see.”