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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

They say don’t mess with happy. Shockingly, Dan Hurley didn’t

President Joe Biden chats with Dan Hurley, coach of the University of Connecticut Huskies men’s basketball team, during a celebration of their 2022-2023 NCAA Championship season at the White House in Washington, Friday, May 26, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

By Brendan Quinn

About an hour after winning a second national championship in men’s basketball in April, Dan Hurley stood outside the University of Connecticut locker room, holding open his suit jacket, looking like a man down on his luck, just trying to make a buck.

“The first real suit I got,” Hurley said.

Navy blue with a paisley lining, the wool suit was an extravagance when Hurley bought it. That was when he left Wagner College in Staten Island, New York, for the head coaching job at Rhode Island. He needed it for his introductory news conference. That was in March 2012.

“I mean, look at this thing,” Hurley said, pointing at the tattered lining.

That was Hurley at his highest moment: consecutive national championships to his name; a 68-11 record over those two seasons with a program built in his image — tough, loud and full of attitude. He was college basketball’s new kingpin.

Except Hurley is the rare breed who needs to prove he is the best around and yet still be doubted. That is how he is wired — and why, after he became the first men’s college coach to go back-to-back since Billy Donovan at Florida in 2006 and 2007, Hurley needed it known that he was still the guy who coached at Wagner, still the guy everyone questioned, still the guy primed by superstitions and insecurities, still the guy in the shabby suit.

In this light, his dalliance with the Los Angeles Lakers might make a little more sense. To Hurley, this was a kid from Jersey City, New Jersey, interviewing for, holy cow, the Lakers job. This was the guy everyone doubted being offered tens of millions of dollars. And this was a reminder to everyone out there that the kingpin has all the power.

If anything, Monday’s announcement that Hurley is remaining in Storrs, Connecticut, might be a little surprising. By jumping to the NBA, he could have started his climb all over again, settled back into the role he knows so well. He could have been ridiculed as a college fool who could not coach pros; as a hothead wailer lacking the disposition for an NBA sideline; as an East Coast windbag who could not cut it in Los Angeles.

He probably would have loved it.

This is, after all, how Hurley operates. This is a former player who grew up playing in his brother Bobby’s long shadow. This is a coach who entered the profession despite knowing his father, Bob, set an impossible standard, one that took him from St. Anthony High School in Jersey City to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In his present state, those insecurities are impossible to conjure. Last season stripped away the last veneer of denial of Hurley’s place among the best coaches in college basketball. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Hurley, 51, has total and complete respect, total and complete stability, total and complete success.

If you understand the deeper corners of Hurley’s mind, you understand this might be pretty uncomfortable for him.

The fact is, if anyone was ever going to disregard the old coaching truism, “Don’t mess with happy,” after back-to-back titles, Hurley felt like a sure bet.

Instead, he has opted to return to Connecticut, trying to keep the train rolling. His roster is losing Donovan Clingan and Tristen Newton, but is a preseason top-five team.

The Huskies will be good again. They will win a lot. Probably. But it is worth wondering how much Hurley will continue thinking about this waltz with the Lakers.

By remaining in college basketball, Hurley has what, exactly, left to accomplish? Chase something as fickle as a three-peat? Remain enmeshed in the invisible war that is college basketball’s current state?

Hurley is not against name, image and likeness deals. Nor is he against player freedom. But he is openly appalled by how dysfunctional college basketball has become. He said in March he wanted to see changes. Real changes.

Maybe put in some common sense changes to the calendar or raise some guardrails. Maybe create the position of an omnipotent commissioner to bring order to things. In truth, he knew all along he was shouting into a void. None of that will happen, and college basketball will instead remain at the mercy of college football, growing only more unrecognizable.

He turned down an incredible amount of money, nevertheless. He has also surrendered the right to complain about transfer portal temptations ruining the game. That is the price for building a roster, then openly considering leaving the program in June.

Back at UConn, the six-year contract worth $32.1 million that Hurley signed in 2023 is being torn up and remade. It is notable that the new deal did not come immediately after the second consecutive national title trophy was put on the shelf. It was probably notable to Hurley.

Any new contract, though, feels irrelevant in the big picture. Hurley’s decision to stick with UConn probably says more about how he saw his fit with the Lakers than it does his feelings about coaching in the NBA.

See, Hurley actually makes a lot of sense in the league. He understands the contours required in certain relationships and has spent his life enwrapped in player-coach power dynamics. As a younger coach at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, New Jersey, Hurley gained a reputation for being able to appease multiple stars, feed a lot of mouths. At UConn, his first national title came when he entrusted three NBA prospects — Andre Jackson Jr., Jordan Hawkins and Adama Sanogo — to take ownership of the team.

Hurley is smart, as a coach and as a pliable leader. So he will eventually try his hand at the NBA. But that is down the line.

For now, he is keeping things simple. He will give contentment a try.

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