Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Dan Hurley leaving UConn for Lakers would force change in coaching style, for better or worse

Dan Hurley must now choose his destiny.

Option No. 1: Remain at Connecticut and chase the near-impossible feat of a three-peat, doing so while running the best program and operating as the best coach in men’s college basketball. Tough as it would be to actually pull this off, if he did it, Hurley would clinch all-time iconic status and match a run last seen by John Robert Wooden. If achieved, winning three consecutive NCAA titles would cement Hurley as a top-10 all-time college basketball coach.

Option No. 2: Leave his UConn legacy behind to coach maybe the best all-around player in the history of basketball (in the winter of LeBron James’ career) at maybe the most glamorous organization in American sports, the Los Angeles Lakers. Oh, and in doing so: get a raise that might triple his current salary (just north of $5 million annually).

That’s what winning back-to-back national championships in the most volatile environment in college sports history can provide you. In the past 27 months, Hurley has gone from promising coach with an irksome NCAA Tournament track record to one of the faces of American basketball success. Now, with the NBA Finals set to tip, suddenly the biggest story in sports is radiating from the West Coast all the way to Storrs, Connecticut, where the 51-year-old Hurley is on the verge of the biggest decision of his career. No matter what he decides in the coming days, he’ll probably never have another job offer that means more and stands to impact the future of two grander basketball entities than this one, right now, with the Huskies and Lakers. 

That Lakers job has been open for a little more than a month, by the way. Until Thursday morning, there wasn’t a whiff of Hurley’s name being attached to the vacancy. That was until ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped an early morning bombshell report that was worded thusly: “The Los Angeles Lakers are targeting UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley as the franchise’s next coach and are preparing a massive, long-term contract offer to bring the back-to-back NCAA national champion to the NBA.”

“Targeting” and “preparing” being the key words.

Meantime, Hurley has worked the portal, had been waiting on his most important player, Alex Karaban, to decide on an NBA decision — and he decided to return to play for Hurley. So, what took so long, L.A.? The details of that, I suppose, aren’t crucial, but they are interesting to me. The Lakers could have put the press on Hurley weeks ago. If anything, this seems to be moving a bit slowly, if indeed they’ve put Hurley above all other candidates for weeks.

With this as backdrop, UConn has been working with Hurley to try and secure a new contract (after a restructured one was agreed to in 2023, on the heels of Hurley’s first title).

Hurley has not been offered the Lakers job, but the Lakers want to do that, per ESPN’s report, and so they will finally and formally send paperwork in the next day or two. The money is not going to be what guides Hurley here. Remember, he would have been offered significantly more cash to take the Kentucky job in April and he turned that down. 

The image of Hurley strolling the sidelines, sans necktie, barking at officials … at Crypto.com Arena? Picture LeBron’s massive arm draped over Hurley, Dan’s glasses slipping to the bridge of his nose coming out of a timeout down nine in the third quarter to the Nuggets. Now there’s an image. Hey, maybe this is going to happen. He’s earned the chance. It would be riveting to follow, because for as good as Hurley is as a college coach, nobody knows if it will work in the pros. The most recent example of a highly respected and whip-smart X-and-O guy leaving the college ranks for the NBA was John Beilein; that was an immediate failure.

Of course, Billy Donovan won back-to-back titles before eventually being convinced to leave. He’s done well enough in the NBA while still falling well short of hitting the success benchmarks he regularly achieved with the Florida Gators. (Donovan had a .709 winning percentage in college. In the NBA, he’s at a .556 clip and has only once made it out of the first round of the NBA playoffs in nine seasons with Oklahoma City and Chicago.)

Rest assured Hurley will seek Donovan’s counsel, in addition to many others. Jay Wright was never persuaded to abandon Villanova despite multiple NBA opportunities. Same with Tom Izzo. Coach K. (More on him below.) They’re all Hall of Famers, just as Hurley will be one day. He’ll eventually be enshrined alongside his father, Bob Hurley Sr., who proved for decades that coaching basketball at an obscenely successful level comes down to a few unbreakable philosophical tenets.

Hurley’s never losing those traits. They led him to here, now, where he’s going to be presented with a decision that is as enviable as it is excruciating and tantalizing. No matter which route he takes, Hurley is guaranteed to leave behind an alternate course that would’ve potentially — not definitely, but maybe — further enhanced his reputation. If he stays at UConn, he’d bypass (at least for now) the NBA life and the chance to be one of the few greats to win at the highest level in college and the NBA. Few coaches, ever, have done that. 

Purdue v Connecticut

Dan Hurley could chase a historic three-peat if he chooses to remain with UConn.  Getty Images

If he goes to the Lakers, Hurley would likely leave UConn behind for good and give up the opportunity (at least for now) to make a run at being one of the 10-or-so best coaches in the history of college basketball. The three-peat run would be off the table. Plus, if the Lakers job flamed out in two, three or five years, what guarantee would there be that a college job he would WANT would be waiting for him? Hurley and, just as importantly, his wife Andrea will not be moving to just anywhere if another top-15 college gig opens up years from now. 

Hurley is many things, but one thing he is not is a chameleon. The man basks in his routine, his habits, his go-tos. Yes, he is a creature who blossoms in chaos, but is also someone who craves the comfort of the surroundings he knows best to allow him to dominate in those environments. He’s an East Coast lifer, a Northeast guy deep into his bones. I can’t ever imagine him living comfortably in Los Angeles, even if he loved being coach of the Lakers. This is a man who turned down Pitt for more money because it didn’t carry the prestige nor the geographic familiarity of UConn. 

His coaching style fit high school (St. Benedict’s Prep, in Newark), then it fit the NEC (Wagner), then it fit the Atlantic 10 (Rhode Island) and now it’s become mastered in the Big East at UConn. Can he elevate one more level? This one’s tougher than all the others combined.

If Hurley chooses the Lakers, no one could blame him. A job like that has such fantastic enticement, but also hazards abound. The media market is intense and unrelenting. From an exposure standpoint, it’s a job on the level with the Dallas Cowboys. You’re scrutinized daily during the season not just locally, but on television to an audience of millions. This would test Hurley’s psyche in ways he can’t fully know unless he tries and lives it — and could come to regret. He wouldn’t have to deal with the portal, but the egos would only be more pronounced. He’d have to coach at least 82 games instead of a max of 40. There’s no portal, but the squeeze of the season is undoubtedly worse.

He’d get to coach LeBron James, which has its benefits and drawbacks. No one knows how long James plans to continue to play, so the job would be about coaching the Lakers in the post-LeBron era … if you can make it that far. 

Then, there is the matter of how Hurley comports himself in the throes of a game. His sideline temperament is not NBA-ready. He’s done a lot of work over the years on changing his demeanor and reducing his outbursts, but he is who he is. And who he is is not like any other NBA coach. (Hurley had multiple run-ins with opposing fans just this past season.) Personally, I find Hurley’s in-game reactions to almost always be entertaining and enhancing to the college basketball product. The sport benefits from its characters in the coaching ranks and Hurley is as watchable (and sometimes polarizing) as anyone. 

But he can’t be that in the NBA. That act will not fly. 

In college, coaches carry much of the power and are the faces of the sport. In the NBA, the players are the stars and coaches’ futures are in large part tied to the relationships they cultivate with their best players. Hurley will command some respect, particularly with an endorsement from LeBron. Can he maintain it into Year 2, 3, 4? 

Hurley is an intense competitor who has turned UConn into an NBA-like factory of talent and winning. But he’s not taking orders from his players and never has. To take this job would be to undergo a personal evolution that Hurley himself might not be convinced he can mutate to in posthaste. The Lakers job will come with a lot of perks, but it can’t provide more comfort or less pressure. If Hurley leaves UConn for L.A., he’ll be opting into a much harder job with significantly less job security. With few exceptions, you are hired not just to be fired in the NBA, but usually to be fired in short order.

What’s undeniable is how much the NBA intrigues Hurley, who burns on competitive fuels as much as any coach you’ll meet. He’s told me multiple times over the years that “one day” he’d maybe like to give the NBA a go. The Knicks job has been THE one, I think, but the Knicks actually have a good thing going for the first time in a long time. Timing is everything. Hurley has kept the door open on the NBA, framing that for down the road, even as recently as this week. And here’s what he told Dan Patrick less than two weeks after winning the title in April.

All this reads to me like it’s happening too quickly for Hurley’s liking, but it’s the Lakers, so what do you do? If Hurley takes the job, he’d be the first sitting coach of a reigning national champion to do so since Larry Brown left Kansas in 1988 to coach the San Antonio Spurs. But Brown was a coaching nomad, often to his benefit. That’s not Hurley.

There have been many references to this being the 20-year anniversary of Mike Krzyzewski famously turning down the Lakers job (and a humongous contract at that time) to stay at Duke. Coach K obviously went on to cement his status as one of the two best coaches in men’s college basketball history — right alongside Wooden. But there’s another legendary coach who would likely be in that conversation with K and Wooden had he not opted to leave a blue blood college job for a blue blood NBA job — doing so coming off two straight Final Fours, just as Hurley is now. 

Hurley’s more like Rick Pitino. Obsessed with basketball, a relationships-focused coach who loves living in the gym and thrives off practicing with his players. Pitino left Kentucky for the Boston Celtics in 1997. And to this day, he regrets it, even knowing now that he had to take the job back then. Here’s what Pitino said on the Pardon My Take podcast in March.

“Hindsight’s 2020, if I had to do it all over again, I’d probably never leave Kentucky,” Pitino said. “You know, Dick Vitale, every time I speak to him, ‘If you would have stayed at Kentucky, you’d have more wins than any coach,’ and you think back on that. But I learned a lot. To coach the Boston Celtics, even if you didn’t do a great job, it’s just too much. … It was worth the experience. But if I had to do it all over again, I had a choice to bring back time, I probably would have stayed in Kentucky.”

Interesting comments to circle back to amid Hurley’s situation now, which is so close to Pitino’s 27 years ago. It’s kind of spooky.

Dan Hurley fits college. So much about him — what he represents, how he is marketed, how he gets on with players — is in the college mold.

It would be a tough blow to college hoops if he left, but the game is also in a weird space amid the ever-shifting landscape of college athletics, which is dictated by the whims and power struggles of college football. But it’s still a great sport with maybe the best sporting event this country has to offer and is made better by guys like Dan Hurley. 

So, Dan, your destiny awaits. All that hangs in the balance is the fortune and futures of two of the biggest brands in American sports. The toughest choices sometimes come in the best of times. Right now, nobody in basketball has it better than Hurley. 

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