Dan Hurley on the sidelines is nothing short of a theatrical performance.
Just as actors on a stage are taught to exaggerate every expression or emotion the entire audience to see, Hurley’s reactions are absurdly over-the-top, his face twisting into shapes not known to be possible. He’s laughing with the officials in one moment and screaming incredulously at them in the next. He’s as physical and animated with his players as any coach in the country, a testament to the mutual respect he builds between team and coach.
One of those moments came on Nov. 15, when the Huskies traveled to Madison Square Garden to take on rival Syracuse. As the final milliseconds ticked away, the scoreboard reading “UConn 83, Syracuse 76,” Hurley emphatically chest-bumped Jalen Adams, shouting euphorically at his star point guard. In the next instant, Hurley changed completely, politely shaking the hand of Jim Boeheim and moving down the line. Caught on camera, it was, for many of the UConn faithful, an introduction to the measured madness of their new head coach.
The team could not have known that that victory, three games into Hurley’s UConn tenure, would end up being the highlight of the season. Hurley could not have known that Adams would miss seven games due to a knee injury, or that Alterique Gilbert would miss the final eight with a shoulder injury. He could not have known that the team would go 1-8 on the road, and lose games to Wichita State, Cincinnati and Arizona, all in heartbreaking last-second fashion.
In that moment of pure celebration, Hurley could not have known any of those things. But on that night at the Garden, the pain and frustration of the past two seasons of UConn men’s basketball faded away. Hurley had arrived, and with him, UConn basketball had seemingly returned to national relevance.
The very next night, UConn was dismantled by Iowa, losing by 19 points. Hurley was ejected in the second half, exiting to loud chanting of his name—the loudest the crowd had been all night. After the game, Hurley was disappointed, but made sure to put the loss in perspective.
“This isn’t some Disney movie where overnight this whole thing’s just gonna—like the Mighty Ducks or something,” Hurley said. “It’s gonna take us time to get better.”
That message was echoed by head coach and players time and time again this season. After every excruciating loss, the takeaway was the same: The program is improving, but nothing is built overnight.
Hurley is quite familiar with the art of the turnaround. In 2010, he took over a Wagner program that won five games the season before. Hurley more than doubled that in his first year, notching 13 wins. In year two, the Seahawks surged to a conference-best 25-6 record.
Hurley left Wagner after those two seasons, accepting the head coaching job at Rhode Island. In his first season there, the Rams were just 8-21. The next season, that win total jumped to 14. And in just his third year at URI, Hurley led the program to an NIT berth after a 23-10 regular season. He would go on to make two NCAA tournament appearances at URI before agreeing to become the 19th head coach in UConn men’s basketball history last March.
The first season at UConn, as with his previous two jobs, didn’t go as smoothly as Hurley would’ve liked. Plagued by injuries and inconsistency, the team finished under .500 for the third straight season. The Huskies met their end in Memphis, getting demolished by top-seeded Houston, 84-45, in the second round of the AAC tournament.
“A really tough way to end a year where we felt like we were making progress,” Hurley said in his final postgame press conference of the season. “It was just a humbling reminder of how far we have to go, from a recruiting, development standpoint and it’s going to take us some time.
“There were no delusions of grandeur with this coaching staff throughout the year, we’ve known exactly (where) we’re at. If we don’t have the injuries to Alterique and Jalen, obviously we could’ve represented ourselves better, but we’ve known how far we have to go.”
Yet that distance, from the present to once again competing on a national stage, feels far smaller than it has in years. Hurley will have to find a new leader to fill the shoes of Adams. But with the rest of the core returning, and with talented recruits and newcomers on the way, next season already looks promising.
Success won’t come if players and coaches aren’t on the same page. More than that, they need to be one cohesive unit, one family. Hurley has already built a bond with his players that goes beyond the basketball court.
On the morning of a pivotal January game against SMU, Hurley woke up to a text from Jalen Adams. The senior had sent his coach the same thing he had sent the players group chat: “Today, we go to war together.”
Later that day, the Huskies defeated SMU, 76-64, snapping a three-game losing streak. In the second half, a scramble for the ball sent sophomore Tyler Polley hurtling towards his head coach. Hurley, knowing full well the type of reaction he would get from the seats and his players, made no effort to avoid the tumbling Polley, sending Hurley crashing to the ground. Immediately, every player in a UConn uniform rushed to help up their coach. Hurley was fired up, the crowd followed suit and the team was revitalized.
After the game, Adams said in response to that tumble, “You just gotta love playing for a coach who does stuff like that.” Redshirt freshman Sidney Wilson, a major piece of the future of the program, said. “Seeing your coach do that, it makes you feel like he’s in the fight with you.”
And that’s the thing. Those trademark Hurley sideline theatrics, the volcanic eruptions of emotion, aren’t just for cameras or attention. They’re purposeful, calculated—to show that Hurley cares just as much about the success of the program as any of his players or fans. He can’t simply coach his team from the sidelines, he wants to fight alongside them. He doesn’t just want to win, he wants to hoist trophies.
And with Hurley at the helm, that dream seems like a possibility once again.
Andrew Morrison is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @asmor24