Thursday, June 13, 2024

Dan Hurley’s decision proves that life is good at college hoops’ pinnacle

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Turns out college basketball is not dead.

The columnists and TV folks who were ready to write the sport’s obit will have to pick another narrative to latch onto with Dan Hurley electing to stay at Connecticut and turning down the Los Angeles Lakers. We should probably retire this thought that name, image and likeness freedoms and the transfer portal are driving all of the great coaches away.

Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams retired because they were old. It’s possible Jay Wright was simply ready to do something else with his life other than coaching. If he wanted, Wright could have an NBA job right now, but he’s calling games instead.

Hurley could have left UConn, and it simply would have been the free will of a very successful person deciding he wanted a new challenge coaching an iconic franchise while living in one of the most beautiful places in the world. But here is justification for why Hurley would stay at UConn and avoid running from what we’re supposed to believe is a doomed sport: There is not a better, more sustainable job in sports than a successful college basketball coach at a school where he has consistently won.

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Want proof? This is a list of the active college basketball coaches who have won a title at their current school: Tom Izzo, Bill Self, Scott Drew, Tony Bennett and Hurley.

Izzo is entering his 30th season at Michigan State; Self and Drew are both entering their 22nd season; this will be Year 16 for Bennett at Virginia; Hurley has coached six seasons at UConn and will be able to coach there as long as he damn well pleases. Rick Pitino and John Calipari are the only other active coaches with titles, and it took multiple scandals to push Pitino out at Louisville and Calipari just left Kentucky for another good job. (That final one is complicated, but Kentucky was basically stuck with Calipari because of the contact it gave him for his past success.)

There are nine coaches in the NBA who have won a championship, and only four of those are still coaching the franchise with which they won it all. LeBron James has played for nine head coaches in his professional career. Only one (Erik Spoelstra) never got fired.

That’s not entirely a James problem; that’s simply how the NBA works. Hurley could look at Billy Donovan, the last coach before him to win back-to-back college titles, as an example for why the smart play was to stay. Donovan left Florida in 2015 to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder. The next season, he made the conference finals. He hasn’t made it past the first round since and now coaches a Chicago team that is nowhere near close to competing for a title.

Donovan is a great coach. He might be one of the greatest who ever lived, but you only have so much power in the NBA. Donovan could have coached at Florida as long as he wanted and picked the players he wanted to coach every season. In college, the coach makes every roster decision. In the NBA, he rarely gets to decide who he will coach. In college, you can right the wrong of a bad personnel decision quickly. In the NBA, it can ruin your next five years.

There was probably a part of Hurley that wanted to be tested at the highest level of the game, but in college, you have so much more control. Not just of the roster, but of tactical decisions.



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

Hurley has been praised for his offense, roster-building, talent evaluation and development. In the NBA, he could lean on two of those four talents — offense and development — and his influence would not be as great in either.

But what about the headaches that are NIL and the transfer portal?

Those are hardly issues when you reach Hurley’s level. Ask that list of championship college coaches how many players they have lost that they didn’t want to lose, and you could count that combined number on one hand. When you build — or rebuild, as Hurley has — an elite program, you’re going to have a major advantage when it comes to retaining and recruiting players.

NIL has not changed that at all. As one high-major coach told me recently, “Everyone complains about this, but at the end of the day, we’re all probably gonna have about the same team we would have had otherwise. Then we’re going to go out and compete and try to win. And is the money gonna cause a kid not to be as hungry? Maybe. It also might make him hungrier for more. I know our guys learned more about life and financial literacy last year than they had the previous 15 years of their lives.”

What a shame.

College basketball has its issues to work out. More changes are likely coming and are needed. But someone in Hurley’s position has very little to worry about. If UConn is a blue blood — and the prevailing argument is that it has become one — then it’s always going to have an upper hand as long as it has a good coach. No matter the rules or the era, college basketball’s history has taught us that. There’s a competitive imbalance in college basketball, and it’s in the Hurleys’ and Selfs’ and Drews’ and Krzyzewskis’ favor.

And what Hurley likely learned during this process is that his success and being wanted elsewhere gives him even more power. Because by being chased, he’ll eventually have a better contract and probably a few more dollars to spend in the portal. Just like Drew, who, like Hurley, turned down Kentucky.

Now a Baptist school in Waco, Texas, has one of the biggest NIL budgets in the country. Baylor, somehow, is a college basketball power. Much like Jim Calhoun once turned a school in a tiny Connecticut town into a destination for future pros and a place where you can win national titles.

Proof of the power of a winning college basketball coach. Some things will change, but that never will.

(Photo: David Butler II / USA Today)

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