CLEVELAND – Thirty years ago, Bob Hurley Sr. was offered a job on Pete Gillen’s staff at Xavier. Hurley, then 37, was ready to accept and leave high school coaching. But his son Bobby, an eighth-grader and budding star, burst into tears at the news.
“Who’s going to coach me?” Bobby cried.
Hurley turned down the job the next day. He stayed at St. Anthony in Jersey City, N.J., where he’s still coaching after more than 40 years. He has won 27 state titles and become a basketball Hall of Famer, a hoop legend who recently wrote a book called “Chasing Perfect.”
Bobby starred for his father at St. Anthony and went on to Duke, where he became one of the best point guards in college history and won two NCAA titles under Mike Krzyzewski.
It’s an instructive tale, one that Buffalo fans can take to heart as Bobby Hurley brings his University at Buffalo team into Friday night’s Mid-American Conference semifinal at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Bulls enter the tourney as the league’s hottest team, having won their last six MAC games to secure a division title and a bye to the semifinals. They’re two victories away from the first NCAA Tournament bid in school history.
The looming question is, what if they win it? There’s been speculation since Athletic Director Danny White brought in Hurley to elevate the program’s profile that Bobby would use the job as a steppingstone, a stopover on the way to bigger things.
Winning the MAC title has been a launching pad for coaches through the years. There was talk that Reggie Witherspoon might get an offer when UB made its run in 2005, which ended in an overtime loss in the MAC title game exactly 10 years ago Thursday.
Witherspoon lost and stayed put. With Hurley, it’s not a question of if he’ll leave, but when. He has one of the top coaching pedigrees in the sport. Who else played for high school and college coaches who each won 1,000 games and made it to the Hall of Fame?
It took Bobby awhile to enter coaching after a near-fatal auto accident that compromised his NBA career. But all along, he and his family knew it was a matter of time before he returned to his passion, following his younger brother, Danny, into the coaching fraternity.
Bobby was a novice head man when he replaced Witherspoon two years ago. He had spent three years as an assistant at Wagner and Rhode Island under his brother, who was viewed in hoop circles as the son who had inherited his dad’s coaching genes.
Hiring Hurley was a risk by White, who saw Hurley as a marketing “brand” but didn’t know if he could truly coach. You never know how suited a coach is for the head chair until he gets his opportunity.
But Hurley has grown into the job. The Bulls are 40-19 in his two seasons. They’ve won one MAC East title and shared the other. Attendance has grown at Alumni Arena, where a sellout crowd showed up to see the Bulls beat Bowling Green last Friday to earn the bye to the semis.
Hurley’s name is again resonating through the college game. He still hasn’t won a tournament game, but it seems only a matter of time before a bigger program with more resources tries to steal him away.
It will be increasingly likely if UB gets to the NCAA Tournament, where Hurley would be one of the top stories at the Big Dance. So UB fans have to be fretting, wondering how ambitious he is to move.
“I’m really focusing on this year and this team,” Hurley said Wednesday. “I’ve got a pretty lengthy contract, and I’m speaking with Danny about that stuff. So I’m not even considering that right now.”
White is talking with Hurley about a second contract extension in a little over a year, a preemptive strike against an outside suitor (Seton Hall, perhaps?). Hurley’s last extension carried through the 2018-19 season.
Hurley makes a base salary of $300,000. He also has a clause that gives him 25 percent of net ticket revenue above $300,000. That’s considered a major perk with attendance rising and likely to get a bump if UB makes the NCAAs.
Still, money talks in the elite conferences, where coaches make significantly higher salaries. The average salary of the 68 coaches who made the NCAAs in 2012 was $1.4 million, not counting bonuses.
That doesn’t mean Hurley needs to chase the big bucks right away. He seems surprisingly humble and grounded for a person of his stature, though he can be a wild man on the sidelines.
UB’s hope is that Hurley feels he has more to learn at this level – and that he’d be untrue to the game, and his dad’s legacy, by jumping too soon. It’s said that Bob Hurley Sr. turned down more than $10 million over the years by refusing to chase the money.
Perhaps the best strategy for Hurley would be to build something lasting in Buffalo, to stick around long enough to win multiple MAC titles and become the sort of coach who honors the family tradition and truly deserves to take over a big program.
Maybe it could be his alma mater, Duke. Krzyzewski is 68 and can’t go on forever. Evidently, there is no clear successor to the Duke job. Tommy Amaker, Chris Collins, Mike Brey, Steve Wojciechowski and Johnny Dawkins are the names that get tossed around.
Hurley could put himself on the radar by establishing a consistent winner at UB. Let’s say Coach K stays at Duke for five more seasons and Hurley wins a couple of MAC titles. His status as a Duke icon could give him an edge. Oh, Danny White’s father, Kevin, is the Duke AD.
As Hurley said, he’s focusing on the moment. The Bulls hit their stride after falling to 6-6 in the MAC (same as the ’05 team). They’re peaking in time for the tourney. Assuming that Justin Moss is healthy, they’ll be tough to beat.
“This is the most together that they’ve been,” Hurley said. “We’ve got good individual players, talented players. But we’re sharing the ball. We’re not turning it over. We’re playing unified on defense, the way you need to at this time of year. That’s what I feel the best about.”
The Bulls should be even better next year. Their top players will be back, joined by a couple of gifted recruits. That would make it difficult for Hurley to walk away. After all, what matters most to his father is loyalty to the school and, above all, the players.
It would be tough, indeed, for Hurley to walk into the locker room and tell the UB kids he’s leaving. Imagine if one of them blurted out, “But who’s going to coach me?”