On the night UB packed up their belongings and headed home after playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, there was no doubt in my mind that Bobby Hurley was coming back for another season. None.
Hurley made it clear that money was not his top priority. He was intent on building the program in Buffalo. He wanted to stay with the players he recruited. He repeatedly said his heart was with UB. He wanted to execute a master plan that called for the Bulls becoming the best team in the Mid-American Conference and returning to the Big Dance.
So why the change of heart?
Based on several conversations with sources close to Hurley, he ultimately felt alienated by his own university after he led the program to its best season ever and used his notoriety to spread the word about Buffalo on a national level.
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Hurley's attitude shifted in the days following the NCAAs, starting with UB leaking a story that suggested he had reached the parameters on a contract extension when, in fact, it was quite the opposite. He thought it was a classless attempt by athletic director Danny White to pressure him into an agreement while he was looking for more money for his assistant coaches.
If that wasn't enough to irk Hurley, and it was, he also was upset that he was forced to handle his own contract negotiations. White refused to sit down with Hurley's agent after essentially telling his coach he didn't deal with agents. Hurley was uncomfortable talking money, and making his own argument, when dealing with his boss. He did so when he first arrived because he badly wanted the job.
While it wasn't about the money, it was about $1,000. Hurley thought he should be the highest-paid coach in the conference. Ohio's Saul Phillips made $550,000 last season. Rather than make a serious statement about wanting to keep Hurley, he was offered $551,000. In other words, UB was doing as little as possible to satisfy him. Hurley and the people in his inner circle viewed that as a slap in the face and thought White intentionally put him in a bad position.
It wasn't about the pay raise. It came down to principle.
And that's when he started to have second thoughts about staying. And that's when Bobby Hurley the basketball coach morphed into Bobby Hurley the competitor. He was tough and stubborn as a player and coach. The same qualities apply to matters of principle. And that's when he started looking deeper into other options.
Hurley continued going about his business as if he were coming back, but he was willing to look around if the right job came along. Money started to become a bigger factor when he didn't believe UB was serious about keeping him. He visited DePaul for numerous reasons, including money. He knew the school would pay $1 million or more per year than UB would pay him.
However, he was only mildly intrigued by the DePaul job. He didn't like its recent track record in basketball, which was littered with failure for more than two decades. While others claimed DePaul was interviewing him for the job, he approached the meeting as if he was interviewing the people in charge. He wanted to make sure it was the right situation for him.
Hurley didn't hear from White for several days after he returned from Chicago. White didn't ask him about the meeting. He showed no urgency to get an extension signed. There was no communication between the two, and what seemed like a good working relationship turned into a chilly one. Hurley grew more annoyed by the day.
The breakdown made Hurley uncomfortable, and he started to think even more that his days in Buffalo could be numbered. He wasn't actively seeking another gig, but suddenly his eyes were open to all possibilities. Still, he wasn't going to leave unless he was presented with a considerable upgrade, which amounted to a job in one of the power conferences.
White would have been wise to lock up Hurley for another season before his coach left for the Final Four. With so many coaches and administrators in the same city, the tourney is notorious for making connections with the inner circle. Is that where Arizona State officials extended their hand to Hurley? It's possible.
Hurley took his family on vacation when speculation surfaced about Arizona State being interested in him. It made sense. Hurley came with a big name, a lifetime in basketball and a proven record over two seasons in Buffalo. They were impressed by him, and they gave him an opportunity to coach in the Pac-12.
The job, likely to pay him more than $1 million per year more than he would have made in Buffalo, was too good to pass up.
Looking back, Hurley would have stayed in Buffalo if White showed he was fully committed to keeping him. Hurley likely would have signed an extension with UB for $600,000, plus more money for his assistant coaches. He likely would have remained if UB showed it cared about him and fought hard to keep him. It didn't happen. UB let a good coach slip away.
Rather than think big, the university chose to think small.