How UConn’s Dan Hurley became the biggest coaching personality in college basketball

Dan Hurley took a deep breath of relief in the back hallway of TD Garden.

The Huskies’ sixth-year head coach had cried earlier in the day, shedding tears when deep in thought about UConn’s journey, and the pressure of pursuing the first back-to-back national championships in men’s college basketball since Florida in 2006 and ’07. 

In downtown Boston on Saturday night, Hurley got a moment to smile and soak in the greatness of his program, which continued to rewrite history with an eye-popping 30-0 run en route to a 77-52 win over Illinois to punch a ticket to a second straight Final Four.

“I’m a crier,” Hurley told FOX Sports. “I laugh, I yell and I cry. Jim Valvano said that’s a full day. 

“Obviously, you pour a lot of yourself into this job, a lot of yourself emotionally into your players and into your organization. Physically, these seasons are long and when you’re really going for it the way we are, you are filled with emotion. You leave the hotel and there are hundreds of UConn fans high-fiving you on the way to get on the bus to come over here [to the arena] to go for your second Final Four in a row. And then there are things going through your mind too, that this may be my last year coaching my son [Andrew]. I’ve got to get Cam Spencer [a transfer] and Stephon Castle [a freshman] to the Final Four. This team deserves Phoenix. You’re emotional going through that.” 

All of that built-up hunger and drive is unleashed when Hurley’s team steps on the court. The Huskies came off a 10-for-30 shooting performance in the first half against the Illini, and then opened the second half by scoring 25 unanswered points. The 30-0 run – dating back to the first half – marked the program’s longest in a game in 34 years. And, this came on an evening when first-team All-American Tristen Newton did not record a made field goal and UConn shot 3-for-17 from 3-point territory.

“We know it’s not normal to go back to back,” said sophomore Alex Karaban, one of five Huskies who scored in double-figures in the 25-point Elite-Eight win. “But there’s not a single normal person in this locker room.”

What UConn has accomplished through four games in this tournament is not normal. 

The Huskies’ +111 point differential is the fourth-highest mark of any team through the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. The only teams to have a higher point differential: 1993 Kentucky: +124 (lost in Final Four), 1999 Duke: +120 (lost in title game) and 1996 Kentucky: +113 (won title).

UConn is also the only team in the sport’s history to win 10 straight NCAA Tournament games by 13-plus points. The Huskies have won 18 games this season by 20-plus points, and 15 of those have been by 25-plus points, the most of any Division 1 team this season.

We are watching one of the single greatest seasons in NCAA men’s basketball history, and Hurley is unabashed to say it, and to show it in his approach. When he threw his hands in the air to pump up the UConn-heavy crowd with under four minutes remaining and his team leading by 30 on Saturday night, you could see why he’s the perfect match for a school that fans refer to as “The Basketball Capitol of the World.”

That marriage is what has led to a blue blood being reborn, and Hurley becoming the biggest coaching personality in the sport right now. 

“I just wanted to celebrate with our fans,” Hurley said. “Dave Benedict [UConn’s athletic director] saw something in me as a mid-major coach, being a Hurley, so I would have thick enough skin … then there’s the fiery personality that’s perfect for this fan base. You can’t have an empty suit over there with these people. You’ve got to have a monster on the sidelines at Connecticut. Plus, we’re a program where our players have a lot of confidence and a lot of swagger. Our fan base is obnoxious as s— on social. So everyone hates us.

“It was a chance to celebrate with them because our fan base and our organization right now … It’s us against the world of college basketball, and I wanted to celebrate with them a little bit.”

When Hurley talks about having thick skin, he’s referring to his dad, Bob Sr., who won 26 state championships at St. Anthony High School in New Jersey, as well as his brother, Bobby, the two-time national champion at Duke and now Arizona State head coach, who won’t have to travel far to support his brother in the Final Four next weekend. 

Now, Hurley is the superstar in the family, silencing his doubters and, in the process, making those who question UConn’s status on college basketball’s blue-blood pedestal look foolish. He knows that not everybody likes him. He understands some opposing coaches are rubbed the wrong way by his fiery demeanor on the sidelines. And he doesn’t give a damn — he just keeps winning.

“If I am one of those [faces of the sport], I’m probably a good one because I’m authentic,” Hurley said. “I’m basically a high school coach masquerading at the college level. I don’t really care what people think of my intensity or passion. It obviously shows up with my team with how we play. We don’t cheat. We don’t lie. We’re about all the right things. Just at times, I’m an asshole.

“When your defense is elite, which ours is, and your offense is elite, which ours is, we’re not flawed in any particular way. That makes you as bulletproof as possible.”

Perhaps no player exemplifies those attributes better than Donovan Clingan, the Huskies’ dominant big man who shares in his coach’s swagger and chose to stay in his home state to play for Hurley and the Huskies.

Clingan was named the East Region Most Outstanding Player, totaling 22 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and three steals in the victory over Illinois. Following the game, Hurley was quick to compliment Clingan, saying he’s an example of why everything in Storrs has blended so nicely, because a guy who would be a 10/10 on the “gets us” meter with Connecticut’s fan base, suits up for this team and is wired only one way – to win.

“We love the challenge of this,” Hurley said. “It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning, being judged by the greatest to ever do it. But we have all winners, man. It’s the connection they have with each other, and the confidence they show up with on the court. 

“We play with an energy and an intensity like we haven’t accomplished a damn thing in the sport.” 

And that’s exactly why these Huskies are in the territory few have entered, and why Hurley says he’s fully embracing being one of the faces of college basketball.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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