Dan Hurley follows in Coach K's footsteps

The massive headline across the top of the Los Angeles Times sports section read “Lakers Shift Their Focus.”

The Lakers had just swung for the fences and whiffed in their bid to pry away college basketball’s most accomplished coach.

That was July 2004, when Mike Krzyzewski turned down the chance to replace the resigning Phil Jackson, explaining “you have to follow your heart and lead with it and Duke has always taken up my whole heart." He went on to win two more national titles with the Blue Devils while satisfying his curiosity whether he could coach NBA players by leading USA Basketball to three straight Olympic golds.

Two decades later, UConn's Dan Hurley is poised to follow the same path that Krzyzewski once took. Hurley will be the fiery, wisecracking face of college basketball for the foreseeable future after rejecting a lucrative offer from the Lakers on Monday that reportedly would have paid him $70 million over six years.

Though Hurley has yet to publicly explain his decision, he previously has described UConn as a “perfect fit” for him and acknowledged that he’s reluctant to mess with happy. In April, the New Jersey native laughed off the pie-in-the-sky idea of him considering the Kentucky job when it was open, alluding to the fact that his wife Andrea was not about to leave the Northeast.

Then there’s the little matter of the challenge he’d be abandoning if he left UConn this summer. UConn is a fixture in way-too-early preseason top fives and a real contender to become the first program to three-peat since the heyday of John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty in the 1970s.

Hurley’s return is a triumph for UConn, which under his leadership just completed the greatest two-year run in modern men’s college basketball history. In 2023, UConn trounced its six NCAA tournament opponents by 20 points per game. Five of that team’s top eight players moved on, yet last season’s Huskies proved to be even more unbeatable, winning six NCAA tournament games by a record-setting average of 23.3 points.

Had Hurley left, the timing would have been a catastrophic blow to UConn’s hopes of remaining among college basketball’s top-tier programs. The players that Hurley assembled for the 2024-25 season would have had 30 days to decide whether to enter the transfer portal.

The threat of a mass player exodus is far more daunting in mid-June when the transfer portal is already picked clean and few impact recruits are still available. UConn athletic director David Benedict might have had little choice but to prioritize retaining current players by promoting one of Hurley’s top assistant coaches, Kimani Young or Luke Murray, both of whom are highly regarded but lack any head coaching experience.

With Hurley staying in Storrs, UConn can refocus the challenge of building a third championship team with an almost entirely new roster. Returners Alex Karaban, Hassan Diarra and Samson Johnson will form the core of a team that has also reloaded via the transfer portal and a top-10 recruiting class.

The return of Hurley is also a coup for college basketball, a sport that has recently lost some giants of the coaching ranks. Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim and Jay Wright have all retired since 2021, leaving a shortage of big personalities who sell tickets and draw eyeballs.

Hurley is the coach best suited to filling that void — and not just because he has thrived better than any of his peers amid the chaos of the transfer portal and players gaining the right to pursue NIL money.

If you’re a fan of any other team, you probably roll your eyes at the exaggerated way that Hurley screams and hollers at referees, invents slights to motivate himself and his team and fires back at opposing fans who hurl insults at him. If you’re a UConn fan, you probably love Hurley’s nonstop intensity and bravado, the way he was already eyeing a potential dynasty just minutes after the Huskies won their second national title last April.

“I mean, s***,” he said with a smirk, “we're going to try to replicate it again.”

While Hurley undeniably has the coaching acumen to thrive in the NBA and the authenticity and fiery demeanor to hold players accountable, taking the Lakers job would have been a major risk. This is a franchise that has captured 17 championships and has a history of luring high-profile free agents. This is also a franchise that has sky-high expectations and aging stars and has burnt through seven coaches in 13 years.

The challenge of coaching in the NBA surely intrigued Hurley, but he might have needed to stifle his personality to succeed. As a high school and college coach, his temper burnt hot and his practices were grueling. He is known to kick down signs or fire projectiles when his team doesn’t practice up to his standard.

Hurley’s hand-picked UConn players fed off his nonstop intensity. Would NBA veterans feel the same over the course of an 82-game schedule?

Maybe someday we’ll find out. Maybe Hurley will snatch the Knicks or Nets job the next time one opens. Maybe he’ll again follow in Krzyzewski’s footsteps and try to latch on with USA Basketball.

For now, he’s back at UConn, back to the challenge of trying to do something that no one since Wooden has.

As he said the night of UConn’s rout of Purdue in the national title game, “I don’t think that we’re going anywhere.”

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