O'Neil: Lakers' pursuit of Dan Hurley puts UConn in unexpectedly vulnerable position (2024)

Less than two months ago, in a land that now seems far, far away, Dan Hurley grabbed a microphone and screamed to a throng of deliriously happy people that UConn basketball “has been running college basketball the last 30 years.’’ This was more than pep rally aggrandizement; it was, in fact, true. That April evening in Phoenix, the University of Connecticut had laid claim to its sixth men’s national championship, bettering the banner collections of Duke and Indiana and pulling even with North Carolina.

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Quietly, while college basketball clung to its traditional list of bluebloods, the Huskies had amassed more titles in the past 25 years than anyone else, creating a dynasty essentially out of a cow patch. With Hurley — brash, bold and slightly bananas — at the helm, UConn appeared impervious to the fickle fates of college athletics, poised for stability while everyone else hopped around the portal as if the basketball court was lava. Storrs, of all places, looked a lot like heaven.

And then Thursday, the curtain was yanked down. Storrs revealed itself as an ordinary place, its grasp on nirvana tied entirely to the whims of one man. Folks in the Nutmeg State, accustomed to the terrors of the morning rush hour, instead awoke to the rush of terrorizing news: Hurley was in conversations with the Los Angeles Lakers about becoming their next head coach.

It should be stressed, underlined, bolded and italicized that nothing is done. These things do not always take. Fourteen years ago, Tom Izzo had a chance to coach LeBron James, now of Hurley’s would-be Lakers and then of the Cavaliers, and spent nine days wrestling with the decision before opting to return to Michigan State. On the heels of winning his own back-to-back national titles, Billy Donovan went so far as to have a news conference announcing him as the new head coach of the Orlando Magic, only to get cold feet and return to Florida.

Until Hurley is truly gone, he is not gone, and it is more than fair to wonder if he is currently floating in one of his sensory deprivation tanks pondering being the king of the college hoops world versus coaching King James. The track record of college coaches in the NBA is pretty scorched Earth, and as a person born and raised in New Jersey, I can personally attest that we do not necessarily translate everywhere, especially in La-La Land

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All that said, let’s operate under the notion that the Lakers will throw more money at Hurley than the state of Connecticut can conjure up to assist UConn, and he bolts. What then? Like a double rainbow, what in fact does Hurley leaving mean?

It means Dave Benedict needs an Advil. The UConn athletic director went to bed on Wednesday night with a baseball team in a super regional, Geno Auriemma inked to a five-year contract extensionand Hurley reworking his roster mastery in pursuit of a three-peat. He woke up to an absolute nightmare.

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UConn is, despite its efforts to argue to the contrary, a basketball school, and having to possibly either entice the best basketball coach in the sport to remain or find his replacement is less than ideal. Especially on June 6. Benedict can neither afford to make a knee-jerk decision nor take too much time figuring out the Huskies’ future. Should Hurley leave, there will be options (there always are options), but this is a hypercritical decision already well beyond the 11th hour on the decision date timeline. A coaching change means players immediately receive a 30-day transfer window. The players who came to Storrs — and are targeted to come this upcoming season — are not coming for the bucolic charm of the town. They came to play for Hurley. If he goes, that portal opening will probably look something like the Walmart front doors on Black Friday.

Because though UConn appeared impervious in the wake of that national title, it is not. The Huskies won three national titles on the sheer will power of a Hall of Fame coach from South Boston, and two more on the sheer will power of a future Hall of Fame coach from Jersey City. College basketball is and always will be about its coaches. Players win games. Coaches win titles. Fit, culture and all of those words people love to throw around have nothing to do with the brick and mortar of a place and everything to do with the guy in charge. That’s why you rarely see outliers winning titles. Aside from Kevin Ollie, the list of championship-winning coaches in the past 20 years reads: Hurley, Bill Self, Scott Drew, Tony Bennett, Jay Wright, Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Jim Calhoun, Billy Donovan, Jim Boeheim.

Beyond all of that, the school has legit challenges. The state funding is a mess, and both Gampel Pavilion and the XL Center need a boost. UConn is seeking $100 million from the state to help clean up Gampel.

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The Huskies are, without question, on much steadier ground in the Big East. The move back to the league that allowed for the birth of the basketball program in the first place has factored largely into the UConn rejuvenation. Fans disinterested in watching the likes of Tulsa and East Carolina flocked back for Villanova and St. John’s, and then returned jubilantly to the Garden. That gave Hurley something to sell and something to attract recruits.

But we also are in a new world order. The details and payouts of the looming House settlement need to be worked out, but it isn’t likely to be smooth sailing for UConn. The Big East already has been shammed by its football-bloated “colleagues” to foot a disproportionate percentage of the bill. This without the league bringing in football revenue. UConn, of course, plays football but as a little revenue-producing independent. Whatever revenue is shared with independents will no doubt be tilted toward a golden-domed school in South Bend.

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Some coaches have opined privately to The Athletic that there is potentially a silver lining for the Big East. When the dust settles, the current pay structure gossiped on the vine is a 65/35 division — meaning 65 percent of the money going to football. The Big East, however, doesn’t have to pay out the gridiron roster, which means that a larger percentage of whatever money the conference has can, in fact, go to hoops. And that could be really good math.

But it is all really tricky math. And there’s no obvious solution.

No man is, of course, irreplaceable. To argue that the Huskies will collapse like a house of cards and disappear is to ignore three decades of history to the contrary. But even before Thursday morning, UConn had its problems. Those problems become infinitely trickier to solve if the Dan Hurley exodus variable is thrown into the equation.

(Photo: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

O'Neil: Lakers' pursuit of Dan Hurley puts UConn in unexpectedly vulnerable position (5)O'Neil: Lakers' pursuit of Dan Hurley puts UConn in unexpectedly vulnerable position (6)

Dana O’Neil, a senior writer for The Athletic, has worked for more than 25 years as a sports writer, covering the Final Four, the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals and NHL playoffs. She has worked previously at ESPN and the Philadelphia Daily News. She is the author of three books, including "The Big East: Inside the Most Entertaining and Influential Conference in College Basketball History." Follow Dana on Twitter @DanaONeilWriter

O'Neil: Lakers' pursuit of Dan Hurley puts UConn in unexpectedly vulnerable position (2024)

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