Dan Hurley's rebuild at UConn remains on track ... but he's never satisfied

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Mar. 18—Listen to a special UConn basketball podcast episode:  

Dan Hurley doesn't have a crystal basketball to predict the future.

It just seems that way.

Just about everything Hurley forecasted would happen since he took over the UConn men's basketball program in 2018 has come to fruition.

Step-by-step, Hurley has followed his own rebuilding plan.

In his third season, he has taken a floundering program to a top three Big East team in the program's first year back in the conference, culminating with the Huskies' first NCAA tournament berth in five years. He has also re-energized a fan base and returned UConn to the spotlight where it once resided.

The Huskies begin their latest March Madness journey on Saturday against Maryland at Purdue's Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.

Hurley's faith never wavered during a challenging season that featured three COVID-related pauses and injuries to key players.

"I could write a book, man," Hurley said. "It's like you pop the hood sometimes, it's worse than what the car looks like. All those practices, every day when you're fighting over behavior and habits and mindset ... and the battle continues every day because you're trying to create a winning culture and a mindset. Certainly, it wasn't that type of mindset a couple of years ago.

"It's just gratifying. I love this type of work. I love taking over a program that's struggling. I love that process of maturity."

UConn is the latest example of a successful Hurley rebuild.

He used the same blueprint to inject life into struggling programs at two previous head coaching stops. Wagner College, a mid-level Division I school in Staten Island, N.Y., went from winning five games before Hurley arrived to 25 by his second season. He moved on to the University of Rhode Island, where he guided the Rams to a pair of NCAA tournament berths and a trip to the NIT in six seasons.

UConn assistant coach Tom Moore has been by Hurley's side since joining his staff at Rhode Island in 2017 and following him to Storrs. He also knows all about UConn's glory days. Moore spent 13 seasons on Jim Calhoun's staff, being part of Big East regular season and league tournament title teams as well as two of the Huskies' four national championships.

"He's really smart," Moore said when asked about why Hurley's plan has worked at three different schools. "It takes a high level of intelligence to understand how you want to do something and it takes a great deal of perspective, as well, to not get too panicked at certain stages.

"He's got a great compass for how a rebuild should look and he centers himself on that as he goes through the stages. He does a really good job of reminding himself where he expects to be at each stage. He just does a good job staying with that. ... He's got a really good organizational plan that he believes in and it has worked for him. He knows how really good teams are supposed to look. I'm not surprised it's played out now at three different places the way he's expected it to play out."

Walt Hameline also is not surprised about Hurley's Midas touch.

As director of athletics at Wagner, Hameline took a chance on Hurley, a history teacher and coach at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J.

Hurley's reputation, connections and family background — he played for and coached with his father, Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley Sr. from powerhouse St. Anthony High School in Jersey City — made him a great candidate for the job in 2010.

"It was sort of an easy hire, to be honest with you," Hameline said. "The bottom line with me, when I met him and we spent time together, is the guy is a winner and he's going to find a way to win, without any question. Obviously, his track record at this point has proven that. That tells the story.

"He was here, he turned it around. Left here, he turned it around (at Rhode Island). ... So he goes to UConn, which is a hard job from a standpoint of the success that they've had there in the past. When Danny took it over, they were down. Expectations at UConn are, you win a national championship, that's what you do. My evaluation right now on him is he's right on track."

UConn was coming off two straight losing seasons for the first time since the mid-1980s when Hurley arrived in Storrs.

Each year under Hurley, the Huskies have improved and become more competitive. He's stacked up strong recruiting classes, helping build depth and talent. He demands his players to possess the same competitive fire, passion and intensity as he does.

Practices are a cauldron of intensity.

"He's implemented his personality," senior Isaiah Whaley said. "He's implemented everything that he's known from his family. Everybody has adapted to it and everybody's taken on some of his personality and his toughness. That's what you see at UConn when we're on the court, you see his toughness and personality."

Building close relationships with his players is at the heart of Hurley's plan.

Hurley connects with them off the court. He runs a book club with his team and offers suggestions for podcasts. He's a big believer in meditation, which is part of his morning routine, and working on personal growth.

"A lot of people talk about culture when they go to a place and they have slogans and Instagram posts and recruiting presentations," Moore said. "Then it's another thing to follow through and have an action plan on doing it. He follows through. It's another thing you can't fake.

"You're sitting there with this group in June on Friday at four o'clock and you're talking about 'Chop Wood Carry Water.' And you're taking the guys through that book two chapters a week with them. There's 350 other college head coaches and maybe 325 of them are not in the office and not with their team."

The Huskies accomplished two major goals this season — finishing near the top of the Big East and earning an NCAA bid.

Hurley has his sights set higher. He's chasing championships.

"I think we're exactly where I hoped we'd be at this point, just based on where we were," Hurley said. "Every job you take is different. Some programs are closer to get to this point than others. This was pretty far away, so I'm thrilled with where we're at."

Thrilled, but far from satisfied.

When UConn's NCAA journey ends, Hurley will be back in his office working on the next phase of his plan.

"It's that daily fight to improve the program," Moore said. "I guarantee whenever the final horn blows for this team in the coming weeks, he'll be on to ... what are we doing next? It will all be about the roster and what our next steps are going toward next year.

"It's a 365-day-a-year commitment to making sure the thing continues to get pushed forward."

g.keefe@theday.com

Follow Gavin Keefe on Twitter during the NCAA tournament at @gavinkeefe.