Dom Amore: At the doorstep of the Sweet 16, UConn coach Dan Hurley draws upon his experiences with P.J. Carlesimo
ALBANY — A laugh was heard from behind the closed steel door to Interview Room G at the MVP Arena.
UConn coach Dan Hurley, at the doorstep of the Sweet 16, a day before what could be the breakthrough game of his long basketball career, emerged with a smile.
“P.J.,” he said, shaking his head, smiling.
P.J. Carlesimo, 73, who was interviewing Hurley as part of his role as radio analyst with Westwood One Sports, was Hurley’s coach at the low point at Seton Hall in 1993, the moment when, as a college player, Hurley had to get away from the game that had been his whole life. He nearly did not return.
“I had an unbelievable chance to play for one of the great coaches in the history of the Big East, a three-time NBA head coach, somebody who taught me a lot,” Hurley said. “I just wish, you don’t want to live too much with regret, but I kick myself that I wasn’t more mature for him, that I wasn’t more advanced in my thinking and I didn’t deliver on what he recruited me to do. When I played I thought it was him, but as I’ve gotten away from playing I realized I wasn’t an easy guy to coach.”
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For Carlesimo, that was all just Hurley being characteristically hard on himself.
“No, he’s nuts,” Carlesimo said. “He played four years at Seton Hall, three NCAAs and an NIT. He played on two of our best teams. That’s Danny always wanting to do better. Danny was a great player for us, and it was not easy for him to come to Seton Hall. It was really important for us, but to stay in Jersey was really difficult.”
The weight of carrying the Hurley name at one of his home state’s premier programs weighed heavily on Hurley, always representing his famous father, Bob Sr., the coach at St. Anthony’s High in Jersey City, and the facing comparisons to his brother, Bobby, star at Duke and in the NBA. Dan fell into bad habits and missed most of his junior season.
“As he was maturing as a college kid, P.J. was doing his best to help him through times he was suffering,” Bob Hurley Sr. said. “I don’t know if he was enjoying his experience at the time. I don’t know that it had a lot to do with P.J. .. They’re very good friends.”
Seton Hall was winning big at the time, Carlesimo having led the program to the NCAA championship game in 1989. So there was pressure to succeed, much like at UConn now, and pleasing fans was difficult to impossible. When Hurley was ready to return, Carlesimo had gone on to the NBA and George Blaney, later to be UConn’s associate head coach, took over the Pirates and, Hurley often says, “saved my soul in the game of basketball.”
Hurley finished his playing career with more than 1,000 points.
“George Blaney was such a great coach, I thought he was way more instrumental, way more impactful upon Danny,” Carlesimo said. “Seton Hall was good for Danny, and Danny was really good for Seton Hall.”
The experience changed Hurley, changed his appreciation for basketball and his place in it, made him more empathetic without sacrificing his edge or his core beliefs. When his playing career ended, he began coaching and now, at 50, stands one victory away from the elite level he has always sought. The fourth-seeded Huskies face No. 5 St. Mary’s in the West Region’s second-round game Sunday at 6:10 p.m.
“If you’re a star player throughout your whole career, you have a difficult time understanding what other people are going through,” Bob Hurley Sr. said. “But somebody who’s had to battle has more empathy.”
UConn (26-8) hasn’t been this deep in the tournament since 2016, two years before Hurley arrived with his mandate to restore the program to the ranks of the nation’s elite. He wanted the opportunity to compete for national championships, which he felt was unreachable in the Atlantic 10 at Rhode Island.
First-round losses in 2021 and ’22 hit Hurley hard, and he believed the tension he felt transferred to his players. This year he tried to lighten their load, admonishing them to enjoy the experience, a luxury he didn’t allow himself at their age. In particular he sensed junior Adama Sanogo was taking too much of the burden of ending the first-round losses on his shoulders, and talked him off it.
Sanogo had 28 points and 13 rebounds and the Huskies survived what could have been a nerve-wracking first-round game against Rick Pitino’s Iona on Friday, winning 87-63. The upset bug bit others, even top seed Purdue, which lost to FDU, but the Huskies didn’t panic after a tough first half, didn’t make the moment too big and are moving on.
“He’s got a great way of relating with his players,” Carlesimo said. “He’s so genuine, so competitive, yet he does it in a way his players understand and are accepting of it. One of the best aspects of him as a coach, and in this way he reminds me of Jim Calhoun, he gets his teams to play hard. I love everything about his game, he’s highly intelligent, but he’s got a really good feel for how much to give guys, when to push ’em, when to pat them on the back.”
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When Hurley glances across the court Sunday, he will see his former college coach in headphones and remember that the pressure to succeed must be managed; can’t become the joy-crushing weight it was 30 years ago, for him or his players.
“I know what P.J. was trying to do for me now that the shoe is on the other foot,” Dan Hurley said. “I just wish, one of my regrets, is that on those great teams we had, I know I could have given the team more and I should have been better for him. So when I see him, it’s emotional.”