Legends cast long, often cold shadows.
Most college basketball powerhouses of modern times endured downturns after a legend left the sidelines: North Carolina bridged the end of the Dean Smith era and Roy Williams’ return to Chapel Hill with Matt Doherty’s tenure. UNLV spent much of 15 years toiling in the dregs between Jerry Tarkanian’s ouster and Lon Kruger guiding the Runnin’ Rebels to a Sweet 16. Indiana has, for various reasons, not found a successor to Bob Knight for almost two decades.
In sunny Los Angeles, John Wooden’s shadow still looms over Pauley Pavilion, four decades after the most legendary name in the game called it a career.
And inherent advantages separate these examples from a program like UConn. UCLA and UNLV occupy deep regional recruiting hotbeds; so do North Carolina and Indiana, with the added advantage of basketball mad culture in the surrounding areas.
Jim Calhoun built an outpost of big-time basketball dreams surrounded by small, liberal arts colleges and Ivy Leagues. College sports fall way below the card under professional teams in New England. Before Calhoun arrived, Hugh Greer, Frank Shabel and Dom Perno had some solid squads; nothing worthy of mention in the same breath as North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA or even UNLV.
UConn in those days was not even comparable to the Rhode Island of today under Dan Hurley, which the new Huskies head coach made a consistently strong high-mid-major after years of missed expectations.
Growing up following college basketball, however, I only knew UConn as a national powerhouse. Tate George’s buzzer beater burned its way into memory as a young child, and from there, the Huskies only got better under Calhoun.
UConn basketball won national championships at various seminal moments of my life: 1999, when I was a high schooler; 2004, when I made my first steps toward adulthood as a college student; 2011, months after my wedding day; and 2014, seven weeks prior to the birth of my first child.
Until only recently, I have known UConn as one of those top-tier programs. And every one of those championships, save 2014, are credited to Jim Calhoun. Hell, even that 2014 title under Kevin Ollie marks the last vestiges of Calhoun’s legendary run, a championship claimed by players the coach lured to unassuming Storrs, Connecticut.
For the coming generations of college basketball recruits, UConn is not so quickly associated with basketball greatness. Almost a half-decade has past since the last national championship, and four years equal a veritable lifetime in teenage years.
Dan Hurley isn’t just tasked with rebuilding a winner at UConn; Hurley must maintain the legacy of a coach in Calhoun, who retired when the recruiting class of 2018 were finishing elementary school.
Meanwhile, Calhoun will reportedly maintain a presence with Huskies basketball. Hurley living in the legend’s shadow isn’t so much a cliche as it is the closest the intended symbolism comes to reality.
However, if there’s anyone as capable of flourishing in the shadow of a bigger name, it’s Dan Hurley. That summarizes the new UConn coach’s basketball existence, to a certain extent.
The name Hurley in high school basketball circles carries weight comparable to Wooden’s in the college ranks. St. Anthony’s reputation transcended New Jersey and made its way even to small town Arizona when I was a kid in the ’90s.
I can’t imagine just how big the Hurley name was in the Garden State, nor how much pressure the celebrated prep coach’s sons felt to live up to their moniker.
Bobby left New Jersey and made a name for himself down south in North Carolina at Duke. But just as he was doing so — one season after Hurley led the Blue Devils to an era-defining upset over UNLV — Dan Hurley began his college career at New Jersey-based Seton Hall.
Playing in the state where his dad was something of a Basketball Governor, running the point in the same window his brother emerged as one of the best college 1-guards ever, Dan Hurley forged his own path.
He had a solid career at Seton Hall, but has been more than solid on the sidelines.
Twenty-five wins just two years into a tenure at previously moribund Wagner, 23 or more wins three times at Rhode Island — a job in which, to a certain extent, Hurley successful followed a legend.
Rhody’s current run under Hurley marks the program’s best since Jim Harrick — the closest thing UCLA had to someone breaking out of Wooden’s shadow — coached the Rams to an Elite Eight. Winning games in each of the past two NCAA Tournaments puts Hurley in unprecedented territory.
While Bobby Hurley has garnered national headlines in his own coaching career, Dan quietly enjoyed success his older brother still aspires to reach.
Jim Calhoun’s legend casts a long shadow on UConn basketball, to be sure; but Dan Hurley has shown he can weather the cold.