Can Dan Hurley Coach the URI Rams all the Way to March Madness?
Hurley's passion for basketball has taken him on a ride of soaring highs and excruciating lows.
Hurley planned to use the lessons he had absorbed from his father to build one of the elite high school teams in the country — and he did. His St. Benedict’s teams won 223 games and lost just twenty-one. He was the youngest coach and quickest to reach the 200-win plateau.
To beat his father’s career record of 1,184 wins, a record that earned him enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame, Dan would have had to coach at St. Benedict’s for another thirty-nine years — and at times it seemed as if he was determined to do that. Like his father, Dan turned down offers to coach in college. He loved his work at St. Benedict’s, where coaching was about more than just winning or losing. After a crushing loss to an arch rival, the headmaster, Father Ed, gripped Hurley’s arm and said: “Don’t you ever forget, your number one job is to help raise kids.”
But in 2010, Hurley received an offer that was too good to pass up: a chance to coach Wagner College, a Division 1 program on nearby Staten Island, so he wouldn’t have to uproot Andrea and their two boys. As head coach he got to pick his staff, and his first choice of an assistant was easy: a former NBA player and college all-American named Bobby Hurley. Whatever helps my brother helps me.
Dan Hurley took over a Wagner team that had won five games and lost twenty-six; in his second season, the team went twenty-five and six, a stunning reversal that caught the eye of the University of Rhode Island, a school that had not made the NCAA tournament in this century, a school looking to take its program to the next level. URI offered Hurley a base salary of $300,000 a year plus bonuses and incentives that, this year, pushed his pay above $1 million — mediocre money by the standards of Division 1 college basketball, but for a guy raised in a two-bedroom row house in Jersey City, a lot of money indeed. With the money came the expectations, the pressure to succeed that had crushed him as a freshman at Seton Hall. This time, Hurley felt better prepared for the challenge.
Nowadays, Dan Hurley finds comfort in the stability of routine. He wakes each morning at 5 a.m., meditates and reads the Bible. Then, he heads to a gym near his Saunderstown house, works out and heads back home for a protein shake. Hurley packs his lunch into his Lexus — the same lunch every day — and drives the woodsy back roads to the University of Rhode Island campus.
“Every morning I make him his lunch and it’s the same thing every day,” says Andrea, who is four years younger than her husband. “A salad with grilled chicken, avocado, tomatoes. A few sunflower seeds.”
Hurley has “found something” in the stabilizing power of routine. “It’s about hacking into being your best, being your sharpest. This is a rollercoaster ride, emotionally and mentally and physically, of winning and losing.”
Before every game, Dan Hurley routinely stuffs an old headband into the pocket of his suit coat. The headband, white with Keany blue trim, is a memento from his worst moment in his five years as URI’s head coach. That moment came in November 2015; American University was in Kingston for the opener of Rhode Island’s most highly anticipated season in a long time. The Rams had won twenty-three games the year before, and Hurley’s first class of recruits was entering its junior year, including a star player named E.C. Matthews who had turned down offers from some of the biggest basketball schools to play for Hurley. Coming off a successful season with a mature Matthews, the Rams seemed a lock to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a generation.
“Seven minutes in,” Hurley recalls, “it was a move I have seen E.C. make hundreds of times if not a thousand, a little spin dribble.” But this time Matthews’s right knee popped with an audible crack. He dropped to the floor, his ACL torn.
Hurley ran to his fallen star and watched helplessly as the medical staff did their work. “E.C. always plays with a head band,” Hurley says. “He was down and just writhing in pain. I noticed he just took his head band off. I remember going back and getting his headband because it meant something to me. I’m not leaving E.C.’s headband over there.”
He slipped the headband into his pocket, and after halftime spread it around the back of his chair, “the chair that I never sit in because I’m a maniac and never sit in it,” says Hurley. He coached the rest of that game in numb disbelief. Afterwards, he put E.C.’s headband in his jacket pocket and has put it there every game since as a reminder of tough times.
“I always dreamed of coaching in the NCAA tournament even as a high school coach, that’s why I made the switch,” Hurley says, his hard New Jersey accent turning tournament to twernament. “E.C. came here because he knew I could get him into the NBA, and I came here because I wanted to coach in the NCAA tournament, and they both blew up right there.”
E.C. Matthews was done playing for the season, but that didn’t mean Hurley was done with him. The coach invited Matthews into the staff-only film sessions to dissect the game, and planted him in the first row of seats behind the coaches so he could witness games from their perspective. “It definitely improved my basketball I.Q.,” Matthews says, but he wasn’t ready to move from the court to the sidelines yet, he had worked too hard for his dream of playing in the NBA. Basketball had carried him from being a bullied little kid with big ears named Elbert, to being the cool E.C., a star at his high school in Romulus, Michigan, outside of Detroit.
By his senior year of high school, ESPN ranked Matthews as a top 100 player, a six-foot-five guard whose big body had caught up to those ears. On a long ride home from an out-of-state tournament, his coach called Matthews to the front of the bus and said Rhode Island was offering him a scholarship.
“I never even heard of Rhode Island,” Matthews says. “Never heard of Dan Hurley. Never heard of his makeup, or his family tradition. I just paid it no mind.” Hurley persisted, showing up at a Romulus High practice with his brother, Bobby, then an assistant at URI. The Hurleys played their college basketball before Matthews was born. He didn’t care about their past glory, he wanted to know how they could help his future. And Dan Hurley laid out a plan: Come to URI, and we’ll make you Rookie of the Year in the Atlantic 10. Your junior year we’ll go to the NCAA tournament, then you’ll get drafted into the NBA.
“He believed in me,” Matthews says. “I could tell at that time that he wanted me here. I knew it would be more than about basketball at the end of the day. Coaches — their job is to win. With him and me it’s more than that. It’s way more than that. Say something happened and I could never play basketball again — he would still be there for me. When I got hurt, I saw that side of him. His family, his wife, his sons are like a second family to me.”
Last season, Matthews repeated his junior year at URI and played every game, helping the Rams to the Atlantic 10 Championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament. He then decided to finish school rather than turn pro, a decision motivated more by pragmatism than sentiment: He wants to play a full season on a knee that is 100 percent healed, to show NBA scouts just how good he can be.
Now that he has coached in the tournament, Hurley wants more, more wins to move deeper into the tournament’s final rounds. “Winners win!” he tells his players as they push through a shooting drill in their first practice of this season. “Winners win! Winners win everything!” Dan Hurley knows a lot about winning, losing and the importance of maintaining a balance between the two.