PITTSBURGH — Danny Hurley doesn’t want to make it about himself.
And yet Hurley has been around the game all his life. He knows how these things go. A young(ish) coach with a pedigree and a track record of success gets it going at one level of college basketball, and soon the next level comes calling offering more money, more exposure, more resources and well, did we mention the money?
It happened to Hurley at Wagner. It took him all of two years to turn around the Seahawks, a makeover that landed him the job at Rhode Island in the spring of 2012.
Six years later, the rebuilding project Hurley envisioned when he took over the Rams is complete. Rhode Island (25-7) is in the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season for only the second time in school history and is the seventh seed in the East Region heading into Thursday’s showdown with 10th-seeded Oklahoma.
The Rams are deep, talented and hard-working. And their coach is in demand, perhaps nowhere more so than in Pittsburgh, where the Panthers are looking for someone to replace Kevin Stallings, let go last week after an 8-24 season that included an 0-18 pratfall in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Hurley’s name has been floated out there as a potential replacement. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter. He hears it. And he knows his players hear it.
“It’s something, social media age, for me to sit up here and say I have no awareness would be, you know, it wouldn’t be truthful,” Hurley said.
Call it a symptom of the trickle-down economics of March Madness. Each year a handful of coaches in smaller leagues get it going. And every year the schools they work for gird themselves for the inevitable run that will be made at them by more traditional powers.
“Sure, 100 percent (there’s anxiety),” said Iona athletic director Rick Cole Jr.
The feeling forms in the pit of Cole’s stomach whenever the Gaels capture the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s NCAA bid, which they’ve done five times in the last seven seasons under Tim Cluess. And it really doesn’t go away until the annual coaching carousel stops with Cluess staying put, opting to keep on heading to his office every day at the school’s New Rochelle, New York, campus with brown lunch bag in hand.
“When you have greatness you’re always worried about retaining greatness,” Cole said.
And with good reason. The list of coaches who built their reputations at Iona (20-13) and used it as a springboard to higher-profile gigs includes Jim Valvano, Pat Kennedy and Kevin Willard. Yet Cluess has remained. Partly because he was born in Queens and spent most of his career within a 30-mile radius of New York City. Partly because his two sons are students at Iona. Partly because there’s something to be said for happiness. And partly because, hey, there are worse places to be than in the NCAAs as a No. 15 seed in the Midwest against second-seeded Duke (26-7), where Cluess and the Gaels will find themselves on Thursday.
“I’ve had a couple of opportunities where people have called me and I really haven’t expressed much interest in it,” Cluess said. “It wasn’t something that I thought would be that right fit for my family at the time. I’m thrilled to be at Iona and we’re just trying to get better there.”
Cluess’ players shrug their shoulders when asked if they ever find themselves scanning Twitter to see if their coach’s name pops up.
“I’m sure if he did have the opportunity, I’m sure he’d come to us and tell us,” junior guard Schadrac Casimir said. “But I don’t really go off what the media is saying or anything.”
Cluess, however, is in a different spot in his career than Hurley. Cluess is 59. He’s from the area. He’s had his program at the top of the MAAC for the better part of a decade and he’s stuck around. Even his boss acknowledges that’s atypical.
“He’s 110 percent where he’s at,” Cole said. “There’s nothing going on here. Lot of folks in a lot of industries are always looking.”
Folks like, say, Hurley’s older brother Bobby. The Duke great served as an assistant for his younger brother for two years and parlayed that into the head job at Buffalo. A pair of Mid-American Conference East Division titles and an NCAA Tournament berth later, Bobby Hurley moved on to Arizona State and led the Sun Devils to the tournament this season before losing to Syracuse on Wednesday night in the First Four.
Bobby Hurley actually finds himself out of the tournament ahead of his old squad. Buffalo and coach Nate Oats — who was elevated from assistant to head coach after Hurley’s departure — is the 13th seed in the South Region and will play fourth-seeded Arizona on Thursday.
Oats is 43. He’s averaged 21 wins in three seasons. He makes $355,000, hardly chump change — unless you compare it to the bigger paydays that lie elsewhere. And yes, his players have noticed.
“When a coach is rising, you’ve always got to have that in the back of your mind,” Bulls guard Wes Clark said. “It’s a business. Any time it may change. ... He wouldn’t just leave us for money or anything that’s not significant. We wouldn’t want him to be stuck in this position if he felt there was a better spot for him. You have to have the mindset of, it’s a business.”
Any time Oats finds his name surfacing in a coaching search, he makes it a point to tell his players immediately. So far, there hasn’t been much to say. That could change as the years pass. It has at Rhode Island, where the program that went 8-21 in Danny Hurley’s first season has won at least 23 games in three of the last four years.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Yet Hurley has stayed — so far. It’s only going to get harder.
Hurley redirected all praise to his players, the ones who he believes have done the heavy lifting.
“Their efforts have made me, you know, I guess attractive to other schools,” he said.
And the dance continues.
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