The aftermath of Rhode Island’s NCAA Tournament-clinching victory included snapshots every mid-level program can understand.
There was head coach Dan Hurley herding everyone together so they could rush back to the team hotel, grab their belongings and make it to the Pittsburgh airport in time for the first of two connecting flights home.
There was assistant coach Jim Carr standing by Hurley’s side at the airport bar – a television screen in front, euphoric players all around, fellow travelers mixed into the madness – while Rhode Island waited to find out its tournament seed and destination, stuck, as Hurley called it, in “no man’s land” between a 5:30 p.m. selection show and a 6:30 p.m. takeoff.
There was the CBS telecast announcing the matchup with Creighton in Sacramento, Calif., the pure joy erupting as a result, this cacophony of whooping and hollering filling the cavernous terminal, waking one couple out of their honeymoon bubble, prompting another airport patron to profess his Princeton allegiance, causing so many others to, in the words of Carr, “look at us like we had 17 heads.”
Then, there was Hurley again, gathering the group toward the security line, pushing the pace so they wouldn’t miss their flight. There was star player Hassan Martin rolling the Atlantic 10 Tournament trophy through the security scanner, there were his many teammates passing the trophy down down the aisle of the plane.
“Usually at times like this, you’re with the closest people in your life,” Carr recalled. “Then, there’s our scene – the kids are all jumping around, and then 30 seconds later, we’re grabbing our bags to go through security. We were the last people on the flight. I don’t know what would have happened if we would have gotten stuck. Picture these people’s faces. We’re connecting through D.C., 30 people running in with nets around their necks and on their heads, carrying trophies, wearing T-shirts over their regular shirts.
“But that’s Dan. There’s no entitlement with him. At the end of the day, he turns to me and says, ‘This is actually perfect, right? This is us.’ “
For as much as this is a story about a group of players who turned around a dormant East Coast program, or a story about a university returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years, or even a story of one more March underdog looking to crash its way into the Cinderella headlines, this is, at its core, the tale of one man’s passion for his players, one man’s devotion to his word, one man’s belief in a promise he made a little more than four years ago. Dan Hurley could have left Rhode Island this time last year, could have accepted a lucrative, long-term offer to take over at Rutgers, could have moved his family back to his native New Jersey and opened a new basketball chapter in the highest competitive echelon, the Big Ten Conference.
But he just couldn’t do it.
“Danny has such a close relationship with the kids, and when all that was stuff going on, he kept coming back to ‘How can I leave these kids, how can I leave these players?’ ” Carr, the longtime, trusted confidant on the other end of those tortured conversations, the man who had worked with Hurley at Rutgers and joined him again at URI remembered.
Carr watched as Hurley invited those players into his thinking, calling a meeting in his office, acknowledging the Rutgers offer on the table, asking only one thing.
“Are you guys as committed to me as I am to you, to taking you to a championship and the NCAA Tournament?” Hurley said.
Two players’ hands immediately shot into the air. They belonged to E.C. Matthews, whose ACL was torn apart just minutes into the first game of the 2015-16 season, and to Martin, the transcendent initial Hurley recruit who lost the final seven games of that same season, including the A-10 Tournament, to injury. They were going to be seniors, and they wanted nothing more than one more shot with their coach.
“To see him celebrate with those kids that he stayed for validated everything he did,” Carr said. “Those two kids were the first two kids to speak up. They were the first two high school kids he recruited here. They came after an eight-win season. They believed. He wanted to repay them.”
To know Dan Hurley is to understand he is the last one looking for such proof of a job well done. As the son of legendary St. Anthony High School coach Bob Hurley, as the brother of fellow Division I coach and legendary Duke point guard Bobby Hurley, as the man shaped by his own years as a player at Seton Hall, a dominant, state championship head coach at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark or a first-time college program builder at Wagner, he needs no outside voices to supplement his internal dialogue.
“I definitely feel like I’m doing what I was meant to do. This is my purpose in life,” Dan said on Monday evening in a hoarse conversation from his Rhode Island home. “I never really had a plan, whether I wanted to be a college coach, be in high school and teach history, it didn’t matter. I love coaching. Growing up in the game, the exposure to the game, growing up in Jersey City, my dad, just seeing him as an example of passion, you get wrapped up in competition, going to your father’s games, your brother’s games, you’re just used to it, it’s like a comfort to you. Think about how many games me and my brother have gone to in our lives.”
Add one more Friday night in California, where Bobby will fly to from his job at Arizona State; where their parents, Bob and Chris, will fly to from New Jersey; where their sister Melissa will be, too, just as she and the parents were last weekend in Pittsburgh; where Dan’s wife, Andrea, and their sons, Danny and Andrew, will join various other cousins and family friends; where everyone will come together in sheer delight over what Dan has accomplished.
This is his March moment. Bobby did this just two years ago, as a first-year coach at Buffalo, before being lured away by the Pac-12. Bobby did it back in college, winning back-to-back NCAA titles with Duke. Dan did make two appearances for Seton Hall, but both ended in disappointment, the first, as a freshman taking on his older brother in a crazily hyped-up Sweet 16 game, and the second, as a junior on a tournament darling upset pick to make it to the Final Four. The strain of facing his best friend still proves to be too painful to reconsider, and the agony of a second-round loss to Western Kentucky still proves too raw to explain.
“We fell on the wrong side of March Madness,” Dan said.
No matter what happens Friday, he’s on the right side now.
When Rhode Island beat VCU last Sunday, when Dan hugged his family and celebrated with his players, when he’d cut down the net and hoisted the trophy, there was only one thing left do. Scrolling past all the messages and calls on his phone, he punched in his brother’s number, and together, the two marveled at what had just happened.
“I had goose bumps watching the last minute,” Bobby said from Arizona, “seeing how he was going to feel after the game, knowing what that means in regards to his players, how personal he makes those relationships, knowing they were going to achieve something great. It was special to watch him experience that.”
Tara Sullivan is a columnist for The Record (N.J.), part of the USA TODAY Network.