Calling Out Bobby Hurley: Why Leaving Buffalo was a Mistake

Since current UB Athletic Director Danny White took over the program in 2013, the one thing he hasn’t lacked is ambition.  Aside from his controversial New York Bulls initiative, the signature evidence of this was his hiring of the big-name but little proven Bobby Hurley as the coach to take over for long time UB Basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon.  Hurley was a great player, but had never held a head coaching position, so the move wasn’t without risk.  Fortunately for all involved, the gamble paid off and UB enjoyed 2 excellent seasons, winning the MAC East in his first year, and the MAC title his second.  In that time his overall record was 42-20.  Not too shabby.  They had a good thing going before Hurley and White fouled everything up and Hurley packed his bags to take the head coaching job at Arizona State.  The good news for UB’s future is that Nate Oats, who is taking over for Hurley, was UB’s recruiting coordinator the past two years under Hurley.  This is important because it means that unlike when Joe Mihalich left his coaching position at Niagara University and a virtual roster exodus took place, UB should not bleed its recruits as badly and minimizes the possibility that players like Moss (who Oats recruited) or Evans might try to transfer to Arizona State with Hurley.  As for what went wrong to get us to this point?  There’s a lot of blame to go around.

I’ll start with the bit of it that lands on Danny White.  As the guy in charge, the ball was in his court (obvious basketball metaphor was absolutely necessary), but he made two mistakes. The first was letting it leak to The Buffalo News that an agreement was almost signed when this wasn’t exactly true.  Hurley clearly lost a lot of trust in his AD for the lack of good faith this showed in the bargaining.  Secondly, he pitched Hurley on a salary of $551,000, comically and precisely $1000 more than the next highest paid coach in the MAC, Ohio coach Saul Phillips. He basically told Hurley that he was the best coach in the MAC, but merely by $1000.  That said, it is hard to pin down how much either of these things is actually White’s fault not knowing A) under what conditions someone in his office misinformed The Buffalo News and B) what budget restraints he had to work within based on what the University and its boosters would give him.  We have to remember that UB is not used to doling out the big bucks for athletics and it just spent significantly upgrading the Football team.

I believe Bobby Hurley made a mistake leaving UB the way he did.  Probably not financially, as UB was offering $551,000 while previous Arizona State coach Herb Sendek was making $1.8 million, but for his legacy as a coach.  I am not convinced that Hurley will have success at Arizona State, especially at first, and he may not get more than a few seasons to prove himself there.  Arizona State is a program that has hit a wall recently.  Previous coach Herb Sendek had some early success based off of strong recruiting, placing 3rd in the PAC-12 in ’08-’09 and getting an NCAA tournament bid.  But Arizona State lost its first game and was out.  Over the subsequent years, the program has averaged about a .500 conference record, gaining several births to the NIT tourney mostly off the perceived strength of the PAC-12, but even their best finish, when they got back to the NCAA tournament again and again lost their first game in ’13-’14, was in a season where they went 10-8 in conference and finished in a tie for 3rd.  Last year they finished in a tie for 5th with a 9-9 record and Sendek was fired.  Sendek was a respected recruiter and coach but could never get over the hump that the Arizona State athletic director wanted: a PAC-12 championship.

How is Hurley going to do better?  The problem is that much of what set him up for success in Buffalo is not necessarily going to be there for him in Arizona.  His first season at UB, his team rode the talents of Javon McCrea who was a recruit of previous coach Reggie Witherspoon.  This past year, his star player was Justin Moss, a player brought to the team by assistant couch Nate Oats, who the Buffalo News noted has been “instrumental to Hurley’s recruiting, particularly in the Mid-West.”  This is of course good news for next year when Oats will take over the program, but it doesn’t help Hurley now.  UB’s incoming batch of recruits is supposed to be excellent.  This is partly because of Oats but of course partly because of Hurley’s name recognition.  As a recruiting tool, Hurley’s name is about to have a lot less impact when it is competing with the prestige of PAC-12 schools instead of MAC schools.  Plus, we’ve seen this story before at UB.  Remember Turner Gill, who got so much credit for advancing the UB football program that he was poached by the University of Kansas?  He promptly went 5-19 overall and 1-16 in the Big 12 despite making almost $10 million.  He was fired after two seasons and is doing better now back in the Mid-Majors, coaching Liberty College.  If and when something like that happens to Hurley, his story will go from being another great cog on the Hurley family coaching machine to just being some other coach that couldn’t hack it in the big time.

The bottom line is that Hurley did a good job at UB.  But he has only been a head coach for 2 years and he was set up well for continued success.  Instead, he chose to be insulted when UB only doubled his salary in their last contract offer and bolted for the real big bucks rather than stay and try to build something special.  He’s going to have an uphill battle in Arizona, and ultimately real coaching legacies are built on being good over time.  Only time will tell if he can transform Arizona State from an also-ran to a Champion or foster long term success.  So if Arizona State is considered a perennial contender in 10 years and Hurley is still hanging around Tempe Arizona, I will gladly eat my words.  But Hurley is gambling with his future because he either had a thin skin or his head got prematurely big for his shoulders.  He’ll cash in in the short term, but long term?  It’s a shame, because like I said at the beginning, we had a good thing going.