During his first individual workouts, Wagner’s Danny Hurley looked at his brother, assistant coach and former Duke star Bobby Hurley, and shook his head.
He knew he’d inherited a program encumbered by a variety of challenges. But he was alarmed, confused and worried when some of his players couldn’t finish basic drills.
“Two guys were throwing up, another guy was dribbling off his foot and the other guy was shooting hook shots,” Hurley told ESPN.com. “[I’m thinking] ‘What the hell did we just do?’”
Hurley, who played at Seton Hall, said he initially assumed that he’d need three or four years to convert Wagner into the program he envisioned.
But in his first season, he won 13 games, eight more wins than the previous year.
And just 20 months after leaving his successful stint at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey and accepting the Wagner job, Hurley’s squad reached a benchmark much earlier than he’d previously anticipated. His team’s 59-54 win at No. 22 Pitt Friday was a milestone that’s already boosted the program’s profile.
Pitt entered that game with a 70-0 record against Northeast Conference schools.
“The closest we get to 'SportsCenter' often times is the ticker off the bottom. To be the lead story on the 11 o’clock SportsCenter … it’s surreal,” Hurley said. “To be able to do something like that in the infant stages, 20 months into trying to build a program that was 5-26, to be able to accomplish that in that short period of time is significant.”
Hurley turned St. Benedict’s into one of the best prep programs in America. He dismissed other job offers throughout his tenure there and ultimately stayed for nine years.
Loyalty runs in the family. His father, Bob Hurley, has been at St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, N.J., for nearly 40 years.
So Hurley didn’t view the Wagner gig as a temporary stop when he took it. That would have been unfair to players, who will only buy in if they believe that their coach is genuine, he said.
“Kids are smart, so if it’s phony, the culture’s not going to be right. You’ve gotta show your kids that you care about them,” he said. “That allows you to drive them.”
Hurley said he’s happy with the Pitt win but not satisfied. He craves bigger victories in the future for his 8-3 team, which faces Air Force in the Cable Car Classic in Santa Clara, Calif., on Thursday night. He also hopes his team can build off Friday’s moment and compete for the NEC title. To achieve and maintain that success, he has to attract talented athletes to the small school in Staten Island, N.Y.
Friday’s victory, the most significant highlight on Wagner’s journey thus far, increased the likelihood that the school will draw better players in the future. Hurley said he’s noticed a change in the outside perception of his program since its win over Pitt.
“We’re not getting the ‘Where’s Wagner?’ or ‘Pronounce that again’ [and] kids aren’t asking me about St. Benedict’s Prep,” he said. “They’re excited to know more about what we do.”
What they do is swarm on defense. The Seahawks own the NEC’s top field-goal percentage defense (40.2 percent). They held Pitt to a 2-for-15 clip from beyond the arc and forced 18 turnovers.
That relentless pressure is birthed in energetic practices.
“You come to our practice and you’ll think that there’s a fire drill. [After a player makes a stop or draws a charge], 12-13 players will be sprinting over to pick that player up and pat him on the back,” he said. “That’s drilled. You gotta win every day.”
The latter usually comes at a cost. Not to coaches but to the programs that want to keep them.
Hurley, given his pedigree and the turnaround he’s started at Wagner, could draw lucrative job offers in the coming months.
It’d be natural to expect most coaches in his position to move on if they were granted bigger, more prestigious opportunities. Hurley, however, said that’s not something he’s contemplating.
“My only focus is making Wagner the best that it can be,” he said. “That type of talk means less to me than just about anybody, probably, in the business. I am my father’s son, you know.”