One on one with Bobby Hurley

He is one of the greatest point guards in Duke and NCAA history and still holds the all-time record for career assists. And, recently, Bobby Hurley’s coaching career has taken shape as he’s now the head coach at Buffalo. We sat down with the former Blue Devil great to discuss his career in Durham, his NBA career, and how they combined to lead him to the head coaching gig at Buffalo.

To start, how are you adjusting to being a relatively new head coach at the Division One level?

Bobby Hurley: Yeah it’s actually my second year, and last year we did well. We were 19 and 10 overall and we were 13 and 5 in our division, we won our Division final for the first time in school history. This year we did a bit better in our non-conference and we lost 4 games by a total of 10 points in conference, but we’ve really been playing well lately, and have won three in a row and have been playing much better defense. Now we’re back in position to go up in our division possibly. It’s a strong league overall, we’re in the top 10 nationally in terms of conferences with RPI, there’s some real quality teams at the top. We’re 9 and 6 right now and our 1 game behind our Division leaders which is Kent State and Bowling Green, both are 10-5 right now. The overall best is Central Michigan in our conference at 11-4, so we’ve got really good teams in the conference. 

Speaking of your non-conference schedule this year, I noticed you guys played against Kentucky and Wisconsin. What do you think your team learned from playing those two games?

I knew that I had a talented group but I knew they needed experience kinda through baptism by fire. Those two games definitely provided that and I think we took a lot out of those two games in terms of actually playing competitively against both of those teams. They were confidence builders for our team knowing that we could actually play with those teams. 

You hear a lot about how coaches learn about their teams year to year and also that they learn about themselves as time goes on in their coaching careers. What do you think you’ve learned so far in those areas?

Yeah, when we lost three in a row and they were all three heart-breaking losses and we lost to Kent State and to Toledo in a tough game where we went the distance and lost at the end and then we lost 75-74 in the third game. So that put us at 6 and 6 and you don’t know what direction the players are going to go in and how the season is going to play out. Then they responded and won three in a row, so I feel great about how we’re playing right now and the direction that our team is going in this year. 

From a  big picture perspective—what led you to have your first head coaching job be at the University of Buffalo?

I had three great years with my brother Dan at Wagner College and I helped him turn that program around and I really learned a tremendous amount from him at Wagner and Rhode Island. I just felt like I was really ready to run my own program and I felt like coaching was something that came naturally to me. Buffalo was intriguing to me because of the resources of the school, it’s just a great school with nice facilities and it’s in a good conference. Then Danny White was a big factor with how great a success both him and his family have had with his dad being an athletic director and Danny seemed like a strong guy who was invested in building his athletic program. 

What’s been the biggest adjustment for you now that you are a head coach?

I think it’s everything is a lot more personal when you are a head coach even when you are an assistant coach and you pour everything into doing that which I felt I did. You take everything more personal as a head coach, and you are responsible for everything with the program, with recruiting and the decisions you make obviously impact your program. Last year was a real learning and transition year for me and the staff where as this year I feel like we’ve learned a lot more as a staff. 

What would you say has been your guiding philosophy in being a head coach?

Obviously I learned the ins and outs a lot in working with my brother and seeing him and how he ran his program day to day. My eyes were wide open to what he was doing and I learned a tremendous amount from him. Then my experience of being in the Duke program and understanding how Coach K focused and emphasized the defensive end of the court so much. Then as a player I learned how to perform and how to strike that balance to get to a higher level on the defensive end while expending the most energy possible there. On the flip side we’re one of the faster teams here in terms of Division I with the pace of how we play and the # of possessions we play on offense, so I think we allow our players to have the freedom to make plays on both ends of the court.

As you were entering the coaching profession, how much input or advice did you seek from Coach K?

Coach was excited for me. I think he was probably surprised that I didn’t do it sooner and I think he knew how I felt about basketball and the passion that I played the game with that came from my family. I think he was excited for me and I think he felt like it was something missing in my life from not playing professionally and I think he saw it would be a real positive for me which it has been. I’ve been a much happier person since I started doing this and it’s not easy to do and it’s very demanding and very stressful and there’s a lot of pressure to coach Division I basketball, but it’s something I’ve done my whole life. Coach K was great, he just encouraged me to do it, even when I was deciding whether to take the opportunity at the University of Buffalo, he was very positive about the feeling that I was ready to do it. Obviously in talking with Danny and Kevin White, just the White family to have that support and the success as well with the administrators and the athletic department, it’s been great.

Let’s switch gears if I may, do you remember what your recruiting process was like in deciding to go to Duke?

My dad is a legendary high school coach, he coached a number of high major Division I players before, so he had been down that road numerous times helping his kids find schools they were recruitable to. So it was really my dad who handled a lot of my recruiting, I was pretty sheltered in terms of how much communication I had with the coaches because he protected me and let me focus on basketball and being a young guy. I did have a chance to talk with Coach K a few times on the phone and I noticed him watching my games in the summer at the big events, so I knew they were very interested. It was really the visit that sold me. I don’t think you could have a visit that could go any better than I had there. I hung around with Danny Ferry and Quin Snyder and Danny Ferry was player of the year in college basketball and I got a chance to see the players in open gym with Christian Laettner and thinking what it would be like to play with them. Then going to Coach K’s house and seeing how his players interacted with his family, it felt like a family environment that I was looking for if I was going to go away to school. 

Since your dad handled a lot of the recruiting communication for you Bobby, what do you remember of what he shared about his feelings or thought process towards Duke as they were involved in your recruitment?

I think he saw the direction that the program was going in during the late 80s, they were trending nationally and I took notice of their Final 4s. It was my dream as a young kid to play in Final 4s and to see how consistently the Duke program had gone there during my high school years, it just felt like I believed that if I went there, I would be able to play in one. I got a chance to go watch the 86 team go play at the Meadowlands, my dad took me to go see them. I remember Johnny Dawkins having a great game in that game and that was a good memory for me with Duke and that got me excited about going there.

So then you show up on Duke’s campus as a freshman…what do you remember about how your adjustment went both as a Duke student and Duke basketball player that first year?

I just remembered that everything was so structured for me as a high school player. My routine was pretty rigid with what my parents expected of me to then I was living on my own so I had to adjust to that and trying to manage my time while making sure I was tending to my academics and getting my work in and it was also my first time having the social aspect, which is a great part of being in college. I couldn’t ask for anything more. It was challenging academically, I built great friendships with my teammates and I saw the enthusiasm and excitement that people in North Carolina had about basketball, especially with our students and how excited and passionate they were when they watched us play, all of those things combined were unbelievable. 

Who did you really develop a close relationship with that year and the rest of your time at Duke?

My roommate was Billy McCaffery, and we were roommates the first two years. He was a really good friend of mine. Then he left which was tough, but also during my freshman year having Alaa Abdelnaby who was a guy who was very outgoing, very friendly, a Jersey guy that I knew even prior to signing to go to Duke, so he was someone I enjoyed spending that first year with. Kenny Blakeney was one of my good friends on the team, we were roommates during my career, Thomas Hill, really all of the guys I liked.

When you arrived as a freshman, how did Coach K start your relationship off? What approach did he take towards coaching you?

I just think he knew that I was very hard on myself when I played so I think he allowed me to play through things because he knew I tried to be perfect on the court, he gave me a lot of confidence when I played. If I made a mistake, he would tell me what I did wrong but then he would move on and he would ask me to move on. That was great, the way he handled me as a player, especially early on in my career was really exactly what I needed. 

From a player’s perspective Bobby, what was it like for you playing with the overall level of team talent that you played with, especially with the national championship teams?

Coach did an unbelievable job at preparing us all the time and guiding us through those years. Preparing us to play games and we just had guys who not only were talented, but they were also winners and unselfish and willing to sacrifice. Guys like Grant Hill who were able to sacrifice and do whatever it took to win and allow the other guys to have their space and to be successful despite how freakishly talented he was. Then a guy like Christian Laettner who is one of the most clutch guys I’ve ever been around with a big time heart and who wanted the big shot. He was fearless, he never feared competition which was great. So I always had confidence knowing I was going into every single game with those types of guys. 

As you grew in your time at Duke on and off the court, what was it like for you being Coach K’s point guard?

I felt like we connected in terms of how we both played the game was kinda similar. I think Coach respected how much fire I played with, how tough I was and my fearlessness on offense to make plays and to be creative. He never tried to reel me in, if anything, it was like he was trying to calm me down while allowing me to be myself and to express myself playing. I can’t be anymore thankful that I already am to have played for him because a lot of coaches don’t really allow you to do that.

You had so many memorable games from the looks of it with how many big games your teams played in. Are there any memories you have from any of those big games that still are fresh in your memories?

The UNLV game was probably the most satisfying game the second time around, just knowing what we had been through the year before and knowing how talented they were, almost unbeatable. To do the unexpected and beat them when no one really gave us a chance to do that, we were determined as a team and I don’t know if I was ever more fired up or excited to play a game as I was for that game as a player. To win that one and to be a part of Coach’s first national championship was exciting because not only was it Coach’s first, it was our first and it’s an experience we’ll always remember.

What do you remember the most about the day of that game you just mentioned and the game itself?

What I really remember is there’s the shot of all of us walking out before the game and the look in all our eyes told the whole story. There was such a resolve as a group about what we knew we were about to bring to the table, regardless of what happened the year before, we knew it was going to be different and just to build yourself up and feel that way like you were going into battle. Just knowing before it even started how ready we were to play that game, that’s what I remember the most. 

What kind of things did either Coach K to you guys or you guys say to each other as teammates going into that game that led to you having that mindset you just described?

Going into it, the week leading in with Coach K, there’s no one like him who motivates guys the way he does. You can feel his intensity and passion when he communicates to you and he just told us, “you guys are going to win this game. I’ll be telling everybody else that they are unbeatable and unstoppable but I know we’re going to win this game.” The conviction that he said that with was great. It stirred up all the feelings how we had felt the year before, for me it was anger personally the year before, I don’t know how some of the other guys felt, but just the anger of the humiliation from the game the year before, I felt that. So to let all that emotion play out during the course of a 40 minute game was amazing and I remember how great we felt in accomplishing that win afterwords.

You’ve mentioned your emotions a few times during the course of this interview Bobby…what do you think really helped you deal with those emotions as your Duke career progressed?

I was a roller coaster my freshman year, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not so good, there were games where things didn’t go my way and I would turn the ball over, make mistakes and things would snowball with me because I allowed it to affect me and I had issues sometimes with officials if I felt like they said something to me or even sometimes with my teammates if I felt they said something against me. So I had these things that were distracting me from playing well, and Coach K showed me on film how many times I had blow ups and the impact that it had on our team. When you see that on film, it makes you change your ways in your personality a little bit and I just started having a different fire in my belly and I didn’t show emotion as much outwardly as I had done in the past because I was able to control it better and play a more even emotion game. 

That really reminds of something several guys have said in this series Bobby in that Coach K, he’s always going to tell you the truth straight up about your situation as a player…

Oh yeah, I needed it because it was getting in the way both of me playing well and it was affecting my teammates and it was affecting Coach’s ability to coach his team in the best possible way. Especially as a point guard, he needs stability at that position, especially emotionally. It’s great if you are positive, but if you are in your own head and lashing out, it just doesn’t help the team function and play the way it needs to.

Do you point to that and say that’s the biggest area of your personal growth in your time at Duke, or are there other things you see where you grew a lot?

I just think more than anything it was availability and being responsible for yourself. It wasn’t like anybody was holding our hand, it was be responsible, get up and go to class, handle your business in the classroom, work on your game. I’m around guys who are super motivated and driven, like Coach K, there’s not anybody who is a better example who has that drive and who works at being successful. I got to look at that every day and as a young person to hopefully learn that as I moved forward in my life. 

Switching back to the national championships that your teams won Bobby, what were the moments like afterwords as you celebrated?

I remember right after cutting the nets down and standing there with the trophy and you finally realize that you are the last team standing, I remember how proud you feel that you did what so few people have been able to do. It was very satisfying, I think afterwords I was up for the majority of the night spending time with my family, my teammates and former players and then all of a sudden I remember being on Good Morning America and it all kinda felt like it happened so fast after the game. 

Your teams obviously have attracted some of the highest levels of media attention, what was that experience like for you in dealing with all of the media opportunities that came your teams’ way?

It wasn’t, it was very specific, there weren’t a lot of media outlets to watch college basketball the way there are today. It was the major networks and ESPN and we were on almost every weekend. So for a lot of people their chance to watch college basketball was watching Duke play and with the success we were having, it was a good feeling to have and we handled ourselves the right way and conducted ourselves the right way. I had a chance to have an impact on people and people enjoyed watching our team play, so that was great.

So then you finish your Duke career and you receive the opportunity to be drafted into the NBA. What was your transition like in the limited time that you were able to be a pro basketball player?

Yeah I worked extremely hard when the season ended, I did a lot of workouts and those workouts with the teams were designed to test you and to push you as an individual. To go through all those and to know that I was going to have some great options was great. I was looking forward to living out my dream and to get my name selected by the Sacramento Kings and to be a lottery pick, to share that with my family, it was a lot of hours of playing against NBA players and remembering to when I was 10, 11, 12 years old and playing on the playgrounds in New Jersey to having a chance to reach my dream of playing in the NBA was great.

What do you think helped you deal mentally and emotionally with the injuries you sustained during the car wreck if I may ask?

Yeah it was just something, putting your body back together after working through multiple injuries. It definitely tested my patience to see that I was making progress and that I would be able to resume my career. Over time I just knew the competitive drive that you have and the desire that you have to play eventually put me back in the position to be able to play and I was never really able to establish myself again and have the career that I was hoping to have. It took a lot of hard work to get there and I’m proud of the fact that I got there.

What do you think you learned about yourself as a person as you progressed into pursuing other avenues outside of playing basketball?

Yeah I really learned a different perspective. I had always kinda been one of the main guys when I was playing and then to be more of a role player on a team gave me a different perspective of guys and myself for what the team goes through. Now as a coach I understand a lot better what our 1st man or 12th man is going through a little bit better and I try to do a good job with those guys so they know they are just as important to what we’re doing. Also any adversity or challenge that you have to overcome, it helps you become a better person hopefully and it helps me deal with problems I face in my life and to be able to move forward.

In closing Bobby—what did it mean to you to see Coach K win his 1000th game this year knowing that you were a part of so many of them?

Yeah, I’m honored to have been a part of it and we shared some great moments with Coach in competing with him and those teams. No one deserves it more than he does, there’s no one who works as hard as him or is more competitive or who cares more about his players than he does, so it was real exciting to see that and to have been a part of it.

The Devils Den Top Stories