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Is Hurley’s Snub of LeBron and the Lakers Risky Business?

Liam Enea, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

For a very brief, almost-orgiastic moment, the Los Angeles Lakers were back.  The word was spreading: Dan Hurley, soon-to-be former head coach of the UConn Huskies, architect of two, back-to-back National Championships, and descendant of one of the most famous basketball families in the history of the sport, would soon be the new face of the Lakers – or, at the very least, a Hurley-LeBron, Two Face-esque hybrid.  Who wouldn’t want to share a body with LeBron?

Wait…maybe this job isn’t so appealing.  Sharing a body with LeBron…ewwww.  No thanks.  Not even for $70 million over six years, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Who wants to put up with that hassle?  Who wants to draft LeBron’s son?  This is all so unfair to Bronny James, who is just looking for an opportunity to live out his dream in the NBA, but if placating LeBron is your first order of business every offseason as the Lakers head coach, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that Hurley turned down the Lakers’ offer.

There’s also the business of LeBron meddling in front office and coaching decisions.  He says he’s not involved.  Sure.  We might have believed that five coaches ago, but we’re not letting you gaslight us anymore.  Hurley can win fifteen championships at UConn, but he’ll still never have the final say in LA as long as LeBron is around – so Hurley passed on coaching the second-greatest player in NBA history, he passed on coaching the ultra-gifted, but über-brittle Anthony Davis, and he passed on coaching in-arguably the biggest and most famous brand in all of basketball.

UConn is the safer choice…right?

As Lee Corso might say, “Not so fast, my friend.”  Monumental challenges are on the horizon for college athletics.  Soon, potentially by the end of the decade, college basketball (and college football) could be unrecognizable.  The NCAA is a runaway bullet train, and one bump or sharp turn could send an entire program flying into the abyss.  UConn looks stout now, and hell, Hurley might be the next John Wooden in-the-making, but all it takes is one seismic, unknowable event to upend everything Hurley’s built.  In the current college basketball landscape, the odds of that are increasing every day.

Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) was the first step, but the money faucet won’t be turned off – if anything, it’s about to really start gushing.  The concept of college athletes (read, basketball and football players) getting paid like the pros is just in its infancy; don’t expect it to stop growing.  The Transfer Portal has yanked these sports into the 21st century, and the necessity for something, anything resembling a collective bargaining agreement becomes increasingly and increasingly obvious.

For now, maybe UConn can handle these new external pressures.  Hurley managed these waters well enough to win back-to-back titles, after all.  But that was then and now – what happens moving forward is anyone’s guess.

Replenishing your roster with transfers is one thing, what if Hurley starts needing to hold bake sales to pay for it too?  The cost, not just in money, but more crucially time, of keeping talented players around is going up and up.  It’s driven college coaching legends like Nick Saban and Jay Wright into early broadcasting careers.  It’s created a massive collective headache for head coaches everywhere.  It’s forcing some schools to cut unprofitable programs.  But most importantly, it’s making the NCAA less necessary by the day.

The NCAA does have one major card up its sleeve: March Madness.  The NCAA Tournament is still organized and hosted by the NCAA.  College basketball still needs the NCAA.  But college football doesn’t, and right now, that’s where the money is.

It’s not that college basketball isn’t profitable, per se; it’s just that in comparison to college football, it’s not unlike a hamster taking on a German shepherd.  College football brought in $3.3 billion in revenue last year.  College basketball was about half that, and the future trajectory is in college football’s favor too.

Hurley and his Huskies might be on top of the college basketball world now, but UConn itself is becoming more obscure, and it has everything to do with football (or rather, UConn’s lack-of).  UConn does have a football team, but in sort of the way that an ostrich has wings.  It’s ill-fitting and unusable.  For the previous four seasons, UConn football has been relegated to independent status without a viable conference to call home and they haven’t had a winning record in over ten years.  But what does this have to do with Hurley?

It’s simple: football is the revenue driver in college sports.  Without a football program to give you a financial boost, you’re just not competing on the same level as the big boys.  What happens if UConn’s football program slips into further decline?  Can the basketball program keep making up the difference financially?

There’s a bigger problem: inevitably, there will be some kind of reckoning in college football.  The NCAA’s authority in college football has almost disappeared.  It won’t be long before the Ohio States, Alabamas, USCs and Clemsons of the world decide they don’t need the NCAA at all.  The thirty-five or forty best college football programs in America will form their own league, and they’ll make the rules.  Most importantly, though, they’ll be keeping the profits too.

UConn will not be joining this super-league, not unless an actual miracle occurs.  They’re too far behind the other football programs.  They’ll have to fend for themselves in whatever you can call college football in the post-exodus years.  Life there will be brutish, dull, and financially unrewarding.

UConn basketball will survive, maybe even thrive, for the time being, but the clock’s ticking.  The Lakers job is fraught with risk, but the NBA itself is a stable money-maker.  The Lakers don’t need football to succeed.  They might look like a laughing stock at times, but you don’t win seventeen championships without getting it right on occasion.  The Lakers still have that with them – Hurley could have been the guy to bring greatness out of them, but he’s not the only one who can do it either.

Dr. Ian Malcom said in Jurassic Park, “Life, uh, finds a way.”  He was talking about sex-swapping dinosaurs, of course, but he could just as easily been talking about the Lakers ability to find new stars and stay relevant in an ever-changing NBA.  They’ve gone from Wilt and Jerry West to Kareem and Magic, to Shaq and Kobe, and now to LeBron and Anthony Davis.  Whenever LeBron is ready to walk away, the Lakers will make room for the next star.  It’s just how the cycle goes.

That’s what Hurley really passed up on – the opportunity to coach the next championship iteration of the Lakers.  It’s possible that opportunity is still there a few years from now.  After all, the Lakers have a tendency to dispose of coaches rather liberally, and when former Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan, the last before Hurley to win back-to-back titles, decided to return to Florida instead of taking the leap to the NBA, he still got the opportunity to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City seven years later.  No harm, no foul.

What makes Hurley’s return to UConn so risky is that he didn’t just say no to the NBA, he said no to its most prestigious job.  Hurley could have been the guy to turn it all around, but now, someone else gets that chance.  The NBA might come knocking on Hurley’s door again, but there’s no guarantee.  Yes, college jobs will always be there for Hurley.  That’s what back-to-back titles buy you.  But if UConn, football-deficient as it is, starts to go on an endless financial spiral that handicaps Hurley’s ability to recruit, the entire UConn basketball program could start to erode – and there’s nothing Hurley can do to stop it.

When Donovan left for the NBA, it was on a high note.  After a long stretch of good, but not great, results from Florida since their back-to-back titles, Donovan led the Gators to another Final Four before taking the career-leap to Oklahoma City.  Hurley might already be on the short-list of greatest college basketball coaches of all time, but in seven years, he could be out of a job at UConn simply because they can’t afford his salary.  That’s how precarious college athletics is.  When Hurley passed on the Lakers deal, he didn’t take UConn over Los Angeles, he took college sports over professional, and with college sports looking more professional by the day, that’s questionable indeed.

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