‘Not Praying to Win’: UConn Coach Hurley on Faith, Family, and Basketball

The back-to-back national championship coach explains how the Catholic faith has been central in driving not only him, but the team, to success.

University of Connecticut Huskies men's basketball team coach Dan Hurley speaks during an event to celebrate their 2022-2023 NCAA Championship season at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 26, 2023.
University of Connecticut Huskies men's basketball team coach Dan Hurley speaks during an event to celebrate their 2022-2023 NCAA Championship season at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 26, 2023. (photo: Jim Watson / Getty)

Dan Hurley is an intense person. But so is the arena where he works.

As the head coach for the University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies men’s basketball team, Hurley has led the program to back-to-back NCAA national championships — the first time since Florida did likewise nearly 20 years ago — after defeating the Purdue Boilermakers 75-60 on April 8.

Throughout the tournament, the Huskies were the No. 1 overall team and displayed a dominance unmatched in college basketball history, winning by a record average of 23.3 points per game. This exceeded their previous season’s average of 20 points.

Yet outside of the bright lights, haranguing fans, practice drills and frustrating missed calls, the head coach relies on a routine centered on his Catholic faith, which he emphasized is the foundation of his life.

“Whether I’ve had great success or I’ve experienced tough times in life, I’ve always leaned on the relationship with Christ, either for perspective, gratitude or for strength,” Hurley told the Register.

Born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, Hurley comes from an illustrious basketball pedigree. His father, Bob Hurley Sr., was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010 after amassing a combined 30 national and state high school championships as coach for St. Anthony High School. His brother, Bobby, a coach at Arizona State University, won two titles at Duke University under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Hurley was a star player at St. Anthony; however, his tenure at Seton Hall University (1991-96) was marked as one of the lowest points in his life, with him even quitting the basketball team for a time. Unlike Bobby, Dan never played in the NBA, but basketball remained in his blood, with him serving as an assistant coach after college at St. Anthony and Rutgers University until the early 2000s. He was then hired as head coach for St. Benedict’s Preparatory School (2001-2010); Wagner College (2010-2012); University of Rhode Island (2012-2018) and UConn in 2018. Excelling everywhere he has coached, the drive is not so much for glory, but forming young men holistically to be the best people they can be.

“I love basketball,” Hurley told the Register. “I love being a leader. I love impacting the lives of young people. You certainly target and set goals of winning big things, but that’s not what gets you up in the morning. It’s the relationships.”

On May 2, Hurley spoke with the Register about how his faith has impacted his life and career.

Now that you have had time to reflect, what does winning a second championship mean to you? How was this journey different from the first title?

It’s a mixture of incredible excitement, but then also a great deal of relief. It’s just a relief in the sense that you realize what type of team you have in February, going into March, and the team has given you all this evidence that it’s the best team in the country. And then you love the team so much. There are members of that team that did not win the championship the year before, and you just desperately wanted that group and that team to experience what it feels like to accomplish the pinnacle of our sport because you knew the team was the best team. You knew the team deserved it with how hard that we worked and everything that everyone in the organization sacrificed for it.

Many teams work hard, but back-to-back titles is an incredible feat. What are the key components in coaching championship teams?

The old-school values will help any organization succeed: the work ethic, the competitiveness, the focus on self-improvement, the ability to sacrifice for each other, mindful communication, accountability and responsibility. All those things. In addition, we are analytically playing a smart, modern style of basketball, the style of play mixed with just great character of individuals and a willingness to put the team ahead of individual interests. That is what it takes: an extraordinary work ethic and an extraordinary commitment to the preparation.

We’re known for our practices here. It’s the secret sauce. We make the training and practices as intense as we can — the routine of the pace, tempo and competitiveness. Because we practice in that manner, the players don’t have to level up on game night. They’re very comfortable in the pressure, under the bright lights, because the pressure to our preparation has been so intense. So it’s just always been the recipe. It’s always been the formula. That’s what I learned from my dad. And I implemented that here in my career as a coach.

You’re at the pinnacle of the college basketball world right now. How do you keep yourself humble?

You don’t really do it for the individual success. You do it for other reasons. You do it for the relationships. You do it to impact and change the lives of the players and coaches, to help them do their best. You love to compete and to challenge yourself, and then you love being part of a group.

I believe we are all wired to want to live in community and rely on others and have others rely on us and that feeling of a common mission and connection.

How was the faith ingrained in your life growing up?

For me, growing up, I’ve always been educated through the Catholic-school system: from Our Lady of Mercy in Jersey City to St. Anthony in Jersey City to Seton Hall University. I’ve spent my entire life in Catholic schools and influenced by Jesus Christ and the Roman Catholic Church: the commitment to living the right way, selflessly, caring for other people, and living by a moral code every single day, especially in sports. … And I’ve always believed there’s obviously a family influence where it was ingrained in us to attend Mass on weekends.

In sports, there is a lot of lying and cheating, people trying to cut corners. So the faith has given me a base and a foundation where I stand for the right thing. There’s trust. And, at UConn, we do things in an honorable way.

You have spoken very candidly in other interviews about dark moments of your life, particularly while attending Seton Hall. How did the faith help you during that time?

When I was really struggling personally, as a student and as an athlete, I found my relationship with Christ through Sister Catherine Waters, who was a counselor at Seton Hall. She saw I had no spiritual balance in my life, and she helped get me back on track in my relationship with Christ. … My identity was consumed solely as a basketball player and as an athlete. Back then, there wasn’t a whole lot of holistic coaching or development by teachers and coaches: You are either a student or you are an athlete.

But she was the first person who influenced me intellectually, physically, mentally and spiritually. … She directed me to balance my life out and to not identify solely as a basketball player, because if you identify solely as just that one thing and that thing starts to go badly, your whole world has now crumbled. …

Relying on my faith during that time, as a college student, set me in a direction where it’s central in my own family, as a father and a husband. It’s important to me. And I’ve exposed my teams to it. I haven’t forced it on them, but I’ve exposed my coaches and players to my faith and made it a part of our programs.

How have you taken the lessons you learned from Sister Catherine Waters and that time to help the players you’ve coached over the years?

You model it. You communicate those things. You show it as a model for your family — and my commitment to my wife and my children; and they have enough, you know, an incredibly strong family connection.

I wear my faith and my spirituality on my sleeve.

With my identity as a coach, I showed [the players] somebody that is incredibly hardworking and detail-oriented. And I keep myself in great physical shape. I’m well read. I have my prayer and meditation practices that I emphasize with the players, my journaling. It’s just a holistic approach to being the absolute best person that you can be. You just try to educate the players on how important it is to not to deny yourself the opportunity or ignore any facet of your life. That’s really important to develop.

In an ESPN College GameDay interview, you spoke about how the first thing you do before a practice or game is pray. Why do you do that, and what do you pray for?

I’m not praying to win. I’m praying for strength, for all the people that I’ve lost, and I pray to God for wisdom. And I do ask that we could be at our best. But I don’t ask to win the game. I ask for everyone to be at their best.

But [I take that moment because] what I’m about to do means a lot to me. My relationship with the Lord is important to me.

What are some devotionals and/or prayers that you do or have spiritually enriched you the most?

I like to do a Morning Offering. And it depends on what I do. I’ll do a Rosary. I’ll mix up kind of what I’m reading — Tony Dungy [former NFL coach] has a nice devotional that he did. And I’ll read the Bible. I’ve read it a couple of times.

I pray Psalm 23 every day. I pray every morning because maybe of the line of work I’m in: the stress level and intensity of it. I’m an intense person, and that [Psalm] really resonates to me. I also like the Proverbs, the Our Father, Hail Mary and the “Serenity Prayer.”

Who are your favorite saints?

St. Michael and St. Joseph.

On June 4, the Franciscan Life Center of Connecticut is awarding you its St. Francis Award at the organization’s 38th-annual sports banquet. What does that mean to you?

Being recognized as a leader who’s impacting the lives of others positively and connected with my openness about my faith at a time where I think men need to step into the forefront and be a model or symbol for the faith, it’s critical. It seems like there’s not as many of us outwardly attending Mass or speaking about it in a public way, and the positive impact [faith has on one’s life]. So I will continue speaking positively about my relationship with God and its impact on my life.

What would you say, reflecting on your career, strikes you the most about it? Is it the championships or something more?

I look at it and I remember the dark times in my own career and my kind of struggle and I just try to be there for young people. I hope to be a model for what I could have used when I was 20 years old: I focus on trying to be the coach that I wish I had when I was 20 years old and on a college campus.

You’re going for a three-peat this upcoming season. Three is a nice number. Maybe a “holy trinity,” perhaps?

Sure [laughs]. That sounds good. I’ll pray for that.