Coach Danny Hurley is building the Wagner College program from the ground up.
by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad
You have probably never heard of Wagner College, a small school of about 2,000 students located in New York City’s forgotten borough of Staten Island, but that will soon change.
Led by third year head coach Danny Hurley, Wagner, who plays in the small Northeast Conference (NEC), has jumped out to a 14-3 start with wins over Pittsburgh and Santa Clara. Wagner’s hot start may come as a surprise to basketball fans, especially considering they won only five games just two short seasons ago. But, those who have followed the Hurley family’s lineage will assure you that this is no fluke.
You see, the game of basketball runs thick in the Hurley brother’s veins. Danny as well as his brother, former Duke and Sacramento Kings guard and now assistant to big brother, Bobby have had a lifelong coaching clinic. Whether they were at home, on the court themselves, or patrolling the sidelines, the Hurley brothers have constantly been surrounded by some of the best coaches to ever grace the hardwood. Their father, Bob Hurley, has won 26 state championships and amassed over 1,000 wins while coaching the New Jersey powerhouse St. Anthony’s.
Even if it was unbeknownst to him at the time, Danny was constantly being taught lessons about the game and coaching. “Growing up in our house, it was like living in a coaching clinic for 18 years, constantly learning things through osmosis,” Danny says. “I draw from my opportunity to play for my dad and PJ Carlesimo [at Seton Hall] and coaching with [former Rutgers head coach] Kevin Bannon and as a high school coach myself at St. Benedict’s and competing against great coaches at the high school level. As a coach, you learn from every game you play and coach you coach against and you try to steal things that you have seen that you have liked.”
Before taking the job at Wagner, Danny coached at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey and ran one of the best programs in the country. In fact, Hurley may have had more talent while coaching on the high school level—JR Smith, Lance Thompson, and Samardo Samuels are alums—than many mid-major college programs.
As Hurley continues to build Wagner’s program from the ground up, he uses his former institution as a tool in recruiting: “Before we got here we coached a lot of guys that were pretty well known who either made the NBA or played at major colleges. Kids were very aware of who those guys were and their history at St. Benedict’s and I think that helped us get our foot in the door a little bit.”
While the strength of Hurley’s resume and name may attract recruits to him, it is his loyalty and honesty that make kids want to play their college ball for him.
While today’s college landscape is full of deceit and dishonesty, Danny draws from his father’s old-schoolisms. Bob Hurley has been a member of the St. Anthony’s basketball program for 39 years and despite many offers to make the leap to college hoops, his stance has never wavered; he knows how important he is not only to the school and its basketball team, but also to the St. Anthony’s community as a whole.
After nine successful seasons at St. Benedict’s, Danny felt it was time to move on, but doesn’t see Wagner as a mere pit stop on his way to the greener pastures of big time college basketball. Instead, Danny looks to save Wagner from obscurity and recruit his way to a solid program using honesty and loyalty, values which have been instilled in him, no doubt, by his father. “When kids come here to visit and when we recruit kids, we try to be authentic. We let them know that it’s demanding to be a student athlete at Wagner, specifically with basketball. It’s a great challenge to play for our staff. We have a standard that we try to set.”
He continued, “If you run a good program, graduate your players, help them improve in all areas of their lives, then the program starts to sell itself and your going to be able to recruit a higher level kid.”
Of course, all of these factors would make Wagner an ideal situation for a player looking to play in a successful four-year program and get a degree, but a deal with Under Armour certainly doesn’t hurt the cause. “To have a relationship with Under Armour has been one of the very best things we have done since we’ve been here right up there with recruiting well and hiring a great staff. It’s been phenomenal. Kids love the stuff and they treat us great.”
A team’s personality is usually very reminiscent of its head coach. So, it comes as no surprise that Wagner boasts one of the most hard working, confident and now, winning teams in the NEC. Wagner’s 14-3 start isn’t due to an easy schedule either. They played perennial Tournament teams UConn, Princeton, Pittsburgh and Santa Clara and either beat or took these teams to the wire.
Against then-ranked Pitt, the Seahawks forced 18 turnovers and held Pitt to 2-15 from beyond the arc. Pitt’s veteran-laden team had no answer for the young, green Seahawks who outplayed and outhustled a supposedly superior Panther team. Hurley’s team plays the game hard and with a chip on its shoulder. They look at out of conference games against bigger schools as a chance for the school and the NEC to gain respect, not as a chance for the other team to practice its layups.
Eight of the 13 players on Wagner’s roster are underclassmen, but what they lack in experience they make up for in teamwork and a sense of maturity. “When you’re such a young program like we are, you’re forced to grow up and grow up quickly. One of the best things that we have going is that feeling of camaraderie and chemistry… The fact that eight out of our first 10 players are underclassmen and a majority of those are freshman and sophomores, it’s exciting and with the kids we have coming in, we think we have a chance to get better.”
One of the underclassmen who Coach Hurley is most exited about is sophomore guard Latif Rivers. Rivers a 6-1 guard from Jersey is averaging 15.4 points per and is a kid Hurley raves about. “He’s a guy, in terms of his passion of the game, I think it’s right on par with the coaches. He brings a great energy daily to what we do. He’s a big shot taker and a big shot maker who is not afraid… To think we have two and a half years left with him is exciting.” With conference play now in full swing, Wagner will need Rivers to play an even bigger role if they plan to win a loaded NEC.
Despite Wagner’s early success, Danny Hurley knows that there is much work to be done if he is going to consistently make March appearances. But, Hurley has the pedigree and experience to help Wagner become one of the more talked about mid-major programs in the land. For Wagner basketball, it has been a long time coming. But, with the Hurley brothers on the sideline, the small school located in Shaolin is primed to be put on the map.
“Early on, I don’t know if anyone really knew where Wagner was, what Wagner was, or what league Wagner was in, but we’re making progress…We’re excited by the challenge.”