UConn’s Dan Hurley could join Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan in rarified air with consecutive NCAA titles

With one final win on Monday night, UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley could join Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan in a rarified air among NCAA coaches.

Only two coaches have led their team to consecutive men’s NCAA basketball championships since John Wooden won seven straight between 1967 and 1973 — Donovan with Florida in 2006 and 2007 and Mike Krzyzewski with Duke in 1991 and 1992.

There’s a reason it’s such a hard feat to accomplish, Donovan said. It’s more than roster turnover and strength of schedule and injury management — more, even, than the unpredictability of March Madness. It starts with addressing the emotion in the wake of winning that first championship.

“When you win and you’re part of that, there is a period of time where there’s like this melancholy feeling,” Donovan said. “I don’t want to say it’s a depression because that’s too strong of a word. I’m not trying to say it’s that. But there’s this reflection point of like, ‘What is all this about? And where do you find meaning?’ And I think in a society where everything is about the stature of winning a championship, you realize that does not complete you and make you whole. It just doesn’t.”

In the weeks after UConn won their first men’s championship in nine seasons last spring, Hurley felt this sense of melancholy. So he reached out to Donovan for advice.

Donovan has been a mainstay throughout most of Hurley’s coaching career. During his years as an assistant coach at St. Anthony High for his father, Bob Hurley, the pair became familiar during recruiting visits while Donovan was scouting players as an assistant at Kentucky. They never fell out of touch as Hurley rose from Rutgers to Wagner to Rhode Island before finally landing at UConn in 2018.

When Hurley expressed the malaise he was feeling after his championship win, Donovan assured him it was a normal part of the process. But Donovan emphasized this period of reflection is also crucial to the next step in a coach’s career.

For Donovan, facing these questions — Why are you coaching? What propels you beyond winning? — unlocked a deeper understanding that helped to lead the Gators to their second national championship.

“As coaches, as players, you’re always chasing something and it’s really about — what is the chase turning you into?” Donovan said. “Is it turning you into something that you admire and respect? Or is it turning you into somebody who’s bitter and angry and upset and stepping over people and doing things losing your way and your character? There’s a lot of ways that you can be shaped.”

Donovan’s main advice for Hurley throughout the 2023-24 season centered on enjoying wins even when they felt guaranteed. The Huskies have acted as steamrollers in the NCAA this year, going 36-3 in the regular season and winning each of their tournament games by at least 14 points.

Hurley is well-known for his intense nature, offering defensive errors and detailed critiques during halftime interviews even as his team was bludgeoning their opponent by 20 points. But Donovan emphasized this high standard had to be balanced with an appreciation for every victory.

“In his situation, you’re in charge of your own happiness,” Donovan said. “When you have a really, really good team and you’re trying to do something again for a second time, there’s an enormous amount of critiquing that goes on — you didn’t win by enough, you won by seven, but you should have won by 27. And what happens is the joy of it gets taken away because you’re under a microscope. But you got to be in charge of your own happiness. Winning is hard. So you need to celebrate every time you win.”

The Huskies could be celebrating again Monday as they look to complete a dominant run in the NCAA tournament — but that will require them to defeat Purdue and star center Zach Edey.