Back in the game, Hurley settling into big chair

Buffalo Bulls head coach Bobby Hurley reacts during a game against the Manhattan Jaspers during the first half of a Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational game at Barclays Center.

Brad Penner/Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

TOLEDO, Ohio — Bobby Hurley never got too far away from basketball, even when he felt he needed to.

Now, college basketball’s all-time assist leader and the former NBA lottery pick whose playing career was derailed by an automobile accident that nearly took his life is officially back in the game he loves — comfortable, confident and happy operating under the radar but in the lead chair as the head coach at Buffalo.

"I don’t know how many people are asking at this point, but here I am," he joked during an interview this week before his team played a Mid-American Conference game at Toledo. "I have a good disguise with the gray hair. I blend in. I’m kind of low key away from the floor, but not on it. If you want to say I’m back, I guess I’m back."

Here he is, talking basketball on a couch in a hotel lobby in Northwestern Ohio after a morning shootaround. Indirectly, at least, he’s right where he wants to be.

Coaching is the Hurley family business, and Bobby officially got in it four years ago, joining his brother Danny when Danny became the head coach at Wagner. Danny had followed the lead of their legendary father, Bob Sr. — the longtime coach at St. Anthony High School in Jersey City — into coaching in the highly competitive New Jersey high school ranks at St. Benedict’s Prep, where in nine years his teams four times finished among the top 25 in various national rankings.

I don’t know how many people are asking at this point, but here I am…I have a good disguise with the gray hair. I blend in. I’m kind of low key away from the floor, but not on it. If you want to say I’m back, I guess I’m back.

-Bobby Hurley

That success attracted the interest of Wagner College on Staten Island, and when Danny Hurley made that move, Bobby followed.

After two seasons Danny was hired by Rhode Island, and Bobby again followed.

Bobby Hurley said he never saw himself as a college head coach this fast, and planned to stay at Rhode Island so he could be on Danny’s staff "for the good years." But his discussions with Buffalo athletic director Danny White last spring left Hurley believing Buffalo, a program that’s never been to the NCAA tournament, might be "a sleeping giant."

White and Buffalo got a giant of a basketball name, a coach who in a way had been preparing his whole life to run his own program. And when that coach took his team to Texas A&M on Nov. 8 for the season opener, "I kind of freaked out," Hurley said.

"It was tough early in the season," he said. "There’s no preparation for being a head coach and every decision that goes on goes through you. I knew all that, but we got on the floor at (Texas A&M) and I let my nerves get me. Since then, things have come pretty naturally. The kids are playing better. Their coach is certainly better.

"Eventually I did (see myself) doing this. The timing was never right before. I knew I wanted to do it but I was more looking to spend time with my kids. I knew the responsbility to the job and time and the family. My brother gave me the chance at Wagner and I’m just glad the time and everything sort of aligned."

The auto accident that changed his life was 20 years ago, during Hurley’s rookie season in Sacramento. Hurley, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from his truck. He suffered a collapsed lung, tore a tendon in his right knee, broke his ribs and shoulder and had compound fractures in his back.

He returned to play the following season, and struggled through four more NBA seasons before a torn ACL essentially forced him into retirement in 2000. He fought it — the knee and the thought of walking away — but eventually decided that walking away was the best course of action.

"I needed a break," Hurley said. "Banging my head against the wall wasn’t working.

"I had a pretty severe burnout. Just frustration. I had higher hopes, higher expectations. The accident, the lack of performance and then the injuries, I wanted to go overseas and play. I didn’t want to quit. I love this game. I lost that for a couple of years (struggling) in the NBA and then I tore my ACL."

I had a pretty severe burnout. Just frustration. I had higher hopes, higher expectations.

-Bobby Hurley

He had business interests, including partnership in a racing stable that helped fuel his competitive juices. Nothing like basketball, of course, but he served at times as "a volunteer (coach) at St. Benedict’s for my brother, not every day but when I could." He helped his father with summer basketball activites, many involving his own young children.

"It wasn’t like I went to an island somewhere," Hurley said. "I stepped away. I needed to see the game with a fresh perspective."

Hurley moved to Florida in the mid-2000s to be around for the winter racing seasons. There, he spent a season coaching middle school basketball at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, where his children attended. There, he coached a totally different type of game and began to feel the desire to coach at higher, more competitive levels.

"They needed somebody," he said sheepishly of his middle-school job, like the people asking knew he’d say yes.

When his brother went to Wagner, he made sure his affairs were in order elsewhere and fully devoted himself to scouting, recruiting and other non-glorious jobs that go along with being a low-level college assistant.

"My experience in college was Duke — championship expectations, first-class travel, packed gyms," Hurley said. "We got to Wagner and we took a bus everywhere. We set the meals up for the guys and brought the rack of balls out for pregame shootaround. It was strange for me, but it was a great learning experience. I appreciated how hard the players played. They didn’t have entourages like guys do at the highest level."

He started analyzing and evaluating his own coaching, too, from practice details to approaching different situations with different players. Not everybody was born with this game, he’d tell himself. Not everyone refuses to be outworked the way he had on his way to back-to-back NCAA titles at Duke, he’d remind himself.

"Everyone is raised differently, and I was raised to think losing was unacceptable," he said. "I lived that with my dad and then I went to Duke the bar was set so high, so that’s all I experienced. I try in my own way to make that rub off on them."

Now, Bobby Hurley gravitates towards players who love the game the way his father did. He finds himself repeating quotes from Mike Krzyzewski about standards and habits and details. He runs offense — terminology and all — the way his brother did at Wagner and Rhode Island. He hears Buffalo players say, "Hey, Coach," and he’s starting to realize they’re talking to him.

"When you hang ’em up as a player, you don’t know if something in your life can equal that passion," he said. "The work, the practice, the preparation…and then you get into coaching, it’s a totally different kind of work, and then you see these guys play the right way and you’re in the battle with them, and it’s great."

After an 0-2 start, Buffalo won four straight. Another four-game win streak ended with a buzzer-beater at Toledo last Wednesday, marking Hurley’s first league loss and a very quiet bus ride across the Ohio Turnpike.

Bobby Hurley hates losing. He’s reminded his players of that again in recent days, as Buffalo turned its focus to a Saturday night home game vs. Kent State.

He’s seen students in the Buffalo student section in home games wearing No. 11 Duke jerseys, and he "can’t believe they haven’t fallen apart in all these years." On the road he’s heard taunts that he’s not his dad, that Coach K can’t protect him, that he’s the third best coach in his own family.

It’s part of the business. Business, even at just 8-5 and just two months into a long journey, is good.

"I feel like I’m doing what I was meant to do now," he said. "I love being in the fight with the guys."