The big stage that is the big city could make anyone nervous, but UConn basketball coach Dan Hurley wasn’t pacing in the bowels of Citi Field Sunday because he is without New York experience or success.
Much of Hurley’s reputation was built in and around New York, as was that of the program he’s charged with returning to prominence. So Hurley, picked to throw out a ceremonial first pitch as part of UConn Day before the Mets faced the Cubs, was visibly uncomfortable not for where he was, but for what he was doing.
He stretched. He tossed a ball with one of his sons outside the Mets clubhouse before entering the field through the dugout. He kept smiling and shaking his head and repeating, “I’m so out of my depth.”
Only in that he’s used to bouncing a basketball, not tossing a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches — or, actually, about 55 feet. Hurley stood at the front of the mound and delivered a soft lob to the glove of New York-based UConn alum Rob Stone, a success because any pitch that doesn’t bounce in this situation certainly is.
So after all the hesitation — Hurley initially said he wouldn’t have time, because he was too busy building a basketball program — and all the overanalysis and consternation, even conversations with his brother, Bob, the Arizona State coach who was so nervous to throw a pitch before a Diamondbacks game that he doesn’t remember doing it, Hurley’s brief performance came off as natural.
In many ways, it should have. A continued UConn presence in New York is a necessity, whether it’s on the court at Madison Square Garden, the mound of a Major League Baseball stadium, the gyms that dot the recruiting trails and even at handshake events with donors. New York is fertile and accessible ground for a basketball program, an athletic department and university that continues to push its “Sixth Borough” campaign.
“I think it's huge, especially with how big UConn is, how big the brand is,” Hurley said. “You would expect the coach of the men’s team, the coach of the women’s team, the coach of the football team to be throwing out first pitches at Mets games, Yankees games, Red Sox games. UConn is that big of a brand. It’s exciting to be here. It’s a little nerve-wracking.”
Hurley is a New Jersey guy whose first success at the college level was on Staten Island, where he built Wagner into a consistent winner before doing the same at Rhode Island and moving on to UConn. He was joined Sunday by his wife, Andrea, a Mets fan who wore a Darryl Strawberry jersey, and sons Danny and Andrew. UConn president Susan Herbst was there, too.
“It’s a massive stage from an athletic standpoint,” athletic director David Benedict said from Conway, S.C., where the UConn baseball team played in an NCAA regional. “The Sixth Borough gives us a fan base and an entity within a really large place to latch onto. It’s something we constantly think about, ways to get there and perform on what is the biggest stage, in some ways, in the world.”
Hundreds of UConn alums and their families were brought onto the field after Hurley’s pitch, part of a day designed to engage fans and donors from New York City and even Fairfield County, and remind others of UConn’s reach.
New York, where some of Jim Calhoun’s biggest victories took place, will remain a home away from home. UConn has three games scheduled at Madison Square Garden next season, two in the 2K Classic (with Oregon, Syracuse and Iowa in the field) and one against Villanova. More are in the works for future seasons, neutral site games, perhaps true road games against St. John’s. Benedict has even begun conversations with the Yankees about having a football game at Yankee Stadium on a Saturday after playing a Friday night basketball game at MSG.
“If you know UConn, if you’re familiar with us and are around our brand and know our alumni base, you have a feel for the presence we have in the city,” Benedict said. “If you’re not, I’m not sure you can understand or appreciate that when we show up in the Garden, we’re going to draw fans and a lot of times out-support whoever we’re playing. We want to be in the city, need to be in the city, and the southern part of the state. We’re getting better with that.”
The UConn Coaches Road Show with Hurley, Geno Auriemma and Randy Edsall begins Monday at the Glastonbury Boathouse and continues Tuesday at Stony Creek Brewery in Branford, Wednesday at Hearst Tower in New York and Thursday at UConn’s Stamford branch. The Connecticut events begin at 6 p.m. and cost $25. The New York stop is at 6:30 and costs $40.
All are open to the public and, like a game in New York, opportunities for the Huskies to bring their product to alumni and fans from whom it asks a lot in ticket purchases and donations.
Most times when UConn is in New York, Hurley will only have to do what he does best: coach basketball. He was stressed Sunday. He had watched video of the epic, almost incomprehensible, failures of Gary Dell’Abate in 2011 and 50 Cent in 2014.
He also had noticed, shortly after being hired at UConn, a framed photo of Calhoun throwing a pitch at Fenway Park.
“I don’t know if [the count] was 2-2 in his mind, but he looked like he was coming with a fastball,” Hurley said. “I’ll have a different approach.”
There’s one tradition Hurley wants to continue.
“The great [UConn] teams have always had the New York guys — Ben Gordon, Taliek Brown, Kemba Walker,” Hurley said. “Playing in the Garden helps. That’s something we want to do out of conference every year as many times as we can. … I remember playing UConn in the Big East Tournament or even in New Jersey at the Meadowlands [as a player at Seton Hall], and there would be a huge, overwhelming [UConn] presence. That’s something we certainly want to reignite.”