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Hurley slowly hearkening the old days at UConn

One of the announcers during Monday night's game at DePaul referenced a conversation with Dan Hurley, alluding to how even the coach admitted that for a time, UConn had regressed into a mid-major program.

Almost made me feel less of an idiot for thinking what I thought the day Hurley took the job: He'd just made a lateral move from Rhode Island to Storrs.

I know. You're yelling. Don't blame you. But at the time, Hurley was winning at URI in a league (the Atlantic 10) that I thought was mostly comparable to Elba, otherwise known as the American Athletic Conference. Why would you leave an upcoming program in a winnable league with at least some local familiarity for a declining program with more tradition — but in a detached, more disconnected league with all the sex appeal of Humpty Dumpty?

This was March 10, 2017 at Hurley's introductory news conference. Lots of folks there, all sounding a lot like Yankee fans in the 1980s: ignoring the present, clinging to the past and at best speculative about the future. Or perhaps put into the parlance of Pitino: Rip Hamilton wasn't walking through that door.

I admired all the things Hurley said that day. He said UConn's brand "transcends the conference."

He gushed at the way Jim Calhoun's teams used to play: substance, defense, rebound, effort — and reminded us he was taught that much by his dad, Bob, one of the greatest basketball coaches in the history of the world for decades at St. Anthony in Jersey City.

Dan Hurley called the job a "destination." He said, "UConn has one of the great brands in college basketball, a brand that can stand up to any other."

His words had rhetorical usefulness, sure. But still I wondered: Were the Calhoun days over permanently? Could this program find its way back from the wilderness to the big, bad city?

The answers slowly reveal themselves now, one affirmation following the next. And it is a welcome sight.

There is no other fan base, perhaps this side of the Buffalo Bills, starving for renewed relevance more than loyalists of UConn men's basketball.

Are we ready to go full Poltergeist and proclaim they're baaaack? Not yet. Need to see the Huskies beat the Big East's iron — Creighton (a free throw away last month but a loss nonetheless), Villanova and Seton Hall for starters. But put it this way: After a period of being stuck on Route 1 in traffic at rush hour, they're closer to the freeway with the windows down in Aretha's Pink Cadillac.

Surely, the move to the Big East has helped. And yes — not all of us (OK, maybe just me) were thrilled with the original prospect, which left football in purgatory. But something in the wake of Dee Rowe's passing awakened me to why this basketball program matters so much here in Connecticut.

The fortunes of UConn men's basketball have always — always — had a rhapsodic effect on us. I wish I could convey the thrill of talking to de facto program historians Tim Tolokan and Wayne Norman the other day about Dee's passing. They told classic stories about him, sure. But hearing about the day Dee froze the ball in 1970 to beat URI and wonderful tales of the old Yankee Conference spoke to the deep history that fortified the program's influence on state sports history all over again. (At least for me.)

Al Weston, Joey Whelton, Tony Hanson and Jim Abromaitis still mean as much to many of us fiftysomethings as Rip, Khalid, Emeka and Shabazz mean to the youngins. And now Dan Hurley is restoring the roar.

One thing we should all realize in the age of COVID: Enjoy each day. Each win. Each sign of improvement. Each story. Enjoy the innocent climb. Soon, Gampel will be full again with 10,000 maniacs barking at officials, all with a new/old levels of expectation for the program.

It's good to have it back.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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