Monday was a day for all Saint Peter’s alums to honor both their school and their nickname, all of them Peacock-proud, all of them reaching deep into the drawers to find wrinkled old sweatshirts, combing their closets to dust off old windbreakers, see if they could still squeeze into them.
For Bob Hurley, Class of ’71, that meant grabbing a baseball cap before he reported to work at the Explore School on Ninth Avenue in Jersey City, where he’d do what he’s done for all of his adult life: teach the city’s kids about basketball, how to play it properly and well. For 45 years, he did this by winning close to 1,200 games and 28 state titles at St. Anthony High, a career that landed him in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
Since that school shuttered its doors, it’s been at this vocational middle school, a free program sponsored by the Hurley Family Foundation, and the message is still the same if the intensity isn’t.
“I call it my ‘grandfatherly’ approach to coaching now,” he said, laughing.
But Monday, before the kids leapt into action, they admired Hurley’s hat, because all of them had gotten caught up in the wonderful swirl of Saint Peter’s, which beat Kentucky in one of the great upsets in college basketball history on Thursday, then soundly defeated Murray State on Saturday to advance to Friday’s NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game against Purdue in Philadelphia.
“The energy is what Jersey City is all about,” Hurley said. “The kids, the adults, in this city of 300,000 people, it’s such a phenomenal story because there is such pride in the fact that this has happened here. There’s a grit that comes out of the city’s people here, and you see it with this team. A lot of these kids have been through the high school battles of New Jersey and New York. You think they’re going to be scared by Kentucky? Or by anything?”
Hurley played freshman ball at Saint Peter’s and averaged 20 points per game, and he was contemporaries and friends with most of the “Run Baby Run” Peacocks who provided Saint Peter’s with its previous moment of glory, a run to the 1968 NIT finals capped by a 100-71 stomping of Duke. That included Elnardo Webster, the greatest player in school history, whose passing Tuesday provided a sobering counterbalance to the campus glee.
“Such a great player,” Hurley said. Such a great team. And Jersey City fell in love with those guys. They’d get 6-7,000 people at the old armory. It was amazing.”
Hurley never did make the varsity, but even that comes with a happy asterisk. He spent that winter of his sophomore year helping out the CYO team for his parish, St. Paul’s. That was his first taste of coaching. Consider it akin to the first time someone handed Michelangelo a paintbrush.
“The next year I was offered the freshman job at St. Anthony,” he said. “And I was off.”
Hurley is blown away not just by the way Saint Peter’s wins but by how it plays. He has known coach Shaheen Holloway for years, and is especially joyful at the toughness Holloway’s kids play with, their resilience.
“The best thing anyone ever said about our team, to me, was that on defense, when we were really playing well, it felt like we had seven guys out there because we would rotate and help out and yet it felt like nobody was ever open,” Hurley said. “And you look at what Saint Peter’s does and it’s exactly the same thing. It’s just remarkable to watch.”
Like all of Jersey City, like all Saint Peter’s alums — and like all fans of instant Cinderellas — Hurley will keep a close watch on the Peacocks on Friday, when they take on Purdue and their tough 1-2 tandem of Jaden Ivey and 7- foot-4 Zach Edey.
For Hurley, that first step last week came with some conflict, because at the exact same time the Peacocks were out Kentucky, he was sitting in Buffalo’s KeyBank Center watching Connecticut — coached by his younger son, Danny — receive a similar gut-punch blow by another glass slipper, New Mexico State.
“I kept seeing the score updates but was suffering watching UConn,” Hurley said. “Though when I got back to the hotel and saw Saint Peter’s pulled it out I was thrilled for them. What a story.”
The sweatshirts and the windbreakers and the baseball caps won’t be going back into storage for any Saint Peter’s alums, certainly not before Friday night. And who knows? Maybe they’ll need them for Sunday, too.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” Hurley said, “it’s that nothing in this game is predetermined. I can promise you this. I can promise you Saint Peter’s is going to show up.”