Two men came 2,197 miles to help Hurley transform ASU men's basketball

When the Sun Devils pegged Hurley to be their next head coach, he brought along Levi Watkins and Ben Wood

After a bizarre contract dispute led to Bobby Hurley's exit at the University at Buffalo about three years ago, ASU men’s basketball was quick to swoop up the former Duke basketball star to lead the maroon and gold. 

In less than a handful of years, Hurley altered UB's history book, and he's doing the same for ASU, but with the help of two coaches he brought from Buffalo.

Levi Watkins (Assistant Coach)

In two years, Hurley, Watkins and the Buffalo basketball program accomplished their first Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship and their first trip to the Big Dance. 

“We had a really good two years,” Watkins said. “(We) won a championship, coached a lot of good players and accomplished a lot of things at a school that really didn’t have any history.”

However, Hurley’s time at Buffalo was all but up after the team’s 2015 run.

Bucky Gleason of The Buffalo News reported that UB’s athletic director, Danny White, “mishandled” contract negotiations with Hurley after the team’s NCAA appearance. Gleason’s report is based off “several conversations with sources close to Hurley.”

“Looking back, Hurley would have stayed in Buffalo if White showed he was fully committed to keeping him,” Gleason said in his 2015 report. “Hurley likely would have signed an extension with UB for $600,000, plus more money for his assistant coaches. He likely would have remained if UB showed it cared about him and fought hard to keep him.”

After the situation at UB played out, Hurley became the head coach at ASU and Watkins soon found himself alongside Hurley in Tempe.

“I just think it’s special when you have a boss that you really believe in and that (you) had a lot of success with,” Watkins said.

The ability to assist a program in bypassing previous struggles en route to establishing a history is an aspect Watkins didn’t take lightly at UB and isn’t at ASU.

“It was just another opportunity,” Watkins said. “When we got to Buffalo, they had never been to the NCCA tournament. That last year, we had the highest RPI ever (in school history). We coached a lot of really good players, some players that probably shouldn’t have even been at that level. To continue that going on was a great opportunity, and I’m happy I made that decision.”

Spending the majority of his time coaching forwards, Watkins credits a massive chunk of his knowledge to what he learned while playing at NC State. 

Nonetheless, when Hurley left UB and later became the Sun Devils’ head coach, Watkins said he was quick to provide an answer.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” Watkins said. “Everywhere (Hurley has) been, he’s won.”

Ben Wood (Special Assistant to Head Coach)

It was a phone call – nothing too formal or filled with interview questions – just a job offer. 

Wood was one of Hurley’s assistant coaches at UB. 

However, the two were acquainted prior to that when Wood led the community relations program at the University of Rhode Island during the time when Hurley was the associate head coach. 

After Hurley accepted this new challenge at ASU, Wood didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to take a step up in his career.

“I didn’t really question it too much,” Wood said. “It was a great advancement in my career, and working for coach Hurley and his pedigree. What he brings to the table every day is something that is good for me and it’s great to be around.”

Wood is around it a lot. As special assistant to the head coach, his tasks vary from a typical assistant coach, which was the position he held at UB.

“I coordinate with compliance and the athletic department just as (a) … direct communication between the two,” Wood said. “I help take some things off coach Hurley’s plate in that regard so he can focus more on basketball.”

Not only that, but coordinating actions with media, setting up the daily and future schedules, along with organizing various player responsibilities is all a part of Wood's job.

Although he assumed a different position at UB, Wood said he was looking for his “next step” and it just so happened to be with Hurley at ASU.

“I think sometimes the lack of history is a positive, because you can always create your own, and that’s one of the things that was the theme at Buffalo,” Wood said.

Despite ASU’s Power Five conference status, the school had not been known as a powerhouse on the court. Hurley, Watkins and Wood are seemingly working to reverse that perception.

“Arizona State had been DI for a while and had gone to the tournament, had some really great players, but it wasn’t sustained success,” Wood said. “It was a similar theme of you could kind of build your own history there a little bit, which is always kind of cool.” 


 Reach the reporter at atotri@asu.edu or follow @Anthony_Totri on Twitter.   

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