By Tim Tolokan
It was the spring of 1985 and Geno Auriemma had climbed an improbable mountain, becoming a Division I college basketball head coach at the University of Connecticut….at age 31.
To truly understand the entire 33-season journey of Geno Auriemma and the UConn women’s basketball program since May of 1985, you must go back to the beginning…to the two black rotary desk phones in a single office on the second floor of the UConn Field House.
The entire women’s basketball coaching staff shared one room, not just for the first year of 1985-86 but for four and-a-half years, until the opening of the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion in January of 1990. Head Coach Geno Auriemma had a desk and a black rotary phone. Associate Coach Chris Dailey had a desk and a black rotary phone. The rest of the staff sat on a small couch with a coffee table serving as a third desk. Everyone in one room…no privacy…not exactly the perfect format to build a winning program.
During that same four and-a-half year period (May 1985 until January 1990) the women’s basketball varsity locker room in the UConn Field House was not “their” locker room. In the fall, the men’s soccer team used the locker room. In the spring the women’s softball team used it. Oh, and on game days for men’s basketball home games in the Field House the women’s basketball team was cleared out of its locker room so it could be utilized by the visiting team playing the UConn men.
From the start of the journey, Auriemma had a vision and a plan. Those initial four and-a-half years of spartan existence in the aging Field House weren’t part of the original plan but it was one of many building blocks that he, his coaches and support staff, and his players used as a foundation in the creation of the most successful women’s basketball program in history.
To transform UConn women’s basketball from where the program was in 1985 to where it is 33 years later is a storyline that can’t possibly be true---but it is.
Before Auriemma arrived in Storrs, UConn had played 11 seasons of women’s basketball in the Title IX era. Of those 11 seasons, ONE winning record had been recorded (16-14 in 1980-81). Connecticut’s overall record from 1974-75 through 1984-85 showed 92 wins and 162 losses.
Fast forward to December 19, 2017 and it can be documented as factual that the task undertaken 33 seasons ago has reached a historical milestone-----1000 victories and just 135 losses under the tutelage of Auriemma and Dailey.
Auriemma’s original game plan when arriving at UConn included, “proving we can coach, win some games and turn a losing program with zero tradition of success and horrible facilities into a quality program with quality young women and then take the best offer we can get from a big time school and move on. I never thought at the beginning that we could sustain winning here because the school itself was so lacking at the time---as a total institution.”
Year one of the Auriemma era (1985-86) started impressively with seven consecutive wins, but ultimately produced his only losing season, 12-15. By the end of the third season, his record stood at 43-39, and he never dipped below the .500 mark again.
In fact, in the next 29 seasons (1988-89 thru 2016-17), plus the first nine games of this season, Geno and his program have compiled an unprecedented won-loss record of 957 wins and 96 losses…along with 11 NCAA National Championships.
One of the most amazing untold stories of the Geno/Chris pursuit of perfection took place during year six---the 1990-91 season.
In March of 1991, one year and three months after Geno and Chris Dailey each got separate offices in brand spanking new Gampel Pavilion and the players on the team got their own women’s basketball locker room, the UConn program played its way to the first of 18 NCAA Final Fours.
In 1989 and 1990, Geno had guided UConn to its first two berths in the NCAA Tournament, each time losing in the first round---but still quite an accomplishment for the Huskies.
In 1990-91, an undersized band of players, led by All-American Kerry Bascom, made folks take notice of what was starting to happen annually in Storrs.
In December of 1990, UConn upset No. 2 ranked Auburn from the SEC, the Huskies first victory over a nationally-ranked program.
Three months later, in March of 1991, Connecticut posted the first NCAA win in program history, beating Toledo in Gampel Pavilion, 81-80, on a three-point play (layup and foul shot) by Bascom with 19 seconds left on the clock. Bascom scored 39 points in 37 minutes on the court.
In its first-ever Sweet 16 game, UConn upset North Carolina State (82-71) and in the regional finals, UConn topped Clemson 60-57---vaulting Connecticut to its first berth in the NCAA Final Four.
In the national semifinals, Virginia, the school that Geno served as an assistant before taking the UConn post, eliminated the Huskies 61-55, but the stage had been set for repeated future greatness.
Beginning with the 1989 NCAA bid, UConn has become a permanent participant in the NCAA Tournament---totaling 29 consecutive bids through the 2016-2017 season.
Once Gampel Pavilion opened in 1990, the UConn women’s program began to attract more and more loyal fans. In February of 1993, the first home “sellout” of 8,241 was played against Stanford and by the 1993-94 season, the sellout sign was regularly hanging at Gampel.
In 1993-94, UConn produced its first 30-win season, going 30-3 and advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight. “That season proved to us that we were close to where we wanted to be and everyone would be back for 1994-95, along with freshman Nykesha Sales,” says Dailey.
The 1993-94 season also attracted thousands of new fans to UConn women’s basketball as Connecticut Public Television began televising selected Husky games. “It says a lot about the vision of CPTV to begin televising women’s games by the mid 1990s and realizing that fans would watch and become loyal followers of our program,” adds Dailey.
Season 10, the 1994-95 year, changed everything and Geno’s game plan of producing a winning program at UConn and moving on to a big time school now included a belief that maybe that bigger and better school might be UConn.
On January 16, 1995, Gampel Pavilion played host to a raucous sellout crowd and a nationally-televised audience for the first meeting in women’s basketball between the legendary Tennessee program and Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies. It was No. 1 Tennessee, already a three-time national champion, against No. 2 ranked Connecticut.
UConn won that battle, 77-66, and became ranked No. 1 in the nation for the first time following the game. The Huskies took an unbeaten record into the NCAA Tournament and six victories later Connecticut wrapped up a perfect 35-0 season, winning its first NCAA National Championship. The Huskies beat new rival Tennessee 70-64 in the title matchup as National Player of the Year Rebecca Lobo closed her college career by being named the Final Four Most Outstanding Performer.
“The dynamics of where we were able to recruit changed after the 1995 National Championship,” says Chris Dailey. “Our recruiting base was New England and down to the D.C. area. After the 1995 championship we were able to recruit nationally but the next challenge was to do it again because you didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder. That’s why it was so important to make it to another Final Four in 1996.”
Geno added, “making it back to the Final Four with Jen, Jamelle, Kara and Nykesha n 1996 was so big because if you didn’t make it you would be wondering if we’re one of those teams that are a one-and-done.”
UConn was severely impacted in four of the next five seasons---1996-97 through 2000-01----by major injuries to key players. In four of those five years, UConn spent a majority of the time as the No. 1 ranked team in the country.
---In 1996-97 UConn was No. 1 in the country for 12 weeks and stood at 30-0 overall when National Freshman of the Year Shea Ralph went down to a season-ending knee injury in first round NCAA play against Lehigh. The Huskies lost to Tennessee in the Elite Eight, 91-81, the only loss in a 33-1 season.
---In 1997-98, UConn was without medical redshirt Shea Ralph for the entire season and lost two-time All-American Nykesha Sales near the end of the regular season to a ruptured achilles’ tendon. For the second straight year the Huskies lost in the Elite Eight to North Carolina State, 60-52.
---In 1998-99, UConn spent seven weeks ranked No. 1 but lost the services of heralded freshman point guard Sue Bird after she sustained a season-ending injury in the eighth game of the season. UConn lost in the Sweet 16 to Iowa State 64-58.
The 1999-00 season proved UConn was not a one-hit wonder with a wire-to-wire run at No. 1, culminating with UConn’s second National Championship. The only blemish on a 36-1 overall record was a January road loss at Tennessee (74-67) but that was avenged in the national title game, a 71-52 win over the Lady Vols. Final Four MVP Shea Ralph led three teammates (Sue Bird, Svetlana Abrosimova, Asjha Jones) onto the All-Tournament team.
Geno and Chris agree that UConn’s 2000-01 team was the program’s most talented roster. But, two major injuries stopped the Huskies short of repeating as national champs, losing to Notre Dame in the national semifinals. “We were No. 1 in the nation for 12 weeks but we lost our two senior leaders---Svetlana Abrosimova (foot) in February and Shea Ralph (knee) in early March. That made it real difficult,” the head coach notes.
“When we were healthy, that team’s three reserves coming off the bench were Diana Taurasi, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams. Our starters were Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Kelly Schumacher, Svetlana, and Shea.”
“We had five Olympians on that team (Sue, Asjha, Swin, Diana, Svetlana)…that’s ridiculous. No other team could ever get to the Final Four after two All-Americans go down with injuries--and we even had our chances in the national semifinal game.”
From day one of his UConn tenure, the “Geno Way” has preached “WE not ME” as the overall program philosophy. When national championships are on the line, the UConn head coach speaks of three iconic athletes who have led Connecticut to nine of its 11 national titles in a phenomenal 15-year span from 2002 through 2016.
“Our culture can get us to the regionals pretty much every year…the way we play, who we are, how we operate, what we do…we can get to the Sweet 16. But, those last three games each year (Final 8, National Semis, National Championship Game), one or two guys are going to determine those games, and if you don’t have those guys then it’s going to be really hard to do.”
“And that’s proven to be true. That’s why Diana Taurasi (3 straight titles—2002-2004), Maya Moore (2 consecutive titles—2009 & 2010), and Breanna Stewart (4 consecutive titles—2013-2016) are the iconic leaders for nine of our NCAA Championships.”
The other two championships also had iconic leaders---Rebecca Lobo in 1995 and Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova in 2000.
Along with all the wins and the national championships the Geno and Chris story is also about those winning streaks. Louisiana Tech had set the women’s basketball win streak record with 54 straight victories from 1980-82. UConn easily bettered that mark with a 70-game win streak between 2001-2003. Then, the record-setting mark was hiked by the Huskies to 90 straight from 2008-2010.
Finally, a record for all time, UConn’s remarkable 111-game winning streak covering three different seasons from 2014-2017.
The Auriemma era at UConn would not be complete without referencing his induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and his eight years of service to USA Basketball as Head Coach of two Gold Medal winning United States Olympic teams in 2012 and 2016.
Geno had won five national championships when inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2006 and he has reaffirmed his Hall of Fame selection repeatedly by winning six additional NCAA titles since his enshrinement.
The Olympic years for Geno were a time that UConn Basketball had to share its head coach with the USA Basketball movement. “It was very important to me and I think it rejuvenated me,” Geno states. “It exposes you to a different kind of game overseas…it exposes you to the pros. It allows you to understand that there are only so many things that are in your control. When you’re a college coach you’re a control freak. Once you start coaching pros, you know it’s out of your hands.”
For the past 33 seasons Geno Auriemma has been in total control of the UConn Women’s Basketball program and the stunning results are unmatched in his sport.
- Overall Record in 32-plus seasons at UConn=1,000 Wins, 135 Losses
- The first 500 wins took 599 games (500-99).
- The next 500 wins which got Geno (and Chris) to 1,000 took just 536 games (500-36).
- 224 Weeks No. 1 in the AP National Poll -2nd all-time is Tennessee with 112 weeks
- 11-0 in NCAA National Championship games
- Three longest winning streaks in Women’s Basketball history (111, 90, 70)
- 6 unbeaten seasons---all other schools combined have 3 unbeaten seasons
- 22 30-win seasons
- 20-3 in games matching #1 vs. #2
- 16 seasons of No. 1 Final Ranking in Associated Press National Poll
- All-time record holder with 113 NCAA Wins and 22 Final Four Wins
- 18 Final Four Appearances in 32 Seasons as a Head Coach
- All-time record holder with 10 consecutive Final Four Appearances
- Quickest to 700 Wins (700-122=822 total games)
- Quickest to 800 Wins (800-128=928 total games)
- Quickest to 900 Wins (900-134=1,034 total games)
- Quickest to 1,000 Wins (1,000-1,135 total games)
Before Geno & Chris=1974-75 to 1984-85 (11 seasons)==92 wins, 162 losses.
Since Geno & Chris=1985-86 to 2017-18 (32-plus seasons through Dec. 19, 2017)=1000 wins, 135 losses
As Bob Ryan, nationally respected sports writer at the Boston Globe noted during Connecticut’s 111-game record-shattering winning streak that covered three different seasons, “UConn Women’s Basketball is the most amazing story in contemporary American sports.”