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Auriemma says 89-game win streak was fun while it lasted

Posted: January 25, 2011 1:08 p.m.
Updated: January 26, 2011 5:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

CONNECTICUT WOMEN’S BASKETBALL COACH Geno Auriemma (left) chats with a fan while taking in last week’s Spring Valley at Lugoff-Elgin girl’s basketball game.

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Rarely does a college women’s basketball coach get a second look while attending a high school girl’s game.

Geno Auriemma, however, is hardly your run of the mill women’s mentor

With Lugoff-Elgin hosting Spring Valley, the nation’s 14th-ranked team last Tuesday night, the University of Connecticut head coach stepped into the gym and took a seat close to the entrance/exit door. After wondering if the man in the leather coat was indeed Auriemma, former L-E girls and boys basketball coach Calvin McRoy took a closer look and then returned to his seat across the court with his findings.

"It’s him," McRoy said. "I swear."

As the game went along, several fans did a double-take when walking into the gym and seeing Auriemma. Some fans asked for and received autographs from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame member. He even signed a basketball or two as he watched probable UConn target, Spring Valley junior center Xylina McDaniel in action.

Along with Tennessee head coach Pat Summit, Auriemma can be considered one of the two faces of the women’s college game after having led the Huskies to seven national championships in the past 15 seasons while being the national coach of the year on five occasions. In 2012, if the United States qualifies, he will be the head coach of the U.S. women’s Olympic Basketball team at the summer games in London.

Signing autographs, posing for pictures and chatting up basketball fans has become commonplace for Auriemma, whose program rivals most men’s teams when it comes to national exposure. At home in Connecticut, however, he is just Geno from the neighborhood.

"In my hometown, people just look at me as another guy in the street," he said amid the steady stream of fans who passed by his seat to get a closer look at him on this night. "But, TV does funny things to people. All of a sudden, everywhere you go, people want to know about the team, about the program and about certain players.

"It’s all a good thing, in some ways. But there was a time when no one knew that we had a basketball program at UConn. But whatever the down side is, it’s not nearly as bad was what the up side is from all the attention we get paid from what we’ve been able to do."

It was Auriemma, the 56-year-old native of Montella, Italy, who gave the UConn women’s program its identity. The former University of Virginia and St. Joseph’s University assistant was given his first head coaching job at Connecticut prior to the start of the 1985-86 campaign. Before that, in its 11-year history of a varsity program, the women’s basketball team had just one winning season.

Auriemma’s success story in Storrs was hardly done overnight. His first three teams went 12-15, 14-13 and 17-11, respectively, losing in the first round of the Big East Tournament at the conclusion of each season. By year four, the Huskies went 24-6 and won the Big East title while earning the school’s first NCAA bid in women’s basketball.

Steadily building the program, Auriemma’s team steadily moved up in national stature. In 1994, his girls advanced to the NCAA tourney’s Elite Eight. The following season UConn went 35-0 --- the first of its four perfect seasons under Auriemma --- and won the first of its seven NCAA crowns.

As the Huskies raised their national profile, fans and television took notice. Soon thereafter, UConn women’s games were selling out the 15,000-plus seat Hartford Civic Center and its on-campus, 9,000-seat Gampel Pavilion on a regular basis. With seats at a premium and the team a regional phenomenon and a ratings bonanza, Connecticut Public Television jumped in and started telecasting all the UConn women’s games. Soon after ESPN beamed women’s hoops game --- many featuring UConn --- to the nation before securing the rights to the NCAA Women’s Tournament.

Auriemma created a monster in girl’s basketball in the Nutmeg State, aided in large part to his first batches of star recruits who became household names in Connecticut and beyond the state’s borders.

"I think a big part of it was just getting a new coaching staff in when we came in there. It was a different mindset," Auriemma said of the transformation to the women’s program at the school. "It took us three of four years; then we built a new facility which probably helped basketball, in general, in Connecticut.

"It’s like anyplace else; you get a couple of good players and getting local kids like Rebecca Lobo, Nykesha Sales and Jen Rizzotti. You get a lot of New England kids and Connecticut kids and then, one thing led to another. And once TV catches on and they start televising your games, that’s when it all took off."

Along with Tennessee, it can be argued that UConn helped trigger the rise in the popularity of women’s basketball in this country. Between the two programs, they have won 15 of the 28 titles which the NCAA has awarded since the start of the women’s national championship basketball tournament in 1982.

Plenty has happened to the women’s game in the span of those 28 years. And, Auriemma said, the key for future success is to continue to build on the momentum which has been gained over a relatively short period of time and get more and more schools to put more into their women’s basketball program.

"It’s still young," he said of the women’s game, itself. "It’s only been in the last 15 years or so that more and more programs have been able to get the funding that they need from the universities. All that helped spread the wealth around. There are players going to more programs than just the established ones, which has allowed a bunch of schools to become competitive. It used to be just three or four (schools), now, it’s probably 15 to 20 teams who can beat anybody at any time.

"It’s moving in the right direction, but it’s like anything else: You don’t want it to go the way of women’s soccer where you have that big splash with the World Cup, then it goes back to where it was. We have to keep growing the game."

The UConn women gave the game unprecedented exposure recently when the program set an NCAA record with 89 consecutive wins, displacing the 88-game mark set by the John Wooden-coach UCLA men from 1971 through 1974.

UConn’s streak began with the first game of the 2009 season, after Stanford defeated the Huskies in the semifinals of the 2008 Women’s Final Four. The Huskies would win the 2009 and 2010 national championships with 39-0 records both seasons. The streak ended at 89 on Dec. 30, 2010 in a 71-59 loss at Stanford. Since then, UConn has won six straight games to improve to 18-1 on the season and move into the second spot in the latest women’s poll.

After Auriemma and his players were besieged by the local and national media as the streak grew, when it finally came to an end, it allowed the program to exhale and get on with the business at hand. In some ways, Auriemma has said, the end of the streak was a relief.

"I think the kids got a little tired of answering questions about it, day-in and day-out," he said of the media circus which followed the Huskies as the streak approached and eventually topped UCLA’s record which stood for some 36 years. "Looking back on it now, it’s remarkable that we were able to do what we did.

"Now that it’s over, fortunately, you don’t have to talk about it," he added with a smile. "It was great while it lasted and people were probably happy that they were able to go through it and that it was a lot of fun while we were doing it. But, like anything else, it was going to end at some point, you just didn’t know when."

Auriemma’s girls have won 753 games and lost only 123 in his 25-plus seasons at Connecticut. He reached 700 victories faster than any head coach in history, needing just 822 games to reach the milestone which he achieved last season. More importantly, every recruited freshman who has completed her athletic eligibility under Auriemma’s watch has graduated with a degree from UConn.

Having done about all he can in the women’s game, save for what he hopes will be bringing home an Olympic gold medal next summer, there are those in the basketball world who often wonder what Geno Auriemma would or could do if he was given the reins to a Division I college men’s program.

That, he said with a smile, will be a question which, in all likelihood, will go unanswered thanks to Auriemma’s being comfortable in his current digs.

"I get asked that all the time," he said of having given thought to coaching a men’s team.

"When you’re young, you’d like to think that you can do anything at anytime and anywhere. As you get older, you start to realize what you’re good at and where you’re successful.

"I enjoy being at Connecticut. My family has grown up there. So, I don’t see myself anywhere else. I’m at an age now where it doesn’t make sense to look anywhere else. I’m happy where I am."

 

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