Before UConn hired a little-known Italian-born coach with a wry sense of humor and an insatiable work ethic, the school’s women’s basketball program had only produced one winning season in 11 years.
Geno Auriemma has since guided the Huskies to 29 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, 18 Final Fours, 11 national championships and six undefeated seasons.
Auriemma is on the cusp of another milestone Tuesday as UConn prepares to face unranked Oklahoma (5-5) at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. A win over the Sooner’s would be Auriemma’s 1,000th career victory, a plateau only a few other Division I basketball coaches have reached.
Former Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt became the first to win 1,000 games in 2009 and Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski and Stanford women’s coach Tara VanDerveer have since followed suit. Like Auriemma, North Carolina women’s coach Sylvia Hatchell is also one victory away from 1,000 as the Tar Heels prepare to host Grambling State on Tuesday.
How did Auriemma go from coaching a struggling program to building a dynasty? It didn’t happen overnight. Here are 10 defining moments in Auriemma’s sterling 32-year career as head coach of the Huskies.
1. Hiring Chris Dailey as top assistant (1985)
When Auriemma hired Dailey off the Rutgers staff days after landing the UConn job, neither coach envisioned staying in Storrs longterm. They both hoped to have enough success that they could move on to a more prestigious program. Thirty-two years later, Auriemma is still the head coach at UConn and Dailey is still by his side, having turned down numerous chances to run other programs on her own. Dailey and Auriemma are perfect partners because they have a similar sense of humor yet different strengths that complement one-another. Auriemma is the big-picture visionary. The more detail-oriented Dailey takes control of the little things, from what players eat before games, to what they wear to class.
2. Signing Rebecca Lobo (1991)
To land Lobo, Auriemma had to persuade the 6-4 high-school All-American to go against her parents’ wishes for the first time in her life. Lobo’s parents wanted her to choose an academically prestigious university like Stanford or Notre Dame. Lobo preferred UConn because it was closer to her Massachusetts home and she believed in Auriemma even though he hadn’t yet won his first NCAA tournament game. The addition of Lobo was impactful from day one and program-changing by her senior year. She emerged as the face of women’s college basketball in 1995 while leading the Huskies to their first national championship and the sport’s second undefeated season.
3. Reaching the program’s first Final Four (1991)
The importance of UConn’s first Final Four appearance cannot be overlooked even if it didn’t end in a national title. The Huskies’ ability to compete at a national level for the first time helped persuade Lobo and other subsequent recruits that Auriemma’s vision for the program was realistic. Led by Auriemma’s first star, Kerry Bascom, sharpshooter Wendy Davis and versatile Laura Lishness, UConn spent most of the season in the AP Top 25 and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies survived a near-upset against 11th-seeded Toledo in their opening game and defeated North Carolina State and Clemson before falling to No. 1 seed Virginia in the Final Four.
4. The birth of women’s basketball’s greatest rivalry (1995)
On Martin Luther King Day in 1995, a national TV audience watched UConn meet Tennessee for the first time. The Associated Press poll voting was actually delayed a day to account for the result, a 77-66 Huskies victory that flipped the teams’ rankings as UConn took over No. 1 and Tennessee fell to No. 2. The Huskies and Vols met 21 more times before Pat Summit infamously halted the series in 2007. UConn leads the series 13-9 including a 4-0 record against Tennessee in national title games. The significance of the first meeting between the teams was that it showed a women’s college basketball rivalry could capture the nation’s attention if it featured a combination of high-caliber play and well-known stars with charismatic personalities. UConn-Tennessee elevated the stature of both teams and the whole sport.
5. The first title (1995)
To win the national title and finish off the second perfect season in women’s college basketball history, UConn had to beat Tennessee a second time. Lobo earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors after she rallied the Huskies from nine down in the second half to defeat the Vols 70-64. The impact of UConn’s 35-0 season cannot be overstated. It elevated Huskymania in the state of Connecticut. It helped school officials gain approval for a series of facility upgrades benefiting both basketball programs and all aspects of the university. It helped UConn become a recruiting power outside the Northeast for the first time. And it made it clear there was a new challenge to Tennessee’s status as the sport’s top dog.
6. Signing Diana Taurasi (2000)
Auriemma has seldom coveted a recruit more than the ultra-talented Taurasi, but he faced a significant obstacle. Taurasi’s mom didn’t want her daughter to leave Southern California and go back east for school. UConn ultimately won a recruiting battle with UCLA for Taurasi because she wanted to play against the best and she believed Auriemma would challenge her the way no other coach would. Taurasi’s worst moment at UConn was a 1-for-15 shooting performance against Notre Dame in a 2001 Final Four loss, but she redeemed herself thereafter. She more than held her own the following year on an undefeated national title team that also featured seniors Sue Bird and Swin Cash. Then it became her show as she led UConn to two more championships and won back-to-back national player of the year awards.
7. Signing Maya Moore (2007)
It’s easy to forget that the UConn dynasty appeared in jeopardy of ending after Taurasi’s final championship in 2004. The starless Huskies lost eight games and fell in the Sweet 16 in 2005. The next two years were better, but UConn still fell short of the Final Four and never had the air of dominance from previous eras. Everything changed in 2007 when Auriemma recruited Moore, the star that he had been missing. He won a recruiting battle so fierce with Tennessee that it led to Pat Summitt canceling the rivalry immediately afterward. Moore earned first-team All-American honors all four years at UConn and won 150 of the 154 games she played, teaming with elite post Tina Charles to capture undefeated national championships as a sophomore and junior.
8. The streak breaker (2010)
One month into Moore’s senior season, UConn won its 89th consecutive game with a 93-62 rout of Florida State. The victory eclipsed the record 88 straight wins the UCLA men posted during the apex of the John Wooden era. Comparisons between the two teams brought UConn a lot of attention but also put Auriemma in a no-win situation. If he insisted UConn was equal to the UCLA dynasty, he drew the ire of those who believed the Bruins faced greater talent and competition. If he didn’t acknowledge the significance of matching UCLA’s hallowed streak, he did a disservice to his program and women’s basketball. The truth is the two teams should be treated like boxers who dominated different weight classes. Floyd Mayweather couldn’t knock out Mike Tyson in his prime, but that doesn’t make either of their accomplishments any less phenomenal.
9. The four-peat (2016)
Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson accomplished something no other senior class in women’s basketball history ever has. They captured an unprecedented fourth straight national title in 2016, capping a perfect season by pounding Syracuse 82-51. In Stewart’s four seasons in Storrs, UConn was nearly unbeatable. The three-time national player of the year lost four games as a freshman and only one the next three years, cementing her place alongside Taurasi and Moore as UConn’s greatest players ever. It was fitting that Stewart’s final win came at the expense of hometown Syracuse. She scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in her final college game.
10. 100 straight wins (2017)
UConn was supposed to be vulnerable the year after Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson graduated. The Huskies were supposed to go through another brief dip like the one they endured post-Taurasi in 2005. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Behind sophomore Katie Lou Samuelson and juniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, UConn won its first 36 games of the season. The Huskies won their 100th consecutive game against South Carolina last February and then added 11 more wins before suffering a stunning upset against Mississippi State in the national semifinals. Though the Huskies didn’t win the national title, they still accomplished plenty. They kept the program from backsliding in what should have been a rebuilding year.
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