America at Large: No-nonsense Auriemma builds all-conquering dynasty

University of Connecticut women’s basketball team have won 100 games win in row

Connecticut Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma celebrates with the team’s supporters after victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the NCAA Women’s Final Four National Championship   in 2015. Photograph: Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Connecticut Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma celebrates with the team’s supporters after victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the NCAA Women’s Final Four National Championship in 2015. Photograph: Mike Carlson/Getty Images

 

Midway through the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s 100th consecutive victory last week, the television commentary took a strange turn. Instead of reiterating the historic nature of the feat, they began speculating about whether this winning run might never actually end. In that regard, talk turned to Azura Stevens and Megan Walker, two of the most coveted players in the nation, who will be joining the most dominant team in the history of the game in time for next season. The type of additions that have people talking about 150 and even 200 as real possibilities.

Wherever it goes from here, UConn, as they are best known, have rewritten the record books and created that most beloved of American sports institutions, an all-conquering dynasty. Just two of their 100 wins were by fewer than 10 points. Twenty-five of them were by more than 50. The epic margins of victory en route to four consecutive national titles only hint at the true nature of their dominance. Last year, three of the best college players of all time graduated to the WNBA, their departure offering UConn’s rivals a sliver of hope. Yet, younger students stepped up and here they are, still unbeaten, and increasingly looking untouchable.

It’s a remarkable tale too because of where they came from. Sixty-two-year-old Geno Auriemma first arrived on campus in 1985. He was on a salary of $30,000, the team had lost 57 out of 84 games over the previous three seasons, and the crowd for home matches usually consisted of about 50 friends and family. In his first head coaching job, he was cocky and sarcastic, carrying himself with the uber-confident air of somebody taking over a powerhouse, not a college that didn’t take the sport seriously enough to even have an office for the coach of the women’s team. It took time but their status finally caught up with his persona.

National titles

Ten years after being offered the job over a cup of coffee in a Dunkin Donuts, he delivered the first of 11 national titles and, suddenly, this sleepy corner of the nutmeg state became synonymous with hot-housing the development of the finest female players on the planet. These days, UConn routinely attract around 10,000 to home games and Auriemma draws down $ 2 million a year while routinely fending off speculation about a possible move to the NBA.

It’s difficult to see what, other than a bigger wage packet, he could gain from trying his luck in the men’s pro league given that each fresh campaign in Connecticut only seems to further burnish his legend. Aside from pursuing five in a row, this could yet be their seventh perfect season under his baton. Not bad for somebody who initially told himself he’d put in two or three years learning his trade in this backwater before moving on to bigger and better things.

Players buy into the militancy of the programme because, apart from becoming serial winners, almost all graduate with proper degrees.

His no-nonsense managerial style has some old-school flourishes. Away from the court, players must wear dresses or skirts to any team event. Travelling on the bus to games, headphones and cellphones must be out of sight because he wants to encourage players to talk to each other. On court, headbands and sleeves are not allowed and socks must be worn a certain way too. The uniformity is by design, the team motto is “Separate yourself by how you play, not how you look”.

Players buy into the militancy of the programme because, apart from becoming serial winners, almost all graduate with proper degrees. Not much of a boast until you consider college sport in America is a rancid environment where too many universities show scant regard for the education of their athletes, wringing every drop from their talent before spewing them out before, in some cases, they’ve mastered basic literacy. Auriemma’s mother, an immigrant from Montella in southern Italy, never learned to read or write so he was never going to tolerate that approach to the classroom.

Gifted teenagers

Every college coach is charged with attracting the best players to their team and in the past his erstwhile rivals have accused him of violating the regulations on that score. At this point in UConn’s hegemony though, the most gifted teenagers in the country want to play for him because they’ve grown up watching his teams dominate and his alumni go on to light up the WNBA and the Olympics.

“The majority of the kids we get, they talk about winning championships,” said Auriemma. “Whenever a kid says to me, ‘What position am I going to play?’ or, “What’s my role going to be on the team?’ I go, ‘Well, you’re probably not going to have one, because you’re probably not coming to Connecticut.’”

There are conflicting schools of thought regarding the immediate and long-term impact of dominance on this scale. Some believe UConn’s excellence draws casual views towards the women’s game, most of them tuning in curious to see just how good this team can possibly be. Others contend that their superiority is so pronounced that it has become counterproductive, driving away potential new fans and merely confirming the prejudices of those who have long regarded the women’s game as somehow inferior.

Last Saturday night, all those arguments were almost rendered moot when UConn struggled against Tulane, their worst performance of the season culminating in their 101st victory but by just three points.

“The wrong team won,” admitted Auriemma afterwards. Yet the streak continues.

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