Big payoff for an '80s dream, no guarantees when Auriemma arrived at UConn

Published on Thursday, 21 December 2017 22:44
Written by Carl Adamec

Journal Inquirer

The irony wasn’t lost on Geno Auriemma that the first opportunity to win his 1,000th career game would come at a casino.

There were no guarantees when he came from Virginia or when Chris Dailey came from Rutgers to take over the UConn women’s basketball team that success would follow. Prior to his hiring on May 18, 1985, the Huskies had one winning season and an overall record of 92-162.

But the gamble paid off, thanks to his own skills, knowledge and personality, and his ability to bring in players that bought into his philosophy.

Auriemma became the fourth women’s coach to reach 1,000 wins Tuesday night when No. 1 UConn defeated Oklahoma 88-64 in the Naismith Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase at sold-out Mohegan Sun Arena.

“Kids were taking a big chance on us,” Auriemma said before the game. “CD took a big chance coming here because she left a really good job. We have kids coming to school here for whom our facilities here were worse than the ones they played at in high school. You go down to Central Bucks East (Pennsylvania) where Meghan Pattyson played and her facilities were 10 times better than our facilities here. So kids took a big risk coming to play for us because they could have gone to more established programs and better schools at the time.”

Auriemma joined late Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, and North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell in the 1,000-win club, and the 2006 Naismith Hall of Fame inductee got there the fastest.

Win No. 1 came on Nov. 23, 1985, a 73-67 overtime victory at Iona.

“I remember the bus ride home. People were excited,” Auriemma said. “Those were the good old days.”

Even with the 11 national championships, the 18 Final Four appearances, and the combined 45 league regular season and tournament titles that have come since, he often gets nostalgic.

How many times have the Huskies been an underdog the last decade? Not many.

“There was a long stretch where coaching basketball was fun,” Auriemma said. “You celebrated everything, because it was the first time or it was meaningful, significant and new for a lot of the players and our program. There were a lot of new highs and experiences we hadn’t felt before. Yeah, now all that is gone.”

But that doesn’t mean he plans on going anywhere soon.

After the Huskies’ win over Notre Dame on Dec. 3, Auriemma spoke about his hope to coach until he was 70.

“I probably should have an exit strategy,” Auriemma said. “The only problem is that I never had a strategy to get to where I am. It hasn’t dawned on me to have a strategy for how to get out of where I am because I don’t know how I got here. But I’m sure that sometime soon, the people in my world who spend more time thinking about that than I do are going to say, ‘How are we going to do this, and when is that going to be?’ But as of right now, I don’t have one.

“There is going to come a point in time when I wake up in the morning and say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I don’t know when that is. I read something where the optimum age for not working anymore is 70, not a day before and not a day after. So I don’t know. Does that mean anything?”

A sign that Auriemma plans on being around for awhile is his recruiting of high school sophomores and freshmen. He has offered scholarships to 2017 United States U-16 team members Paige Bueckers, a sophomore guard, and Azzi Fudd, a freshman wing.

Part of his week off as his players went through fall semester final exams was spent traveling to see recruits.

“I have had more kids ask me about it and now I even ask them first,” Auriemma said. “I say, ‘Do you have any questions for me? Like when I am going to retire? Like how long I am going to be here? Well, now that you brought it up.’ One of the things I said to a really good kid, a fun kid who asked me that was, ‘Well, maybe the coach that asked you that question, I’ll be around a lot longer than they will be because I have outlived a lot of coaches you know.’ ”

Auriemma, though, is taking it one game at a time. On deck for the Huskies is a trip to Toronto, Canada, for Friday’s contest with Duquesne that will serve as a homecoming for Hamilton, Ontario, native Kia Nurse.

But Tuesday night was a milestone worth celebrating.

“The thing I get from my mother when I talk to her is just how fortunate I am to be in the position I’m in, to be where I am, and to be doing what I’m doing,” Auriemma said. “The thing she keeps telling me is, ‘You’re lucky. You really have a good thing going. Don’t mess it up by trying to be all things to all people.’ She is all for the players, and she wants us to win every game until we win every game and then she complains because we win all our games.

“One of her greatest comments ever to me was, ‘That is why nobody likes you, because you win all the time.’ ”

It’s what he has done best.

Posted in The Bristol Press, UConn on Thursday, 21 December 2017 22:44. Updated: Thursday, 21 December 2017 22:46.