Making the Premiere program from scratch

Last night the Connecticut Women’s Basketball team set an NCAA Record that will likely never be matched, must less exceeded and they aren’t finished yet.  With a  win over South Carolina at home in Storrs, Connecticut the U-Conn Lady Huskies won their 100th straight game.  Their last loss was in November of 2014 at Stanford.  Since then not only have they won the 100 straight games, but they’ve won 98 of those games by double figures.

For all Tennessee’s Pat Summit did for Women’s Basketball and there’s no denying her accomplishments, what Tennessee Lady Vol fans don’t want to hear but what is absolutely 100% true is that U-Conn is now the premiere Women’s Basketball Program in the country having left Tennessee and everyone else in their wake.  It’s not a debate, it’s not even close and it’s not going to change as long as one Luigi Auriemma remains the coach at U-Conn.

Of course, you better know Luigi Auriemma as just Geno Auriemma.  Born in Montello, Italy in March 1954, Auriemma migrated with his family to the suburbs of Philadelphia when he was a teenager.  As is the case with many children of European or South American descent, his first love of sports was soccer, but when he came to the United States there were no organized soccer teams.  He picked up a love for baseball, which continues to this day, but as a sophomore in high school he was introduced to the game of basketball, an event that would change his life forever.  After his playing days were over, he moved into coaching.  While a student at West Chester State University, he commuted over an hour a day to coach the boy’s team at his high school.  Upon graduating, he took his first job as an assistant men’s coach at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.  After two years, he returned as a boy’s assistant at his high school and two years later took a job as an assistant women’s basketball coach at the University of Virginia.  There he worked as head coach Debbie Ryan’s (another of the game’s pioneers) Chief Recruiter and managed to convince 6 High School All-Americans to come to Virginia, which set up a run for Virginia that would land the Cavaliers in two Final Fours in 1990 and 1991.

Against the advice of probably everyone, he left Virginia in 1985 to take the women’s job at Connecticut.  Before Auriemma arrived at U-Conn, it was anything but a women’s basketball powerhouse.  U-Conn had just one winning season in its history before Auriemma took the job in 1985.  The U-Conn ladies now enjoy the best of the best with their facilities, but when Auriemma came to the school, they didn’t have a locker room and there were holes in the roof of their practice facility so when it rained, they couldn’t even practice.  He has just one losing season in his tenure at U-Conn, that was his first in 1985-86 when they went 12-15.  He followed that up with 14-13 in 1986-87 and 17-11 in 1987-88.  The U-Conn women made their first appearance in the NCAA women’s tournament in 1989 and excluding an 18-11 year in 1992-93, Connecticut hasn’t had less than 20 wins since 1989 and have played in the NCAA Tournament every year since.  U-Conn has 11 National Titles, 17 Final Fours, and 21 seasons with more than 30 wins.  After last night’s win his career record is 979-134, he’s a 7-time coach of the year and just for good measure as the head coach of the United States Women’s National Team he has 2 World Championships and 2 Olympic Gold Medals.  Sometime next season, even if his team doesn’t lose a game this season, he’ll become just the 4th Division One coach to win 1,000 games joining Tennessee’s Summit, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, and Stanford Tara Vanderveer.  From the ashes of a dumpster fire of a program, Auriemma has elevated U-Conn to the stratosphere and his income to a cool $10.9 million contract.

He’s confident, brash and seems to obtain some type of enjoyment out of tweaking other fan bases, along the lines of Steve Spurrier.  His primary target used to be Tennessee.  Lately, he’s enjoyed yanking the chain of Notre Dame’s Head Coach Muffet McGraw.  At the final 4 in 2014, she told a reporter in response to a question of whether the two hated each other that it was “a fair assumption”  Among the teams to play U-Conn, in fairness, McGraw’s Notre Dame team has enjoyed success beating U-Conn a total of 6 times.  But, if he ever really wants to screw with her, he could simply say “Hey Muffet, congrats on that one National Championship banner you have in your arena.  Take a look at the 11 in mine.  But, of course, you have me beaten in the number of National Runner-up trophies.”

He’s truly one person who could care less who he offends or what others think.  His relationship with the now-deceased Summit was so strained that she cancelled the annual meeting between the two schools in 2007.  She did so reportedly over Auriemma’s alleged recruiting tactics involving High School player of the year Maya Moore.  Moore, whose home was just three hours from Tennessee’s campus in Atlanta, signed with Connecticut over Tennessee.  The story – that Summit would never confirm – is that Auriemma had a former U-Conn player call Moore from a phone in his office.  I don’t know if that’s an NCAA violation as I don’t have time to study the 10,000 pages that don’t make any sense in the NCAA manual, but violation or not it pissed Summit off and she ended the women’s game’s best rivalry.  Tennessee and U-Conn haven’t played since and until the NCAA Women’s Tournament Committee puts them in the same bracket (and that’s going to happen at some point), it appears they won’t. Of U-Conn’s 11 titles, 4 have come by beating Tennessee in the championship game.

One season when Tennessee was hosting Villanova as part of the NCAA’s first and second round in Knoxville, Summit – as she was known to do – invited the Villanova team to her house for dinner.  Auriemma couldn’t resist and quipped that he hoped Villanova enjoyed the food and the pool before they got their ass kicked in the tournament.  He didn’t get along with former U-Conn men’s coach Jim Calhoun – the absolute portrait of a old curmudgeon – who once referred to the U-Conn women’s fan base as the world’s largest nursing home.  That prompted Auriemma to say that Jim Calhoun had a problem with anyone else’s success.

U-Conn has benefitted greatly from playing in the American Conference.  In the old Big East, they annually had to deal with teams like Notre Dame, Rutgers, Villanova, and DePaul.  Now they are simply women among girls in games against the likes of SMU, Central Florida, Houston, and Temple.  But, there’s also no denying winning streaks at various points of 70, 90 and now 100 and unless someone beats them this year, which is unlikely, U-Conn will win it’s 5th straight national title having lost just 5 games in that five year span.

He’s developed interests outside basketball as well.  He owns 6 restaurants in Connecticut, including 4 at the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino including one named “Geno’s Wok-On.”  He also sells his own line of Wine and Tomato Sauce, is a father of three and now a grandfather.  Perhaps it’s Auriemma’s hard scrabble Italian background that keeps the U-Conn women’s program grounded and the players hungry.  Having come to America as an immigrant, he became a naturalized citizen in 1994 at the age of 40.  He’s built something from literally nothing and the women’s game which has made tremendous advancements in the past 30 years, is all the better for it.

As long as he’s at U-Conn, he’ll get the best players by winning championships and win championships because he has the best players so Connecticut’s athletic administration will have to make room in rafters of Gampel Pavilion for more National Title banners because it appears that Luigi can name his number.



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