Luigi “Geno” Auriemma is truly and iconically a visionary.
Now, there are a lot of specifications and definitions out there, so I’ll save you the legwork of researching for clarity:
Visionary – noun: a person of unusually keen foresight; a person who is given to audacious, highly speculative, or impractical ideas or schemes; (and finally, probably most relatable) dreamer.
Don’t believe me? Take it from the person who probably knows best. Here’s UConn Associate Head Coach Chris Daly from “UConn ’95: Birth of a Dynasty:
“We really focused on what we had. We didn’t get caught up in what we didn’t have.
We focused on Geno & I as coaches. Our vision.
Starting a program, building a program. Being apart of that foundation. Right from the beginning, we’ve always focused on ‘here’s what we have:
We have good people.
People who know how to play basketball.
& those players helped us recruit more talented players but still, with the same mindset.”
At the time, it just seemed like common sense. Nothing too farfetched or overdramatic.
Fast forward to now, 999 wins later. Everyone wants to know the secret. Everyone wants into UConn’s practice.
Everybody (now that Stewie’s gone) wants to play UConn since they can’t simulate what playing them is like. Everybody wants a piece of the pie.
But, Geno has been and will always be the first to tell you, it’s just basketball. UConn just does it better than anyone else, and it’s not a special drill or special potion. It begins and ends (not really — there’s a ton of help from CD that goes unseen) with the Geno Auriemma effect.
Born from Italian parents who emigrated to Norristown, Pennsylvania when he was seven-years-old, Auriemma is the embodiment of the oft-misplaced concept of the “American Dream.” Thankfully for basketball junkies like myself, the dream he chose to chase was his own.
Given his first opportunity to coach at St Joseph’s University a year after graduating in 1978, Auriemma got to learn from one of the absolute best in Jim Foster, who is still coaching and currently serving as the head coach of the Chattanooga Mocs of the Southern Conference.
DEGREES OF GREATNESS
Ironically enough? His fellow assistant coach on that staff was none other than Notre Dame Head Coach Muffet McGraw. Talk about iron sharpening iron. It’s no wonder they’ve all been successful. Imagine having your late night basketball junkie conversations consist of that caliber of IQ. I salivate just thinking about it.
Following a two-year return to coaching his high school boys team, Auriemma joined the University of Virginia women’s basketball coaching staff as an assistant for four seasons under the incomparable Debbie Ryan. Immediately, two legends in the game — Ryan remained the UVA coach until retiring following the 2010-11 season, opening the door for current Head Coach JoAnne Boyle (who coached my sister) — got to show Geno Auriemma the ropes.
So, as much as one might try and call it luck of the draw, something is revealing to me that this was more destiny. A calling, if you will.
THE CALL TO CONNECTICUT
The last interview of the bunch, Auriemma was up against a strong selection of female coaches ready to take the reins of the UConn program for themselves. One of those names? Chris Dailey. Legend has it if Geno had turned down the position, she would’ve been the hire. Maybe this will kill the question about why CD never leaves. She’s where she wanted to be all along.
Remember the vision from before? Well, please bear in mind: This was literally, just a vision.
“Anything that remotely would describe what you would need to recruit good players to come to Connecticut? None of that was here.
There was no ‘hey, come play at Connecticut.
Hey, come play in our conference.
Hey, come play in our building. Come to this school & get a great education.
Hey! Come live in this beautiful, vibrant college community.’
No. ‘Hey! Come stay in our world-class dorms.’
No. There wasn’t one tangible thing that you could put your finger on & say ‘this is why you should come to Connecticut.”
Wife Kathy even goes on to say, confidently, that she never imagined staying at UConn, and never got an inkling of such from Geno early on either. Most noteworthy? He was even quoted as saying he would “do three or four years here then move on to a real school that takes women’s basketball seriously.”
Well, that all changed when Rebecca Lobo decided to spurn the expectations of her educator parents and attend the University of Connecticut. By the time she was a senior, the standard of the program had risen.
The captain of the first undefeated team in UConn history.
Also a team that still holds the second-highest team scoring average in UConn history.
In addition to being the best rebounding team in UConn history.
Oh yeah. The first national champion and the first team to beat Tennessee, by the way. Twice. Welcome to relevance, Geno & Chris. How about those relocation plans now?
THE LOBO EFFECT
Rebecca Lobo was the first star, truly. Her 16.9 per game scoring average still ranks fifth all-time for a career. Her 10.1 rebound per game average ties for first.
2,133 points, 1,268 rebounds and 126 games. Still, the only player in UConn history to average a double-double for their career. Second in career blocks. (Stewie got 18 more blocks but played 26 more games than Lobo.)
Lobo grabbed 24 rebounds in a game once, blocked nine shots once and blocked eight twice. She’s ninth all-time in scoring, led the team in scoring three straight years, and led them in rebounding and blocked shots in all four years.
The first Olympian. The first national player of the year. The only UConn NCAA Woman of the Year. The first NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
Kerry Bascomb is also a legend. The first Conference Player of the Year and the first All-American. But, Lobo changed the game. Injuries stink, but I believe Lobo landed right where she should be:
THE NAISMITH BASKETBALL HALL OF FAME
From there, things took off.
Jen Rizzotti & Jamelle Elliott turned into Nykesha Sales.
Sales into Svetlana Abrosimova into Shea Ralph.
Shea Ralph to Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Ashja Jones and Natalie Williams.
The GOAT: Diana Taurasi.
Ann Strother, Barbara Turner, Charde Houston.
Renee, Maya, Tina. What a stretch that was.
Kaleena shared the spotlight with Breanna Stewart. (I called her Stewie because she changed the game by admittedly pursuing & subsequently winning four national championships, all while enduring the typical wrath to freshmen from Geno the Mastermind.)
Katie Lou Samuelson & Napheesa Collier shared Conference Player of the Year honors last season, and there’s already speculation regarding which of the freshmen won’t last due to lack of early playing time.
Consequently, the standard remains the same.