If women’s college basketball had the same rulebook in 1985 as it does today, UConn Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma wouldn’t have even been on the sideline to see his first-ever victory: A 73-67 win over Iona on Nov. 24, 1985 in New Rochelle, NY.
“Geno got two technicals,” said associate head coach Chris Dailey. “Fortunately you needed three back then to get thrown out.”
Dailey left her alma mater Rutgers to come coach with Auriemma as his lead assistant. But the pair wasn’t too familiar with each other early on. Needless to say it wasn’t the best start to the relationship.
“I thought he was crazy, I didn’t know,” she said. “That was the first time I ever worked with him in a real game situation.”
Looking back at it now, Auriemma laughs at how little he knew in his first game.
“I guess I was a little over-excited for the game,” Auriemma said. “When you play your first game, you don’t know how you’re going to be. You don’t know how you’re going to react, how your team is going to react. It was new for all of us, new for the players, new for me.”
Women’s basketball wasn’t the only thing that’s changed since 1985. When Auriemma took over, UConn women’s basketball barely resembled a high school team, let alone a Division I program.
“We had kids coming to school here where our facilities were worse than the ones they played at in high school,” Auriemma said.
The Huskies’ home court was the 4,604-seat Hugh Greer Field House, which wasn’t exactly a basketball-first facility like Gampel Pavilion or the Werth Champions Center.
“We had a do to a lot of stuff going to games at the field house. We had to endure a lot of different things,” he said. “People wondering why the gym was closed, people indignant about why they had to get off the track.”
Off the court, things weren’t much better for the coaches.
“[We had] one office with three of us. [We had] rotary phones, when you picked up the phone you had to make sure there was nobody else on the line so you could use it,” Auriemma said. “Back then it didn’t seem funny, but now you look back and it was pretty funny back then.”
Since Auriemma and Dailey couldn’t sell the facilities or team history to recruits like other schools, they needed to convince them to buy into their vision for the program.
“Kids were taking a big chance on us,” Auriemma said. “Kids took a big risk coming to play with us because they could’ve gone to more established programs, better schools at the time.”
In their first season under Auriemma, the Huskies struggled to a 12-15 record. However, it didn’t take long for UConn to find success. In fact, it might’ve come a little quicker than either Auriemma or Dailey ever imagined.
“The plan was we’ll stay here for four or five years,” Dailey said. “We’ll go from the bottom to the middle then we’ll go somewhere really good where we can win the whole thing. We didn’t realize that it was going to be here.”
It took just four years for the Huskies to win their first conference championship. Two years later, they reached the program’s first-ever Final Four. But just because they were there, doesn’t mean they belonged.
“It started in 1991, our first Final Four. When we got there we looked around and said ‘Wow we don’t look anything like these other three teams,’” Auriemma said. “So if we were able to get players that looked the way these players look, we have a chance to be really good. But it didn’t happen right away.”
Slowly, they were able to convince those same types of players they saw at the Final Four to take a chance on UConn. One of those included a tall, lanky post player by the name of Rebecca Lobo, who went against her parents’ wishes and chose to play for Geno.
“My parents did not want me to go to UConn,” Lobo said. “It was very clear to me that the one school they didn’t want to go to was UConn because they were teachers in Connecticut and it was seen as a safety school academically. But I was meant to play at UConn, I was meant to play for coach.”
Lobo, paired with Kara Wolters and Jennifer Rizzotti, led the Huskies to their second Elite Eight in 1994. Despite a nine-point lead at the half, UConn was unable to close out the win.
“When we lost to North Carolina down at Rutgers, we beat a lot of good teams along the way but we knew in that game when we were up nine at halftime, we’re just not experienced enough yet,” Auriemma said. “We have too many young players on our team. We have too many people that this is our first time and we’re just aren’t ready for that yet.”
But instead of agonizing over the loss, Auriemma and Dailey simply accepted it and used it as a stepping stone to greater achievements.
It all came together against on January 16, 1995 when UConn faced-off against the No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers in front of a jam-packed Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies were trying to prove themselves as a top-flight program and in order to do so, they needed beat the best.
With so much on the line, even for a regular season game, most coaches would’ve spent hours breaking down film of their opponent.
“When we played in that game in January against Tennessee, we fully expected to win,” he said. “We were so sure we were going to win that game that we never even once watched film on Tennessee before that game. So the very first time my players saw the Tennessee kids was when they came out to shake hands with them.”
In arguably the most important regular season game in program history, UConn came away with a 77-67 win to earn its first-ever No. 1 ranking. Four months later, the two teams would meet again, this time with a national championship on the line. Even with the stakes raised, the result was the same as the Huskies defeated the Volunteers, 70-64.
Just 10 years after a 12-15 season where they had to fight to play in their own gym, Auriemma and Dailey had brought UConn to the top of the women’s college basketball world.
But simply getting to the pinnacle wasn’t good enough. Dailey was determined to stay there.
“I think all that did that year was make us not want to be a one-hit wonder,” she said. “That’s been the toughest part and one of the things that I’m most proud of is we have been able to sustain it over a long period of time.”
Dailey attributes the nearly quarter-century of excellence to not only consistently recruiting the best players that fit the program but Auriemma’s willingness to adjust his style of play around his players’ strengths.
“He is always one step ahead of the next trend so if you look back at all the championships we’ve won, we’ve won them different but the bottom line was the same with the intensity and we played hard and we played as a team,” she said.
“In ‘95, we had two big post players and we ran the triangle offense. In 2000, we had 10 really good players so we pressed people and ran 1-4 high. In ‘02 we played only six guys but we had great offense. In ‘03 and ‘04 we had one great player [in Diana Taurasi] and had a lot of interchangeable parts, more role players that were playing with her that had to step up.
“Every championship we had different styles of play, so that’s a reflection of his ability to change and know our players strengths and then play to those strengths,” she said.
But Dailey also deserves her fair share of credit for the program’s longevity as well. For the past 33 years, she has stayed as Auriemma’s assistant despite numerous chances to take over her own program.
“There were a few [programs] that I was interested in and timing has a lot to do with it,” Dailey said. “As you get older, I think you realize there’s nothing wrong with really enjoying where you are and I really enjoy being here and being in Connecticut and working with the people that I work with.”
Auriemma was quick to highlight the impact Dailey has on the the program.
“I don’t think our program would be where it is today if that would’ve happened,” Auriemma said about Dailey leaving for a head coaching position. “I don’t know that we would’ve been able to sustain it for this long without someone like that. So we’re very fortunate that she decided to stay.”
After 33 years on the sidelines where he’s won almost every award under the sun, how does Auriemma stay motivated? Well, as ironic as it may be with the coach on the cusp of his 1,000th win, it’s the losses that drive him.
“Losses really eat at you and they eat at you for a long, long time,” he said. “You feel that inside of you because we missed an opportunity and it just doesn’t feel good. It feels terrible as a matter of fact.”
Beating UConn in general has been difficult. The Huskies have only lost twice in their last 168 games after all. But somehow, they’ve been even harder to beat in big games, especially when they’re at full strength.
“Most of our losses there’s been stuff. One guy out for the season, two other guys out, stuff that you just have no control over,” Auriemma said. “So very rarely has there been a time where we played in a huge game that really had a lot of significance where we were at full strength [and lost].”
One of those losses includes last season’s heartbreaker to Mississippi State which snapped UConn’s 111-game win streak and halted their march to a fifth-straight national title. But that’s not the loss that still haunts Auriemma.
“In Denver [vs Notre Dame in the 2012 Final Four], that was a bad loss. That really pissed me off. That still bothers me to this day,” he said. “We had every right to win that game and we didn’t, we just weren’t good enough. And we had no excuse. They just beat our butts.”
As much as the losses hurt, they help bring him back into the gym everyday. When that fire is no longer burning and the sting isn’t as strong, he’ll know it’s time to walk away.
“There’s going to come a point in time where I wake up in the morning and say I don’t want to do this anymore,” he said. “I don’t know when that is, it’s not going to be tomorrow morning but I think we all get to that point.”
However, he doesn’t see that point coming anytime soon.
“I don’t think that there’s a time when I’m looking at right now and saying I can see it coming. I don’t. I don’t see it,” Auriemma said. “I probably should [have an exit plan], the only problem is I never had a strategy to get to where I am. So it hasn’t dawned on me to have a strategy to get out of where I am because I don’t know how I got here.”
Dailey admitted that she’s closer to the end of her career than the beginning, but that doesn’t mean she’s nearing her conclusion just yet.
“Geno and I talk a lot about if we can continue to get the kind of kids that we want to get then it’s a pretty good job to have as long as you enjoy it,” Dailey said. “So that’s probably the timeframe, if there comes a time where we can’t find kids — and I don’t mean to win national championships — as much as to enjoy what we do every day, then I think we’ll know that it’s time to change careers.”
But just because the duo began coaching together doesn’t mean they’ll retire at the same time. That’s a topic for whenever that time eventually comes.
“I don’t know. I’m being honest. I honestly don’t know,” Dailey said on if she and Geno will retire together. “I think it would be really difficult but I wouldn’t say that it wouldn’t happen. I think it would be kind of fitting if we came in and left at the same time.”
On Tuesday night, Auriemma and Dailey are expected to collect with 1,000 career win, all of which came with UConn. It’s another addition to a list of accomplishments that includes a 111-game win streak, six perfect seasons and 11 national championships.
Even with all the awards, there’s still a piece of Auriemma that misses the days back in ‘80’s when he was a nobody in a place without any semblance of women’s basketball history.
“Every single thing that you accomplished almost lead to a celebration,” he said. “You celebrated everything because it was the first time or it was meaningful or it was significant or it was new for a lot of the players and for our program. There were a lot of new highs and new experiences that we hadn’t experienced before.”
And of course, it’s hard to top those seven magical games at the start of his UConn career.
“I don’t think anything can beat being 7-0 to start the season in 1985,” Auriemma joked sarcastically. “That’s still the highlight of CD and I’s career.”