A basketball program is like a home – it needs a sturdy foundation in order to thrive. UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma has been laying the bricks to build a program and a home for Huskies past, present and future, with a foundation that will never crumble.
Prior to Auriemma’s first year at UConn in 1985, the women’s program went 52-88 from 1980-85 under head coach Jean Balthaser. They were anything but the “Basketball Capital of the World.”
“It was a glorified intramural program, so to speak, a club program with scholarships,” Auriemma said. “And then all of a sudden, you look up now 34 years later and it’s nationally known and people around the world tune into UConn women’s basketball.”
Auriemma left his assistant coaching job at Virginia and established a winning culture at UConn right from the get-go. The Huskies finished below .500 (12-15) only once – in his first season.
The outlook of the program shifted thanks to the coaching staff and blue-collar players like Audrey (Epstein) Polinsky and Peggy (Walsh) Myers.
“[Geno] was never fully responsible of a program,” Polinksy said. “So I think there’s something to be said that he was also feeling his oats on how to be a head coach as opposed to just being an assistant. Having come into a program that had only been losing was a very big culture shock for him. When he left Virginia, they were a top-10 program.”
Polinsky said Auriemma would throw the team out of practice on several occasions as he learned each player’s skill level.
“(Auriemma) was so frustrated with our inability to execute what he just expected to get done because that is what he was used to,” Polinsky said. “It really was a learning experience for him just as it was a learning experience for us.”
One of the most endearing aspects of Auriemma is his ability to connect with each of his players, she said. Polinsky said he had nicknames for pretty much every player, including her.
“My nickname was Dr. J,” Polinsky said laughing. “We were playing St. John’s at the Civic Center, it was completely empty. So when you don’t have people in the stands, sometimes the depth perception—this is my excuse—it’s a little hard. I had a breakaway layup and instead of taking the ball all the way to the basket, I decided to take off at the foul line, thinking I was Dr. J, to have a nice little finger roll, only to get an airball. That’s how I got my nickname.”
Despite his success, Auriemma is not one of those coaches that is too arrogant to help others. One of the many people who he has helped is Seton Hall women’s basketball head coach Tony Bozzella.
When Bozzella first got the Seton Hall job, a time when UConn and Seton Hall were in the Big East, Auriemma gave him tangible advice.
“There was a young lady (I was recruiting) and I was telling (Auriemma) I hope to get a follow-up with this kid,” Bozzella said. “And Geno said, ‘you have a chance.’ He told me, ‘do you know that she changes her nail polish everyday,’ and I was like, ‘What?’ He picked up on that and I bet you a lot of coaches don’t do that.
“I brought that up to that kid and she couldn’t believe I noticed. It was interesting because he noticed that on a kid he wasn’t even recruiting. When he goes to games, people think he’s just watching the game, but he is paying attention to everything.”
Auriemma said the reason he still helps coaches breaking into the business is because he remembers how hard it was for him and how thankful he is to those who helped him out.
“I remember being in that situation, when I was trying to get something started,” Auriemma said. “There was some people that were really well established, some of the really great programs in the country that gave us the opportunity to play them, showcase our young program in a great environment. They would come here and play us at home and then there were some that were dismissive.
“‘What can you guys do for us? What does playing you do for us?’ So I’ve always thought, I remember being in that situation and I don’t ever want to treat anybody like that. I never have and I never will.”
There is a simple reason many coaches and players turn to Auriemma and it’s because all he does is win. Over nearly three-and-a-half decades as the head coach, Geno has 11 national championships, 20 NCAA Final Four appearances and 25 conference championships.
Carla Berube was a freshman on the first of those national championship teams, and made two free throws to help secure the 70-64 win over Tennessee in 1995.
“It would have been amazing regardless of who the opponent was,” Berube said. “But to beat the most storied program in all of women’s basketball, the greatest women’s basketball coach (Pat Summitt) of that time and maybe ever … I think it made it a little sweeter to beat that program, that dynasty, that amazing coach.”
But winning national championships was not something Auriemma ever expected, or really wanted.
Long before he was an 11-time champion, Auriemma coached at Bishop Kenrick high school—his alma mater—in Philadelphia with close friend Phil Martelli. Martelli said their dream was to be the best high school coaches and teachers that they could be. The rest is history.
Martelli said he remembers one specific moment during the summer after UConn beat Tennessee for the Huskies’ first national championship. Auriemma was pumping gas when a fan got out of her car to ask for a picture with the head coach. Auriemma played it off calm, cool and collected, but Martelli said both of them were shocked.
“The perfect storm happened, Connecticut wanted to be great,” Martelli said. “They wanted to be the best program in the country. Geno was driven that way. So you had the perfect match and then you had this fan support that was second to none. I don’t even know what they would compare it to in the rest of the country.”
Coaching in 2019 is not the same as it was back in 1985, but Auriemma has adjusted almost seamlessly.
“It’s not what it used to be, and maybe nothing is,” Auriemma said prior to the Sweet 16. “But I still think deep down in my heart, these kids are no different than any kid 40 years ago. They just have a lot of information at their disposal that (others) never had. They’ve got more screwed up parents than kids used to have. So that’s an issue.
“But … what do they need? These kids, when they come to you, they’re 17, 18 years old. They still need you to guide them. They still need you to push them. They still need you to look out for them … They want to learn how to be successful in the real world and the only people that can teach them is us.”
While Geno has evolved with the times, so have his players.
Katie Lou Samuelson, the fourth overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, said her relationship with Auriemma has developed over the years. Prior to Senior Day, Samuelson said that as a freshman she would internally question some of his decisions, but she fully understands everything he does now.
“We had some ups and downs freshman years,” Samuelson said. “As you get older, you kind of see his side more. I think when you are younger, you fight it a little bit. You think you know better sometimes. But when you finally accept it and figure things out—don’t get me wrong he pisses me off all of the time, no matter what he pisses me off—it’s easier to understand where he’s coming from to figure out and you know he has your best interests at all times.”
As the fame and the lore of UConn basketball has reached its height, Auriemma and his staff have not forgotten the players that got them there. The program welcomes back everyone who helped Geno lay the bricks on this indestructible foundation.
“The best way to describe it is, we never set out to build great teams,” Auriemma said on how his program has created a welcoming atmosphere for all former players. “We set out to build a great program which meant that everyone from the teams in the beginning that were not so good to the ones that were mediocre to the ones that were good to the ones that were really good and to the ones that were amazing—they all mean the same thing to us. We’ve never forgotten that and we’ve never aspired to be anything but that and we wanted everyone of those kids to feel like they were a part of something special.”
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.