Welcome back to another semester of my weekly takes. Unfortunately, this is my final semester at UConn so my columns are numbered, but I’m going to enjoy writing every single one until it’s over.
Today, I want to give some appreciation to Geno Auriemma, who won his 1,099th career game as a head coach on Tuesday night against Butler. With the win, Geno passed Pat Summitt, his longtime rival at Tennessee and an absolute icon in her own right, for second place all-time. Like Summitt, Geno has won all of his games at one place, which for him is what makes it special.
“Having accomplished a certain milestone like this, it’s an opportunity to reflect on almost four decades of coming here every day and doing the same thing and trying to do it the best you can do it,” Geno said after Tuesday’s game. “The fact that it’s been at one school is probably more significant to me than the actual number.”
The impact that Geno has had on UConn athletics, women’s basketball as a sport and the state of Connecticut as a whole cannot be understated. He is a legend everywhere, but especially here in the Nutmeg State. He could run for governor tomorrow and win in a landslide, no offense to Ned Lamont.
Any person who has gone to UConn between 1985 and today has something in common: They were here during the Geno Auriemma era. That era for the most part has been one full of success, as shown by Geno’s 1,099 wins compared to just 142 losses, not to mention his 11 national championships.
It’s obviously helped that for the bulk of his career, he’s gotten to coach some of the best players in the country who would go on to become legends of the sport: Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles, Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart and the list goes on. But, Geno is the one responsible for building a program that those amazing athletes wanted to play for.
UConn women’s basketball was nothing when Geno took it over in 1985. It had one winning season in 10 years since its inception. UConn wasn’t even a school in the national spotlight for athletics yet, as Jim Calhoun wouldn’t arrive to breathe life into the men’s basketball program until the next year.
This was long before Storrs became the self-proclaimed “Basketball Capital of the World,” back when it was just a farm town in middle-of-nowhere, Eastern Connecticut. Geno, along with Chris Dailey who has been by his side for all 1,099 wins, turned UConn into what it is today.
After one sub-.500 season in 1985-86, Geno never had one again. He had his team winning conference titles and competing in the NCAA Tournament by 1989, and they’ve never missed a tournament since. By 1995, he achieved the impossible: a perfect 35-0 season and UConn’s first National Championship in basketball. The rest as they say is history. People age 30 and under have never known a time where UConn wasn’t dominating the women’s basketball scene, and the reason for that is Geno Auriemma.
Geno, Summitt and Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer are now one, two and three all-time in wins (VanDerveer passed Summitt’s mark earlier this season and now has 1,105). They have 21 national championships between them. They are also the three people most responsible for making women’s college basketball a big deal.
Women’s basketball wasn’t even a NCAA-sanctioned sport when Summitt started coaching Tennessee in 1974. By the time she had to retire in 2012 due to Alzheimer’s disease, the NCAA women’s basketball tournament was getting prime time recognition on ESPN. The reason for that is the high level of competition that was created in the sport by these three hall of fame coaches.
Geno said after Tuesday’s game that he doesn’t think there will be three contemporaries with the success and longevity of him, Summit and VanDerveer ever again. He also said he wished Summitt was still alive and coaching so he would have to work much harder to pass her win total.
Geno and Pat may not have gotten along when they were coaching against each other (and that’s putting it mildly), but he recognizes what she meant to the sport they both put their whole lives into. I’m sure if Pat was still alive, she would feel the same way about him.