During the 31 days of March, we feature some of the greatest moments from the NCAA Tournament in the history of ASN's family of schools. Today: UConn.
Breanna Stewart marked the end of an era at Connecticut on April 6, but Geno Auriemma’s dynasty continues.
Stewart was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player for the fourth consecutive year after leading the Huskies to their fourth consecutive national championship.
In her four years, the Huskies lost five games. They went undefeated twice, 40-0 in 2013-14 and 38-0 in 2015-16.
They became the first Division I women’s basketball team to win four national championships in a row.
They also tied the UCLA men’s team for most NCAA college basketball championships with 11.
“I don’t think UConn ever has a rebuilding year,” Stewart said after UConn’s 82-51 victory against Syracuse in the 2016 national championship game. “I don’t think we rebuild, we just reload.”
That’s Auriemma, the UConn constant.
In 1985, he took over a team that had a losing record in 10 of the previous 11 seasons and transformed them into 11-time national champions. Embraced by the state as “our girls,” they are more popular than the four-time national champion men’s team.
And it all started with Auriemma’s hiring on May 17, 1985, judged the greatest sports moment in UConn history.
“He lands many recruits because of his honesty,” Wendy Davis, who played for Auriemma’s first Final Four team in 1991, told the Reading (Pa.) Eagles in 2016. “That is what drew me to him back in 1988.”
That was Auriemma’s fourth season, after one of his most important recruiting successes. In 1987, he convinced Kerry Bascom, an All-American from New Hampshire, to play for the Huskies.
In 1989, the Huskies made their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Final Four in 1991. They lost 61-55 to Virginia in the semifinals after Bascom got into early foul trouble.
But after that the recruits kept coming Rebecca Lobo, Jen Rizzotti, Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Stewart.
Lobo led the Huskies to their first national championship in 1995 with a 35-0 record.
“I’ve had the privilege of being coached by some of the biggest names in women’s basketball, but no coach has made a bigger impact on my life, both on and off the court,” she told the Hartford Courant. “He challenges you to gain something from your basketball experience and apply it to life after college.”
While the recruits kept coming, the Huskies kept winning. They went undefeated in five more seasons 2002, 2009, 2010, 2014 and 2016 seasons and have played in 17 Final Fours. They also hold the Division I record for longest winning streak (90 games).
And as NCAA.com’s Mike Lopresti noted in 2016, they are 84-7 in the NCAA Tournament in this century. None of the victories have been by single digits.
Born on March 23, 1954, in Montella, Italy, Auriemma grew up outside Philadelphia and graduated from West Chester (Pa.) State in 1981. He worked as an assistant girls and boys high school basketball coach and was a women’s assistant at St. Joseph’s University (1978-79) and Virginia (1981-85).
Auriemma-embrace“He is extremely bright, and his passion and his knowledge for the game are off the charts,” Debbie Ryan told NCAA.com.
“He is good at deciding when it is time to talk and when it’s not time to talk. When he does say something, it is usually time to listen, because what comes out of his mouth is usually what needs to be said.”
Ryan, who retired in 2011 after 34 seasons leading Virginia, hired Auriemma as an assistant on in 1981. Four years later, Auriemma was offered the job at UConn, his first as a head coach.
“When I got this job, guys couldn’t get really good jobs,” Auriemma told NCAA.com. “The only jobs you could get as a guy was an assistant coaching job or you could get a job at Connecticut, which was like an intramural program at the time.”
He took the opportunity to build a program from the ground up for a salary of $29,000 in his first year.
It turned out to be a great investment for both Auriemma and the Huskies. They are 955-134 and counting in Auriemma’s 31 years at UConn. In 2013, Auriemma signed a five-year contract for $10.86 million that expired after the 2017-18 season
He was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 and in 2016 year surpassed UCLA’s John Wooden with his 11th national championship.
“What those 11 national championships mean to me is how many great players I’ve had the opportunity to coach and how many great people have come through our program,” Auriemma said after the 2016 championship game.
“It doesn’t matter whose name I’m over, whose name I’m under, whose name I’m next to, as long as I have those names and those players in my memory, I’m good.”