words_Jordan Hagedorn
photos courtesy of Steve Slade

When basketball coach Geno Auriemma arrived at the University of Connecticut, the women’s basketball team had only one winning season in the program’s history. In Auriemma’s first season coaching the Lady Huskies, they finished with a 12–15 record. It would be his only losing season at UConn.

Coach Auriemma arrived at UConn in August of 1985 and has built the women’s hoops program from the ground up. In his fourth season (1988-1989), he led the Huskies to a school-record 24 wins and an NCAA tournament birth. That would be the start of what is now 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

In 1990-1991, Geno and the UConn women made it to their first Final Four. Although they were knocked off by Virginia, UConn was starting to become a powerhouse in women’s college basketball.

Coming off of an 18-11 record in the 1992-1993 season, the Huskies bounced back with a strong season in 1993-1994. Led by UConn legend Rebecca Lobo, the ladies finished 30-3, but lost to North Carolina in the Elite 8.

The following year, Lobo’s senior season, the Huskies went 35-0 and capped off their undefeated run by defeating Coach Pat Summit and the Tennessee Volunteers 70-64 in the 1995 National Title game. Lobo was named Naismith Player of the Year and was the first player in Big East history to earn first-team All-America honors in both hoops and academics.

Throughout the next four seasons, the Huskies racked up a combined record of 130-13, but failed to win a national title. However, in 1999-2000 season, Geno led them back to the title game. They finished with a 36-1 record and dominated the Lady Vols by 19 points in a 71-52 National Championship game victory.

In 2000-2001 the team went 32-3 and lost to eventual National Champion Notre Dame in the Final Four.

The 2001-2002 season would be the start of an amazing run by Geno and the Lady Huskies. With Diana Taurasi leading them, the Huskies won back-to-back-to-back National Titles with a three-season record of 107-5.

During the next three seasons, the Huskies failed to reach the Final Four, but still amassed a record of 89-17 in that span.
Going into the 2008 NCAA Tournament, the Lady Huskies had a record of 36-1. They were knocked out of the tournament in the National Semifinal game by the 2nd-seeded Stanford Cardinal.

The following year, Geno led the ladies to 39-0 record, steamrolling everyone in their path, winning the Big East tournament with ease. They outscored their opponents in the Big East Tournament by an average of more than 35 points per game. They walked through the NCAA Tournament as well, defeating their opponents by an average of 25 points per game. They beat Stanford in the National Semifinal by 19 points and crushed Louisville in the National Championship game by 22.

Last season, the Huskies dominated teams night-in and night-out on their way to another undefeated season. In the National Championship game, they knocked off Stanford 53-47 in their closest game of the year. With that win, UConn’s undefeated streak is up to 78 games, just 10 away from the John Wooden-coached UCLA Bruins men’s teams of the ’70s.

Since 1993, Auriemma and the Lady Huskies have won almost 93% of their games. They have a record of 573-44 in those 17 seasons, averaging nearly 34 wins per year. Their Big East record since ’93 is 273-12, a winning percentage of .958. In the last four years, the Lady Huskies are 65-1 in conference play, with the only slip-up being a 2-point loss at Rutgers on February 2nd, 2008. In his career, Geno has led UConn to 15 Big East Championships and 14 Big East Tournament victories.

Geno Auriemma is a UConn legend and one of the greatest coaches in women’s college basketball history. The program he built from scratch now dominates the college landscape. Notable players he has coached include Diana Taurasi, Jennifer Rizzotti, Kara Wolters, Maya Moore, Nykesha Sales, Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Svetlana Abrosimova, Swin Cash and Tina Charles.

Auriemma recently led the Team USA Women’s National team to a gold medal at the 2010 FIBA World Championship. The victory qualified Team USA for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games, which will be held in London. Right before he took off for the FIBA World Championships, we caught up with Geno to talk about hoops, winning and staying focused during UConn’s undefeated streak. Eastbay: Of all the accolades and honors both you and your teams have received over the years, what is the one that stands out the most to you and why?
Geno Auriemma: What I’m most proud of is our program’s commitment to winning and academics. As we’ve won National Championships, I’m extremely proud of the number of Academic All-Americans that have gone through our program. We’ve had 100% graduation rate. To have a winning program and achieve that type of success in the classroom is what I’m most proud of and what is truly special to me.

What advice can you give to young coaches looking to create a culture of winning in their programs?
Winning is different things to different people. Obviously you need the best players, but I think the key to a winning program is to establish standards and live by them. Identify what standards you’ll implement in your program and make them part of your culture. Don’t compromise your standards. That’s how we’ve established success here at UConn.

What coaches did you look up to and learn from? What did you take from them when creating your coaching philosophy?
Prior to coming to Uconn, I was influenced and learned from high school [Auriemma was an assistant coach at his former high school, Bishop Kenrick, in 1980-81], St. Joseph University [where Auriemma was an assistant coach in 1978-79] and the University of Virginia [an assistant on the Cavalier staff in 1981]. During my time at Virginia, I learned from Debbie Ryan and the people on her staff, as well as some of the great coaches on the men’s side. It’s not just one person, but more from a number of people I’ve been around in the industry. I take away things from each person I have contact with. I’ve taken the learnings over the years and included them in my own style and philosophy of the game.

This season UConn looks to extend its winning streak. What do you tell your players to stay focused and playing at their highest level?
We didn’t set out to get a 78-game winning streak. We practice to get better every time we step on the court. We think about getting better, especially after losing three starters last year. It’s not about the winning streak. We aren’t interested in how many games in a row we win. We aren’t interested in the win/loss record. We’re interested in making sure we’re in the best possible position to win a national championship.

What shoes will the team wear this season?
Hyperdunks seem to be the shoe of choice. Each year Nike comes out with newer and better products for the athletes. The majority of the players like the Hyperdunk 2010. Talk about your relationship with Nike.
Nike is very supportive of our program and our athletes. We know we can count on them for superior products. It’s a perfect relationship for both sides. We’re the #1 program and they’re the #1 sports brand in the world. Both of us value that in our relationship.

What is your experience with Eastbay?
My Eastbay experience is from my son’s high school years. He would always go through the Eastbay catalog and determine what gear he and his teammates would wear for high school and AAU. The Eastbay catalog was very much a part of the selection process. Eastbay always had the best stuff featured each season.