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Paul Doyle | The Hartford Courant | December 17, 2017

Geno Auriemma on the cusp of career win 1,000

  UConn's Geno Auriemma looks on as his Huskies defeat Notre Dame.

The first victory garnered one sentence in the Nov. 24, 1985 Sunday Hartford Courant.

It was almost an afterthought, the last paragraph in a roundup of college basketball games. Below Eastern Connecticut's win over Babson in men's basketball and the second women's game in the story, after Western Connecticut's loss to Kean.

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The news about the first UConn women's basketball game of the 1985-86 season: Lori Kulo of Ellington scored 18 of her game-high 24 points in the second half of a 73-67 win over Iona in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Geno Auriemma was 1-0.

On Tuesday at the Mohegan Sun Arena -- a facility that would open 16 years after that first win over Iona -- Auriemma will be chasing his 1,000th victory. UConn will face Oklahoma in the Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase as Auriemma sits on 999 wins over more than three decades in Storrs.

Only two women's coaches (Pat Summitt and Tara VanDerveer) and one men's coach (Mike Krzyzewski) have reached the 1,000-victory milestone in Division I. North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell has 998 wins, and the Tar Heels play Sunday and Tuesday.

Auriemma will reach the mark as the coach of a program he took over in 1985 after UConn registered one winning season in its first 11 years.

MORE: Geno Auriemma, Chris Dailey on the verge of win No. 1,000

The Huskies were 12-15 in Auriemma's first season. That was the last losing record.

Yet the goal, according Auriemma's top assistant Chris Dailey, was to elevate the program to the top-half of the Big East and eventually move on. The team was picked last in the Big East in 1985, so that was ambitious.

"Try to beat Providence and Villanova during the course of the season and maybe finish in the top four in the conference, go from ninth to fourth," Auriemma said. "I thought if we could get to that point, given what we had to work with, that that would be a lot of success. To go from ninth to fourth."

UConn was 43-39 over the first three seasons of the Auriemma-Dailey era. The Huskies qualified for the NCAA Tournament in Year 4 and were in the Final Four in the sixth season.

Along the way, Gampel Pavilion was built. A sparkling practice facility was erected next door decades later, adorned with banners representing the NCAA title banners and honoring the All-Americans and Olympians.

Does Auriemma allow himself to glance at the banners and hearken back to the days when a win over Iona was worth celebrating?

"It's kind of like our players," Auriemma said. "You walk in and look at those banners, you can't hide from it. You either live up to those standards or you're not any good. So they can't hide from it. So when I walk in there some days and catch sight of it, I'm struck by, one program isn't entitled to that many great players. That's just so rare.

"We have the leading scorer in the history of the WNBA. And we have the leader in assists. And they started in the same backcourt at Connecticut. That just doesn't happen anywhere.

We've had more good players play for us than anybody deserves."

UConn already had an NCAA title before Sue Bird (WNBA's all-time assist leader) and Diana Taurasi (WNBA's all-time scorer) arrived. It was just a few years into Auriemma's tenure when he landed UConn's first All-America player, Kerry Bascom (1990-91, UConn's first Final Four season). She was an All-American before Rebecca Lobo arrived and it was Lobo who would help transform the program as the face of UConn's first NCAA Title team.

These days, Lobo is often around the program as an analyst for ESPN. She's not alone -- it's not uncommon to see former players at practice or games. The Final Four draws dozens of ex-players for multiple eras.

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What do the current players hear from the former players? That things aren't that different.

And that's why UConn wins, year after year.

"I honestly think it's his ability to hold every single person to the same standards that he holds people who came here 30 years ago go," senior guard Kia Nurse said. "And he holds one through 13 to the exact same standards, no matter who you are. I was held to the same standards that [Breanna Stewart] was held to as a senior, when I was as sophomore.

"When you're held to these high expectations, coming into a place like this, that is known as a legacy, that people came before you to build this place, you just understand that every single day you have to give it your all. Not for yourself, not only for your teammates, but for the people who built this place."

Swin Cash, a two-time national champion, is often asked what's the "secret sauce" to UConn's success.

"Listen, you've got to practice how you want to play," said Cash, an analyst for CBS Sports Network. "And that's at an intensity level, that's at a certain level where practices are more demanding than the games and you're learning, you're breaking down, you're getting the skills and everything together. ... If you're not getting better and breaking it down and learning from it, then how can you compete against the UConn's of the world?"

Cash talks about the culture of the program. Yes, Auriemma and Dailey recruit the very best players.

But there's a culture surrounding the program. It's been the same since 1985.

"How they approach the game, how they practice, how they carry themselves," Cash said.

And from Lobo through Megan Walker, the elite recruits are subjected to grueling practicing and the high demands set by Auriemma. There's an element of breaking down these high school stars and rebuilding them as, well, UConn players.

Along the way, they get better. Take a look at the number of ex-Huskies starring on the WNBA and international stage.

"That's one of the reasons I wanted to come here," junior Katie Lou Samuelson said. "Coming here, I knew I would become a different player and I have. I've been pushed to points that I didn't think I could get past and I've done things that I didn't ever imagine that I could ever be consistent at doing. ... That's why people keep wanting to come here, because they know what they're doing and they know how to get the best out of each and every player."

Said Nurse, "It's challenging. He has a very good way of challenging people in the sense of, this is how she likes to be challenged and this is how she'll respond best. It's different for every single player that comes here but at the same time he makes you better and there's a method to his madness."

Indeed, the madness is not for everyone. Auriemma knows that and has a narrow approach to recruiting.

When UConn recently landed Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa -- two of the top high school players in the country -- Auriemma talked about his recruiting philosophy, targeting players he knows will fit into his program. There's no Plan B, he said, and there wasn't in 1991 when he pursued Lobo.

That's what makes Auriemma so successful, DePaul coach Doug Bruno said.

"There's a lot of things that make him a great coach," said Bruno, Auriemma's assistant on the Olympic team in 2012 and 2016. "I just think his ability to collect and put groups of people together. He recruits 'total package' people.. ... That's just one aspect of it. He and his staff are really diligent in how hard they work to get their players better. They are a program that works on skill development. There aren't many of those in the country. They work to get the players, individually, better at their skills. And then, collectively, they know how to play on all sides of the basketball."

Before coaching his first game at UConn in 1985, Auriemma told The Courant that he wanted opponents to see the Huskies as a "team that comes at you."

"I want to win more, but I also want to win games we're not supposed to win," Auriemma said. "I want to knock off some of the top teams in the conference."

That was all part of his tempered expectations. There was no designs on setting records or drawing comparisons to John Wooden.

Yet here he is, on the cusp of another milestone. Elevating a team from ninth to fourth in the Big East seems so quaint for a program that rarely loses.

Auriemma said the 1,000-victory mark reminds him of how lucky he's been. So many great coaches never have the opportunity to coach 1,000 games, much less notch 1,000 wins.

He's also reminded of those early years, when his focus was fixed on simply beating Boston College and Providence.

But 32 years after that first win in New Rochelle, Auriemma and UConn are on top of the basketball world.

"Believe me, where we're sitting right now wasn't part of the plan," Auriemma said. "By any stretch of the imagination."

This article is written by Paul Doyle from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to


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