Think, first, of how special Tuesday was in college basketball. We love round numbers in sports, and here is among the roundest of them all: A thousand victories. Only three coaches ever born had done it in Division I, and suddenly, there were five.
Think, next, of the odds that the doors to a club so select, with additions so rare, would open twice the same day.
Think, next, of the giants who have never known this moment. John Wooden and Dean Smith. Bob Knight and Adolph Rupp. To understand the magnitude of the feat, we need only notice those who didn’t accomplish it.
And think, most of all, about the two who just did.
The man born in Italy as Luigi, who spent his early years with no phone, no car, no television.
The woman who had to interrupt her career to fight for her life against leukemia.
Geno Auriemma and Sylvia Hatchell – to be forever joined by Dec. 19. 2017.
A thousand victories. Consider what it takes. Win 20 games in a season – an agreeably successful year at most places – and you would need to do that for 50 years. A half-century of consistency would get you there. Just.
There is little room for slumps, scant time for the ebbs and flows and of reality. Coaching, and winning, is not easy in college basketball. James Naismith invented the game, and he had a losing record at Kansas.
Auriemma had a losing record, too – his first season at Connecticut. That 12-15 mark – imagine, the Huskies 4-12 in league play – was 32 years ago. Nobody was particularly surprised, if they noticed at all. The Connecticut women had one winning season in their history, no locker room, and the roof of the practice gym leaked whenever a Nor’easter blew through.
It would take him four seasons to get to the NCAA tournament, five to win a game there. Then, the Great UConn Flood of Glory.
Auriemma is a vibrant and candid voice, which has come in handy as he helped transform the sport of women’s college basketball. No meek presence would do, not when you’re blazing trails through a thick forest of public indifference. Perhaps the most impressive thing he has done is induced a good many people to care about Connecticut basketball, and by extension, the sport itself.
But he might never be able to speak as forcibly as his accomplishments. Some of the numbers his program has reached are positively other-worldly. Not just the 18 Final Fours and 11 national championships. But try these:
No back-to-back defeats for the Huskies since 1993.
A 591-9 record against unranked opponents since 1993-94.
The longest winning streak in the history of women’s basketball . . . and the second . . . and the third. As in 111, 90 and 70.
Playing in 23 games when the matchup was No. 1 vs. No. 2 – and winning 20 of them.
A perfect 11-0 record in national championship games.
And somehow, maybe the most astonishing figure in this glitzy neighborhood of statistical mansions: One opponent has shot better than 50 percent against Connecticut in the past 502 games. Repeat that. One. Notre Dame, more than six years ago in the Final Four.
Where else could a guy with a resume like that go – but to a Mt. Everest of a thousand victories, and still higher?
The only downside in such unending brilliance is the danger of being drowned by expectations. The bar is so high in Storrs, you need NASA to reach it. Late in the 2013 season, Connecticut dropped a triple-overtime game at Notre Dame, and Auriemma was so disconsolate afterward, a visitor said to him, “You must be the most miserable 27-and-3 guy in America.”
A few weeks later, another national championship in the bag, Auriemma mentioned that conversation.
“I think if you’re not careful at Connecticut, you have this thing hanging over your program that losses are not allowed, and kids become afraid to lose if you’re not careful. And in Connecticut, we’ve always played to win. I think that’s the reason why we play well in these tournaments; we play to win. We’re not afraid to lose. But that takes some getting used to at Connecticut.”
He has done it with talent, of course. A coach can’t get close to 1,000 to see it with a telescope without great players. He has done it with work. He started to learn the value of that back in Italy as a little boy. And there is also an alloy of steel and purpose to the UConn program that has carried it year after year, decade after decade, even with so many wanting to bring the empire down. He wasn’t there to coach women’s basketball. He was there to coach basketball.
Which is why you never, ever hear this nickname – the Connecticut Lady Huskies. Not on Luigi Auriemma’s watch.
Hatchell’s journey to this high spot has been a bit different. It started with coaching junior high girls. She started compiling trophies at Francis Marion – in the same South Carolina where she reached No. 1,000 Tuesday afternoon – and that included a couple of national championships back in the NAIA and AIAW days. Her reign at North Carolina includes a single title, and it took one of the sport’s most dramatic moments to do that – Charlotte Smith’s 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Louisiana Tech in the 1994 championship game.
But if her record doesn’t have quite the statistical tonnage of Auriemma, her passion for the game is every bit as deep. This is a woman who met her future husband at a summer league. They had their first date at a coaching clinic.
And she has faced a foe more merciless than any opponent ever seen on Connecticut’s schedule. In 2013, Sylvia Hatchell was named to the Hall of Fame, one of the high points of her life. A few weeks later was diagnosed with leukemia.
She cherished the first, and refused to blink with the second. She was gone for the 2013-14 season for treatment, but returned the next season with a new resolve and book to write – “Fight! Fight! Discovering Your Inner Strength When Blindsided by Life.”
The record will show she reached 1,000 about five hours before Auriemma Tuesday. Ladies first. Later, they stood together, new members to an august coaching body. Pat Summitt, Mike Krzyzewski and Tara VanDerveer are their Division I colleagues, but there’ll be a new addition soon. C. Vivian Stringer is only 11 wins away at Rutgers, and when she joins soon as the first African-American, a new dynamic will be added.
But Tuesday was their moment. Both are coming off disappointments of sorts. Hatchell endured her second consecutive losing season in 2016-17, and Auriemma’s supposedly invulnerable Huskies were beatable after all – in these famous last seconds of overtime against Mississippi State at the Final Four.
But North Carolina is now 10-2, and UConn is No. 1 and unbeaten again, so all seems right with the world.
“I focused on my purpose and not my problems,” Hatchell said when it was over Tuesday.
Their purpose has been winning, be it against the opponent or the past or serious disease. On Tuesday, each had a thousand reasons to honor them.