UConn sports has been a frequent topic of discussion in our pages, and for good reason — the classic men's and women's teams coached by Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma, respectively, dominated college basketball nationally for years and are still a source of pride in the hearts of all true Connecticut sports fans. In "Husky Heaven" from March 1995, sports writer Terese Karmel sits in with Auriemma, Rebecca Lobo, Kara Wolters, Pam Webber and the rest of that year's team on the eve of their first national championship.
This article is being posted to the web in March 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
They are ready; their blue sneakers are tapping down the days, the games, the minutes.
Behind them: a remarkable run, a record succession of wins, a sweet and decisive victory over Tennessee, the premier women’s program in the country.
A big road win in Kansas.
Ahead of them: March. Long March. Brutal March. First the Big East tournament March 3-6 at Seton Hall, and then, for one last run to glory, it’s back to their own locker room, their own arena, their own 8,241 frenzied fans, for, if all goes well, wins in the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament.
On the distant horizon, glittering faintly: Minneapolis, the Final Four and the possibility of a national championship.
With so much behind them and so far to go, it’s hard to know where to begin the story—but we’ll go back to an unseasonably warm December afternoon in Storrs. As expected, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team had rolled to its fifth straight win, crushing Iona College by 59 points. So great was the rout that much of UConn’s work had been done by players whose normal function is to shout encouragement and wave towels from the far end of the bench.
After such blowouts, the coaches’ sessions with the press are normally quick, pro forma affairs—everyone wants to get out and go home—but on this day things were taking longer than usual to develop.
At last, Iona’s Harry Hart was introduced. The large second-year coach stepped up to the podium and thanked— thanked!—UConn Head Coach Geno Auriemma for putting in his subs and keeping the score at least somewhat in check. Then, almost as an afterthought, Hart mentioned that he had invited Auriemma into the gloomy atmosphere of his post-game locker room to talk to his team, to comfort and encourage them.
The request was a first for Hart and Auriemma—and probably would be for most of the nation’s collegiate coaches—a gesture that says as much about how far Auriemma and his Huskies have come as it does about how far Hart and Iona have to go.
"I've been there,” Auriemma was to comment later about the unique invitation. “I could feel for the guy."
Actually, in his decade as head coach at UConn, the most Auriemma had ever lost by was 32 points, in November 1989, to a then Top 10 Iowa team. But UConn was already in its ascendency then. The big blowout at Iowa was to be one of only six losses that year as UConn's 25 wins brought them a Big East championship and their second straight NCAA tournament appearance. The next season they played their way into the charmed circle of the NCAA Final Four as the climb from obscurity to national prominence hit an early peak.
The rise to the top has been achieved through a highly successful recruiting operation, the university’s commitment to marketing and selling the team, the unprecedented growth of media attention and fan support, and the guiding hand of a brilliant coaching staff that has done everything it can to give its team a shot at a national championship.
This year the team seems to have answers for everything. They score close to 90 points a game while holding opponents to far under their season averages. Their personnel is outstanding. The bulk of last season’s NCAA round-of-eight team is back, and in addition they’ve added freshman Nykesha Sales, a strong, quick wing player from Bloomfield who was named best high school player in the country last season by USA Today. Sales' ability to drive, put up the three, steal a pass and run the floor makes her just the athletic type of player who has beaten UConn in post- season play in the past.
And then there are the fans—the giddy, lunatic fans. On game nights, lines of students waiting to grab the best unreserved seats are as long outside the Gampel Pavilion for the women's games as for the men’s. For the Tennessee game—the epic No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash in mid-January—scalpers were getting $100 a pop and ticket agencies were hawking the game alongside come-ons for a Led Zeppelin reunion.
The fans are noisy, knowledgeable and totally devoted to this diverse team of hardworking women. And everyone has a favorite, whether it's Rebecca Lobo, the wry, intelligent 6-foot-4 senior All- America from Southwick, Mass., one of the best all-around players in the country, or Kara Wolters, the chatty 6-foot-7 center from Holliston, Mass., who the coach claims has the easiest job in basket- hall. "All she has to do is catch the hall, turn around and shoot," Auriemma is fond of saying about the sophomore with whom he’s engaged in a constant tug-of-war. Some of the loudest cheers arc for the hard work in the trenches by 6-foot Jamelle Elliott of Washington, D.C.. whose quick one-liners belie an inner sensitivity, and whose early struggles with physical conditioning and practice regimens have helped mold her into the team’s best defensive player.
The emergence of the backcourt has given UConn more weapons with the leadership of 5-foot-6 guard Pam Webber, the glamorous senior co-captain from Hollidaysburg, Pa., who takes more spills than anyone else and whose hard work has always been a model for her teammates, and the stubborn, burningly intense 5-foot-5 junior point guard Jen Rizzotti of New Fairfield, one of three state kids on the team, whose ability to steal, pass, score and hustle defines her position.
The starters are surrounded by a galaxy of role players, athletes content to practice hard and then sit for most of a game in the event they are called on at the end. The team as a whole goes about its business—on the court and off—with confidence and calm. Their leader, however, who turns 41 in March, is a paradoxical man who can move from bravado to sell-doubting angst in a single sentence. Auriemma is cautious when he contemplates the NCAA tournament, knowing well how difficult it will be to reach the April 1-2 Final Four at Minneapolis’ Target Center. "I just want to put our team in a position to get to there," he says one afternoon before UConn goes out to dissect an early- season opponent. "Those other kids,” he continues, referring to the more experienced team of juniors and seniors that did get there in 1991, "had been through it before. This team has only had one good year together.” Last year, UConn, ranked third at the end of the season, smashed 18 school records and went 30-3 before losing by 12 points to eventual national champ North Carolina at the NCAA Eastern regional finals.
Auriemma knows that for everything to go his way this year, his starters, especially Rizzotti, who has been bothered by injury in the past, must remain healthy, that the team’s focus cannot
waver and, come tournament time, that he needs a high seed and favorable matchups.
Add to the mix his own personal demons and desire for perfection that he works hard at keeping in check. "I’m scared to death I’m going to fail," he says. He also admits being too intolerant of what he terms "the little frailties” of his players. "If we run something 10 times, and mess it up once, I go on a tirade instead of being happy with the other nine times. God gave me a lot to work with and I’ve had a lot of success,” he continues "Now the test for me is, can I handle it?"
But if he’s hard on himself, Auriemma's even harder on his players, women who are recruited to come to UConn largely on the basis of his sense of their strength and endurance.
"The easiest thing to judge is playing ability,” Auriemma says. "What I'm looking for are kids that are real, kids that are honest, kids who look you in the eye and say, ‘The world doesn't revolve around me—I want to be part of something bigger.'" He’s not afraid to bypass players with glitzy credentials (even if they're from Connecticut) if they seem to fall short on sincerity, hard work and a commitment to basketball. "If a kid is interested in peripheral things, in 10 pairs of Nikes and seven carry cases, then she’s not our kind of player,” Auriemma says.
One of the endearing images of his teams is their outstretched hands as they rush to help up one of their fallen comrades during a game; one of the most enduring, three of them scrambling for a loose ball even though they're winning by 30 points. The idea is teamwork and commitment.
Pam Webber may not be the quickest player on the team, but she will start every game this season because, along with Elliott, Lobo and Rizzotti, she never dogs it in practice. Last year, Kara Wolters and Auriemma spent much of the season sparring with each other, the coach unconvinced of her day-to-day dedication, the freshman fearful of his disapproval and, until the end, tired and bothered by nagging injuries. This season, after a few shaky early games, she is slowly growing into her potential as one who can be counted on every night. "I hate to admit it, but he was light," she says of Auriemma’s constant nagging about the grinding two-and-a-half-hour daily practices, practices in which he sets up relentless competitions between the blue and white squads to keep players at the top of their game. “It’s important that the kids think they have to be perfect and that I try not to let them be anything else,” he says.
Brenda Marquis, a 6-foot-3 freshman from tiny Moosup in eastern Connecticut and the first in her family to attend college, says many of the games she’s played are a piece of cake compared to going up against Lobo, Wolters and Elliot in practice. As Auriemma puts it, “Some of the younger players get demoralized because they get beaten by 100 points in practice. But that’s too bad. That’s why they came here."
Auriemma's insistence on teamwork and commitment are a perfect match for the women's game, the purity of which he compares to unspoiled beaches before the condos. Unlike the men's game, where so many plays boil down to the tallest, strongest player slam dunking for two points, the women's game is played beneath the rim. In its purest form, the women’s game relies on carefully executed offensive plays in which players set screens for one another, pass the ball deliberately and carefully, and, unless on a fast break, wait patiently for the best possible shot. In the long run, Auriemma believes, a missed good shot is preferable to a bad shot that happens to fall. Typically, it is his team's consistently high ratio of assists to baskets that he singles out for comment after a game.
In a 100-67 victory over Pitt earlier this season, Lobo (the team's leading scorer since her sophomore year) had only five points. But she also recorded seven assists, four blocks and two steals, while five other players scored in double figures. “Every night we have a different leading scorer.” she said later. "This is a total team. We really don’t have any superstars this year."
If these Huskies were superstars in high school (almost all of them led their teams to statewide championships), they're members of a team at Connecticut. Associate Head Coach Chris Dailey, who has been with Auriemma since he came to UConn, says that after so many years, finding the right kids has become second nature for the two of them. Though Dailey is more laid-back than her nervous, energetic boss, they usually have the same gut reaction when recruiting a kid, a process she says is so subjective that it’s difficult to tell younger coaches how it’s done. “If things don’t work out, it doesn’t mean the kid was bad, it just means the fit wasn’t right,” Dailey says. This past summer, she needed only a brief phone conversation with a highly touted high school junior to know she wasn’t for Connecticut.
In the fall, the girl signed a letter of intent to play at Virginia, and down the road she could come back to haunt UConn in a key game, but that’s the chance the coaching staff was willing to take. And it works both ways. Many current UConn players have passed up other, arguably more prestigious colleges for Stores: Lobo turned down Notre Dame; Webber, Duke. “We have a sense of what we’re about, and we recruit kids who have a sense of what they’re about,” says Dailey.
What they’re about includes having a clear understanding of and being comfortable with what’s expected of them, but “they also have to be able to laugh and to have fun, to do all the normal stuff college kids do,” she continues.
Although the rules aren't written down (some coaches actually draw up contracts with their players), the UConn women know their limits from the outset. Most rules involve day-to-day behavior and common courtesies: no jeans in public appearances as a team; no headphones when traveling together. “We treat a lot of things like their parents would,” says Dailey. “We tell them that more people know who you are than you know who they are, that for many people this is the only exposure to your program.”
But there are few rules when it comes to the important things, matters in which their own judgment and discipline are tested. There are no bed checks, no escorts to classes or meetings with academic counselors. “We tell them, ‘If you're going to play well and you’re going to win, then you know you need to get your rest and you know you need to meet your tutor and you know you need to eat right,”' says Dailey. “At the beginning of the season, we talk about individual and team goals with each of them. And then we hold them accountable for fulfilling those goals.”
The team average is usually at least a B, and in any one semester as many as four players will make the dean’s list. Everyone who has stayed with the program has graduated. And even though getting 1300 on the college boards is not requisite for playing at UConn, success in class transfers to the court because both result from a sense of commitment to excellence, coaches say. However, Auriemma is clear about his priorities: When it comes to recruiting, he’s not looking for smart kids who can also play basketball; he wants basketball players who are also smart.
Auriemma’s drive to succeed stems in large part from his early childhood, when, as a 7- year-old, he helped his mother and two younger siblings move from the tiny mountain village of Montella in southern Italy to the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, a town with a high immigrant population. His father had come over a year earlier to seek a better life for his family.
Teased about his homemade clothes and his accent, Auriemma quickly learned English, and became, in effect, the public agent for the family, handling their financial matters. In Italy he had walked two miles a day to play soccer; in America he discovered baseball and quickly became a premier Little League pitcher. He was introduced to the sport that would become his livelihood at Bishop Kendrick High School in Norristown, where he joined the boys’ basketball team as a back-up point guard.
Though offered a chance to make the team at either La Salle or St. Joseph’s College, he opted instead for Montgomery County Junior College, then went on to West Chester State, where he graduated in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He coached various boys’ and girls’ teams in the
Philadelphia area, including a stint as an assistant with the St. Joseph's College women's team beside Head Coach Jim Foster—one of his closest friends who, like Auriemma, has since made the big time and is now head women’s coach at Vanderbilt.
His big break came in 1981 when someone gave his name to Debbie Ryan, women’s head coach at the University of Virginia.
Seeing the assistant women’s job as a shorter route to making it as a collegiate coach than waiting for a good men’s job, he left Philadelphia for Charlottesville and started recruiting high school all- Americas. During his tenure there, he brought six of them to Virginia, which quickly became one of the nation’s premier teams. But by 1985 he was ready to move on—and Ryan, though she speaks highly of him, was ready for this aggressive, impatient guy from the streets of Philly to move on as well.
By then committed to turning its struggling women’s basketball program around, UConn hired Auriemma in time for the 1985-86 season, his first and only losing year. During his interview, athletic department officials avoided showing him the leaky, musty field house where the team played during his first four-and-a-half years (sharing a locker room with the men’s soccer team) before moving with the men’s team into the Gampel Pavilion in January 1990.
While Auriemma says in some ways he’s surprised he’s still in Storrs after 10 years, he likes to think of himself as the same guy he was back then: a devoted husband to his wife and college sweetheart, Kathy, father to his three kids, friends with the same people, available for countless speaking engagements at civic clubs, friendly with the fans and accessible to the growing cadre of sportswriters who cover the team. In the last four years, daily coverage has quadrupled to nearly a dozen state dailies. Sports reporters from the state’s four major TV stations staff all home and some away games, and for the second straight year CPTV is televising games and WTIC-AM is broadcasting at least five games on radio. The Huskies are one of the lew women’s teams in the country to be televised nationally on ESPN and CBS.
Along with the increase in fan and media interest has been (he growth in corporate sponsorship. Some 22 firms, from Reebok to First Fidelity Bank to Bob's Stores, contribute between $5,000 and $7,000 a game for some type of exposure, whether sponsoring a halftime shooting contest or printing their names on player posters. UConn Athletic Marketing Director Scott Zuffelate says that this year for the first time he had a waiting list of firms interested in sponsoring some aspect of the women's program, and people are already calling about next year.
Of course, the team’s financial future is dependent on what happens on the court, and for that Auriemma has positioned himself nicely. Last year, he again made sure the state's best high school talent stayed in Connecticut when he convinced Sales that she'd be better off in Storrs than in Virginia, toward which she had been leaning for months. “I’m trying to establish a trend so that every great player who grows up in Connecticut wants to come to Connecticut,” he says. But he’ll travel 3,000 miles to get someone, too. Next year, he’ll bring in his first West Coast player in Tammy Arnold, a 6-foot-3 forward from Oregon City, ranked among the top high-school post players in the nation, as well as two players from suburban Washington, D.C., another from Ohio, and a transfer from the University of Arizona.
But right now, it is this team, this year. Their stated goal is lofty, as lofty as the white-and-blue banner they want to see hanging from the Gampel rafters reading “UConn Women: 1995 National Champs.” “This team knows they have some special things that they can capitalize on, and they know it may never come again,” he said after the Huskies beat California by 47 points, a game that started with a 25-0 UConn run. Several weeks later, after the epic 77-66 win over perennial national powerhouse Tennessee, he said, “This was a heck of a game, one of the top games [of my career] because we beat the best team in the country fair and square.”
And while the eyes of March remain stubbornly fixed on the big prize at the end of the NCAA tournament, someone should point out that a more important goal may already have been reached. With discipline, hard work, team play, high spirits and superb athleticism, this team has given pride and pleasure to its fans, its school and all of Connecticut—as well as to themselves. As Rebecca Lobo said after watching the last minutes of the Tennessee game from the bench because she had fouled out: ”It didn’t matter. Waiting for the last seconds, looking around and seeing the crowd going nuts, lying on that pile on the floor—I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
More sports stories from the archives:
Most everyone thought it was a crazy idea, but on the eve of ESPN’s launch, Bryan Miller takes a sneak peek at the upstart, sports-focused cable station out of Bristol in “Television Gets (Even More) Sports Crazy” (September 1979).
Get to know Fairfield native and former Westport resident James Blake, Connecticut's most famous tennis product, in “Blake’s Progress” (April 2002) by K. Lee Howard.
Lime Rock Park gets an early profile in these pages in John Birchard’s “Lime Rock Bridges the Gap” (May 1972), a look at the auto racing venue's broad appeal.
And Charles Monagan visits the starting line of a slightly less, let’s say sanctioned, type of auto race in “The Cannonball Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash” (June 1979), a Darien-to-California cross-country race that was the inspiration for the 1981 big-screen comedy The Cannonball Run.
Read even more stories from Connecticut Magazine's 50-year history at connecticutmag.com/archives