Last Thursday, Geno Auriemma celebrated his 63rd birthday. Tonight, he goes for college basketball history.
Before Auriemma arrived at the University of Connecticut, the women’s basketball program had only one winning season in its history. Since his arrival in 1985, the Huskies have had only one losing season – his first year with the team. Auriemma has led UConn to 11 NCAA championships, more than any other coach – man or woman – in college basketball history. In 1985-86, Auriemma went 12-15. Since then, his teams have finished above .500 for 30 straight years, including this one. A seven-time Naismith Coach of the Year, Auriemma has won 23 conference titles, made 18 Final Four appearances – including the last ten in a row – and has posted 22 thirty-win seasons.
He has led the Lady Huskies to six undefeated seasons and has the highest winning percentage in college hoops history. Intelligent, funny, and possessing an insatiable thirst for winning, Auriemma has transformed women’s basketball. After winning his 11th national title in 2016, he surpassed the great John Wooden for most NCAA championships in history. UConn has won the last four titles in a row. This weekend they go for five, which would break their own record.
Auriemma is a master. A brilliant recruiter and tactician, he has a relentless pursuit of perfection that has made UConn the greatest dynasty in college basketball history. Auriemma is a father-figure to his players, creating a family-like culture of accountability at UConn. Every one of his players who has stayed four years has graduated. He has coached eight Naismith Players of the Year and nine Wade Trophy winners, including Maya Moore, the only three-time recipient as top female player. Nine Lady Huskies have been named the NCAA tourney’s Most Outstanding Player. Auriemma has been head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team since 2009. During that time, Team USA has gone 42-1 in international competition while winning two FIBA World Championships and a gold medal in the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics.
Luigi Auriemma was born March 23, 1954, in Montelia, a small town in Southern Italy known for chestnuts. The Auriemmas were of modest means – owning no car, phone, or television. At seven, Geno emigrated with his parents and two siblings to Norristown, Pennsylvania, sister city of Montelia and birthplace of Dodger hall-of-famers Tommy Lasorda and Mike Piazza. Auriemma spent his childhood in Norristown, located along the Schuylkill River about six miles from downtown Philadelphia. He attended Bishop Kendrick High School, a private, Catholic school where he played baseball and basketball. After attending community college, Auriemma enrolled at West Chester University, graduating with a political science degree in 1977. He was hired by St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, were he served as assistant men’s basketball coach for two seasons. In 1980, he returned to Bishop Kendrick, working as assistant varsity coach at his alma mater. In 1981, he moved to the women’s game and became an assistant for the University of Virginia Lady Cavaliers. It was Auriemma’s first crack at recruiting and he was superb, landing six high school All-Americans in his four seasons at UVA. In 1985, he accepted his first head coaching job – at the University of Connecticut.
Coach Auriemma accepted the UConn job having never seen the facilities. Upon arrival in Storrs, he learned the team had no locker room and that the ceilings in the practice facility leaked so badly that rain made practice impossible. Auriemma inherited a team that had gone a combined 4-28 in the Big East Conference over the previous three seasons. He did not complain, offered no excuses, and taught basketball. In his fourth season, the Lady Huskies won their first conference title and first NCAA tournament bid in school history. Two years later, they made their first Final Four. In 1995 – after earning a seventh straight NCAA tourney bid – UConn beat Tennessee, who, under the legendary Pat Summitt, were the premier power in women’s basketball. Under Auriemma, the tide was turning in UConn’s favor. After winning a second national title in 2000, the Huskies and Volunteers were voted co-Team of the Decade in women’s college basketball.
Connecticut basketball reached another level after the turn of the new millinium. Their undefeated 2014 team won 40 games and five other squads tallied 38 or more victories in a season. Under Auriemma, the Huskies have established three record win streaks. Between 2001 and 2003 , they won 70 straight games, the longest run in women’s college basketball history. From 2008 to 2010 , they won 90 in a row to surpass 88-game streak the great UCLA men’s teams set in the early 1970s. “Forget the 90 wins,” said Auriemma after UConn won their 90th in a row. “Tonight was like a perfect example of what Connecticut basketball is. I wouldn’t trade what we have for anybody in America.” The current UConn binge is the most impressive of all. The Huskies have not lost a game since November 2014 and bring a college record 111-game winning streak into tonight’s semifinal game.
Over the past decade-and-a-half, UConn’s national titles have come in bunches. The Lady Huskies won three in a row from 2002 to 2004, back-to-back titles in 2009-10, and have claimed the last four in succession. Auriemma has the best winning percentage of any basketball coach in history. His winning percentage in the conference is an astounding .885.
How dominant is UConn? Earlier this year they beat the 21st-ranked team in the country by 65 points. They were up 65-18 at halftime and never let up. In the past 23 seasons, UConn’s “worst” finish was when they “only” made the Sweet 16. The last time Auriemma failed to make the Final Four was in 2007. This year’s team is undefeated and on the brink of an unprecedented fifth consecutive national championship. And it almost did not happen. In the early 2000s, before the Huskies took off on this torrid run, Auriemma almost left UConn to coach a men’s team.
His coaching friends on the men’s side thought he was crazy and his daughter talked him out of it. Since making that decision, Mr. Auriemma has won seven NCAA crowns and is on the brink of making it eight this weekend. He is the fastest coach – at any level, men’s or women’s – to reach 800 and 900 career wins. Auriemma seems content to remain in Storrs. In October 2016 he signed a five-year, $ 13 million deal, the highest-paying contract in the history of women’s sports. Mr. Auriemma is a member of the Naismith, Italian-American Sports, and College Basketball halls of fame.
Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut Lady Huskies go for history this weekend, as they attempt to seal their seventh perfect season, 12th national title and record fifth consecutive NCAA championship. The national semifinal game takes place tonight at American Airlines Center in Dallas, with the title game scheduled for this Sunday.
“With the absence of pressure, it’s hard to do great things.” — Luigi “Geno” Auriemma.