Three months after taking a job he figured would last four years, Geno Auriemma, 31 years old, was certainly ready to coach his Huskies for the first time.
After all, like any aspiring professional, he hoped his day would finally come. And here it was, Saturday, Nov. 23, 1985, New Rochelle, N.Y.
Still, it wasn’t playing at Iona that troubled him as much as worry whether his UConn team would be ready. Even then – so young, so impetuous – he was internally conflicted.
“Yes, I remember him being very nervous,” said Lori Kulo, a junior guard on the 1985-86 UConn team.
After years working in construction, selling shoes, stocking shelves and bartending, a prestigious apprenticeship as an assistant for Debbie Ryan at Virgina led Auriemma to a school with an intramural home gym that had won just four conference games in the first three years of Big East play.
“You are always worried. I was worried,” Auriemma said. “I didn’t know if we’d covered it all, whether I’d instilled what I wanted in them. I didn’t know if we would play hard, if the team would be reflective of what I wanted.
“I didn’t know if it had learned that it [the process] was going to be different than it had been every other year. There were a lot of things going on that didn’t involve Iona.”
The team Auriemma inherited from Jean Balthaser, who had run the program since 1980, was enthusiastic, but somewhat dispirited. It was definitely set in its ways.
And it was clear from the start that Auriemma and Chris Dailey, whom he hired from Rutgers to be his assistant, did not particularly endorse the way the program had done things.
Things had to change. In fact, just about everything had to change.
“I remember we didn’t have the most talented group, but it worked hard,” Dailey said. “They were good kids, hungry for success, for change. And Geno was straightforward with them. He told them just because they had new coaches didn’t mean that would suddenly win 25 games.”
So, as a result, Auriemma spent much of his time just talking to his team, hoping it would listen.
“He explained to them there was a reason they had won so few games and it started with how hard they work, the level of commitment, the way we do things,” Dailey said.
As a result, those early practices often resembled tug-of-wars; Auriemma imposing his will, his players not always believing.
“He inherited us, and he often gave us a difficult time for not doing things the way he wanted them done,” Kulo said. “He was tough-minded. He demanded focus all the time. He wanted you to do it his way. He wanted to control everything that was going in, which wasn’t exactly the way things were with the coach we had before him [Jean Balthaser]. They were so different. We had a lot of adjusting to do. It was like a tornado hit us, but in a very good way.”
Auriemma and Dailey immediately began a process of changing the culture in a program that in some ways resembled a group of independent contractors.
“We gave them sweaters to wear,” Dailey said. “They never had anything [team gear] to wear as a group. They certainly wouldn’t have been fashionable now. They were blue, v-neck sweaters. But they wore them with such pride. We looked like a team, we acted like a team. It was a change for them. There were expectations now. They were being held to different standards, expected to act in a different way.
“Geno and I based our foundation on what we viewed as important …things that seemed so simple, so easy. Most of all, we wanted to reinforce there was an expectation level [for behavior] that would lead to how we wanted to be viewed on campus. That started right from the beginning.
“Look, any successful business features certain rules that are important and that set you apart. Do they help us win? I don’t know. But I think attention to details helps win; worrying about your teammates, being a team, looking like a team, acting like a team. Getting up early, working hard, doing things people don’t want to do helps you win games. Separating yourself in a positive way, worrying about others more than yourself helps you win games. Character building is what leads to the construction of successful people.”
While Dailey worked on the culture, Auriemma attacked the fundamentals.
“I guess, I was sort of a gamer when I played, and he [Auriemma] didn’t like the fact that I didn’t work as hard in practice,” said Peggy Walsh-Myers, a senior post player on that first team, who had averaged 16.7 points and 12.5 rebounds the year before. “I remember him laying into me after the first few practices, calling me in, telling me I wasn’t going to start in a scrimmage we had. We had a little knock-down, drag-out [argument]. Tears were shed. Then I understood what he was trying to tell me.”
Auriemma cajoled about footwork, lazy practice habits, poor technique and mental preparation. And he was relentless.
“We were having practice, he got mad at us, he left and then he came back,” said Tammi Sweet, a junior in 1985-86. “He was upset that we weren’t hustling. Finally, it was just me and him there. He said to me, ‘You weren’t working hard enough,’ I looked at him and said, ‘My high school coach would be appalled to hear what you are saying to me; there is no one on this court that is working harder than I.
“He didn’t skip a beat. He looked right at me and said, ‘Yeah, but are you working as hard as you can.’ I sent him a card many years after I graduated to tell him what a pivotal moment for me because it was true. It was so profound in that moment. And that is when he got my respect. That’s when I decided that I would follow him.”
As it turned out, all Auriemma wanted that season, all he knew he could really expect was faith and acceptance. He knew whatever he hoped to build had to start there.
“We had no way of knowing it, but at the time it was all about baby steps, being better, beating teams we didn’t expect to beat,” Walsh-Meyers said.
More than anything in that first year, it was also about avoiding the embarrassing play-in game of the Big East tournament, the 8-9 game on the day before the quarterfinals.
“It was about not going to what we called “The Toilet Bowl,” which is what we called it,” said Walsh-Myers, who made the Big East’s first team that season. “We were always in it. That was the goal. Stay out of the Toilet Bowl.”
And that process began at Iona, an eastern power who had beaten UConn by seven points in Storrs the year before. The Gaels were led by Rose Battaglia, a famous high school coach at Paramus Catholic (N.J.) who had coached Anne Donovan, the future Olympic and WNBA championship coach now leading the Connecticut Sun.
“I don’t really remember much about that day or that game,” Battaglia said. “But what I do recall was how gracious, friendly and genuine Geno was. He was a gentleman.”
The two knew each other; they had worked summer camps in Pennsylvania together for the legendary Cathy Rush. Auriemma recruited Battaglia’s players for Virginia.
“In fact, the first time we met, we were sitting over some pizza and beer one night after the campus [where the camp was held] went to sleep,” Battaglia said. “I knew who he was when he got the position [at UConn]. He wasn’t a complete stranger to me at all. He was an interesting guy.
But the Iona roster, or Battaglia’s coaching, wasn’t what was on Auriemma mind as they bused rolled into New Rochelle.
“That first game was pretty indicative of most first games [of a season] since I’ve been here, but a little more so,” Auriemma said. “You don’t know what you are good at, what your team can or can’t do.
“You assume the worst. Practice had been very detail-orientated, trying to cover every single solitary thing. You’re never sure when you reach the first game whether you’ve covered everything well enough to win.”
His players had their doubts, too.
“I remember driving to Iona thinking do we have a chance of beating this team?,” Walsh-Myers said. “We’ve played them a couple of times before; never beaten them. But even then, Geno had an ability to make people think they can be successful. He brings out the best in his athletes. So I remember thinking, I think we have a shot at winning this game and having a good season.”
The game was close and contentious, each possession a scrum as the Huskies did what they could to prove their purpose to their new coach. But there were lessons to be learned at every turn.
“I remember vividly being down by one point. He sets up a play. The play runs and I end up hitting a shot from the baseline,” Kulo said. “But I didn’t really follow the play he called. I probably was in the spot I felt I needed to be to hit the shot, just not the one he wanted me to go.
“I remember him being upset with me after the game because I didn’t follow his instruction. That describes the two years I played for him. He was such a perfectionist and he wanted that from his players. If you didn’t follow what he wanted, that wasn’t good enough.”
Even Auriemma, not entirely sure of how he should behave, was slapped with two technical fouls. Walsh-Myers had one, too. In those days, three earned ejection.
“You open on the road as a first-year coach. It’s not like it’s just your first year at that school; it’s your first year coaching anywhere,” Auriemma said.
“You don’t know what the parameters are, what the boundaries are. It’s evident when you first become a coach that you [think you] control everything; the offense, defense, timeouts, crowd, scorekeeper and the officials. Or at least you try to. And then you realize quite quickly that you don’t. I was like a kid who just got his driver’s license. The cop stopped me twice.”
But Kulo scored 24 points and Walsh-Myers added 16. Auriemma had his first victory, 73-67. The Huskies, 9-18 the year before, would win their first seven games on the way to a 12-15 season featuring four conference wins.
But that was good enough for seventh place in the regular-season standings. No Toilet Bowl for the Huskies. Three years later, they would finish first.
“Those kids were so appreciative,” Dailey said. “All we wanted was to be better than we were the year before … There were so many goals we set with that group that we reached. I was happy for them.”
He was on his way.