When Geno Auriemma coached his 1,000th game Saturday at Houston, another tidy 51-point win for No. 867 of his career, he did not do so alone.
He was there with Chris Dailey, who through better and worse has been there each step on the 29-year tour with the Hall of Fame coach.
For those who care to chronicle the eight national championships since the 1985-86 season, Auriemma and Dailey represent the only contiguous ingredient.
Auriemma has missed only seven games; Dailey has missed just four. That’s an investment in time that’s hard to match.
And from the very start, Pat Meiser, the current Hartford athletic director who headed the search committee to replace Jean Balthaser, saw something special.
“During the summer and fall preceding the first season, the preparation was very intense,” Meiser said. “You could tell they knew exactly what they wanted to do, both in terms of image, messaging, visibility and attitude. They were very serious about building a program.
“I knew right away, when he ran off a bunch of wins [UConn won the first seven straight], we were headed in the right direction … Having already coached [at Penn State], I knew it would take time to change the culture of a program and create a winning attitude. Geno and Chris gave us big-time glimpses in that first year, extraordinary coaching early on.”
Dailey, an assistant at Rutgers, her alma mater, took the UConn job with some reservation because she was comfortable where she was. She had met Auriemma years before while leading a WBCA organization for assistant coaches.
“I’m sure Pat may have thought we had a plan, but I’m not exactly sure we knew exactly what it was,” Dailey said. “For us, the plan was try to do things a certain way, the way we knew it would have to be done to be successful. Putting it into place requires having a vision. But [the idea] doesn’t take into account how things manage to get done at a particular university. Getting it done was a totally different story.
“We knew the university and John Toner [the athletic director at the time] had made a financial commitment to the program. UConn was one of the first to fully fund [women’s basketball] with scholarships. But changing the image, the way the program was viewed, was the biggest challenge. And to be honest, that effort led to some of our biggest early battles within our own department.”
And some of those challenges seemed pretty silly.
“After games, for whatever reason, the players would be provided ham sandwiches to eat. Well, our kids didn’t like ham and I tried to get turkey. That’s all I asked for; can we have turkey instead of ham? You would have thought I would have asked for someone’s first-born child.
“It was too the point where I was in our office one day sobbing, almost in tears, saying, “Why won’t they give us turkey! I don’t understand!’ I was getting upset over the frustration over something so minute.
“Geno finally says to me, ‘Do you realize you are crying over a ham sandwich?” I’m trying to tell him, “That’s not the point! It took me a little while to understand that some people here were somewhat resistant to change.”
The first thing Auriemma and Dailey did was change how the team comported itself. There were rules, small gestures and together they began to build into a bigger idea.
“What I appreciated the most was when we traveled; we were not allowed to have out Walkmans on,” said Tammi Sweet, who played on that first team. “That was awesome. That was a teaching lesson. You know, sometimes I think back then to my life and realize I was likely looking for something more than a coach to help me with the athletic part of my life.
“I appreciated, and still do, what Geno was like as a person. I’ve sent him guards, complimenting him on the big job of helping these women grow up and be good people.”
Auriemma and Dailey shared an office with a black rotary phone. And, of course, they played in the old Field House, ofte referred to as an intramural gym.
“It was crowded,” Meiser remembered. “But at the time, women’s basketball at the country was just emerging. When I was at Penn State, we hosted the national championships in 1976, so I thought I had a sense of what needed to be done; Geno and Chris driving the ship. They were able to get the right student-athletes. Not always the most talented, but a young woman who could be a great team player and receive coaching and be molded into a team.
“Some may wonder where it came from, but his gut instinct, personality and ability to motivate were all very evident from the start. He was in an environment that allowed him to do the things he needed to do to help a program grow.”
Once the program won its first Big East championship four years into the run, the goals and ambitions began to change.
“I remember Geno telling me, ‘Look, we’ll go from last to the middle and then we’ll go somewhere that we’ll be really good and be able to win the national championship,” Dailey said. ‘I said, ‘Yeah, we can do that. How hard could it be to go from the bottom to the middle?
“I knew we didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder after 1991 [the first Final Four appearance]. And then you don’t want to win just one [national title]; you continue to work, you want to be viewed as a program, not just a team that went to a Final Four.”
But the process really didn’t reach its first important plateau until UConn beat Tennessee for its first national championship in 1995.
“I used to get really geared up for the Tennessee game. They were the standard-bearer. And then one year, I realized that it had become just a game in January to see where we were,” Dailey said. “Before that, I viewed it like, ‘We have beat them to prove we belong here. It took a long time to realize we’d created our own path.
“I remember seeing Mickey DeMoss [the former Tennessee assistant] after beating Tennessee for the national championship the first time. There was an AAU Tournament right after it and we were talking. She was very gracious to me, congratulating me. And then she said, ‘We need to change the way we play to beat you.’
“I remember getting in the car and calling Geno said saying, “Geno, oh my god, Tennessee is going to change the way we play because of us! Can you believe it? It was disbelief and awe that little old Connecticut would have that kind of impact on Tennessee.
“Our goal was to build a program better than it was the year before. I don’t think I knew was what it would take, how long it would take. All we knew was that we were both blue-collar workers. That is how we were raised. We just knew what work meant.”