In the autumn of 1984, Kathy Auriemma’s husband, an assistant women’s basketball coach at Virginia, walked through the front door of the family home and made an announcement.
“He said to me, in a very definitive way, ‘Next year at this time I will be coaching my own team.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK.’” Auriemma said.
This really was no surprise. Kathy Auriemma knew her husband, Geno, a street-wise kid from Norristown, Pa., who had dabbled with many odd jobs, seemed to really enjoy being a coach
“Once he got into coaching, it was clear he put it above everything else,” she said. “He began to focus and you could sense his confidence building. His enthusiasm was contagious and I had tremendous faith in him. He never wavered. You could tell he was very good at it, he kept at it and he found success.”
Geno Auriemma had already tried to move on, waging an unsuccessful campaign to be DePaul’s coach the year before. But he wasn’t about to give up.
Meanwhile, at Connecticut, a program three years into its Big East history was floundering under Coach Jean Balthaser, a stern Pennsylvanian who took the job in 1980.
“Balthaser didn’t really didn’t like Connecticut players, didn’t think there was much talent there,” said Lori Kulo, an Ellington High graduate, who had played two years for her. “I remember John Toner [UConn’s former athletic director] not really caring for that attitude.”
Before the end of the 1984-85 season – UConn finished 9-18 (3-13 in the Big East) – the decision to find a new coach had been made.
“Leigh Curl [a senior on that team] was one of the players who led the charge that we needed a change,” Kulo said. “We were very upset about how things we being handled. Some things just didn’t seem right to us. She went to John Toner and expressed [the dissatisfaction to him].”
Geno Auriemma heard about the job and in the spring of 1985 traveled to Storrs to interview with a search committee comprised of a cross-section of athletic department personnel.
“I thought I was going to get the DePaul job and I didn’t,” Geno Auriemma said. “So, I just approached the interview as I would if I was on a recruiting trip. I was going to go up there like I was walking into a kid’s house or high school and convince them to play at Virginia. I was going to sit down with [the selection committee] and recruit them to hire me.
“I don’t think the stakes were really high … At that time, I was thinking, ‘Well, who do they think they are going to get? It was UConn. They play in an intramural gym. They have an intramural program. Did they think some really good head coach from another part of the country would be dying for the job?
“So I wasn’t intimidated. I was calm. I knew no one else would be coming into the room to blow them away, so I didn’t have to be something I’m not, like convince them I was somehow worthy.”
The head of the search committee was Pat Meiser, the former Penn State coach, then an associate AD at UConn, now the AD at Hartford.
“We couldn’t wait to meet him and he was the last to interview. You always want to be last in for an interview, but it didn’t matter. It was clear to us that he was a very impressive candidate,” Meiser said. “He had such instinctive knowledge about how to build a program and it was easy to see.
“He was gladly confident. I can remember being in a car with him, driving around campus after John Toner had decided to make him the offer. We were over near the ice rink and I remember saying to him that if he could have success here [at UConn], in men’s and women’s basketball, you can own the state.”
As fate would have it, things were not going well with another candidate, Nancy Darsch, an assistant to Pat Summitt at both Tennessee and the 1984 Olympic team. Highly qualified, highly respected, Darsch had also apparently highly over-played her hand.
“I remember Pat Meiser bringing us together and telling us that it was likely that we would have another woman coaching the team. She was 95 percent of it,” said Peggy Walsh, the star of program at time.
Kulo confirmed that, but also said the players were hearing something wasn’t going well.
“The rumor was she [Darsch] was very demanding,” Kulo said “She wanted this and she wanted that; a parking space and a house. And we heard that she was originally offered the job, but because of all of her demands, they were like, uh … they started to second-guess the decision because of her attitude.
“And then Geno’s resume got tossed in at the last minute and he blew them all away, so much so that he left no doubt.”
Meiser said Darsch was never offered the job. But for whatever reason, Geno Auriemma was and Darsch went to Ohio State.
“I didn’t come up [to UConn] knowing who had been there before or who was perceived as the favorite or the long shot,” Auriemma said. “I didn’t know anything about anything, other than the job was open.
“Did I think I would get the job? I was under the impression that if I did a good job in the interview. I would get it. That is what you are supposed to think, isn’t it? I didn’t come up here knowing one way or another what they were looking for or how I needed to conduct myself; you know, make sure you don’t ask for this or that. I had no preconceptions. I just talked to people I trusted before I went there for some advice.”
Auriemma, excited about the people he had met at UConn, took the job and moved his young family to Connecticut.
“He came over to my home in Manchester with Kathy and I remember his saying to me, ‘I know exactly who I can get to be my assistant. She will be great for women’s basketball,” Meiser said. “It was Chris Dailey, of course, who I had known as a player when I coached Penn State. I was familiar with her and excited to have her along.”
Dailey, a New Jersey native and Rutgers alum, seemed entrenched as an assistant with the Scarlet Knights under Theresa Grentz. But Auriemma was persuasive.
“He challenged me to coach at a place where it [winning a championship] had never been done before, as opposed to staying comfort at a place I’d had success,” Dailey said. “I felt at the time to better prepare myself to be a head coach, I needed to know a different way to do things than how we did things at Rutgers.”
“I remember talking about it [following him to UConn] and I just originally poo-pooed it. I told him, you better worry about getting the job. I don’t know if I didn’t believe he’d get the job or that he’d really want me to come up there and help him do it.”
But come to UConn they did. And that summer, the process of turning UConn into a winner commenced.
“We were just excited to have a new coach,” Kulo said. “In some ways, it was miserable during my sophomore year. We didn’t like seeing what was going on. Things weren’t going well and the coaching staff was miserable. It just wasn’t fun. It was a big deal to change coaches, but we were thrilled to have a new one. And I’ll never forget the first time we saw him.
“We were playing pick-up in the gym at the end of August 1985. We didn’t even know what he looked like. We were wondering about it, talking out it. And here he struts in and sits down. He had no idea it was him until someone came over to us and said ‘That’s your new coach.’
“Our thought was, ‘Wow, he’s so young. And he was [just 31]. And he wasn’t a big, imposing figure. We’re thinking, ‘He’s our new coach?”
Yes he was. And one that within his first 1,000 games would become one of the great college basketball coaches of all time.
“I knew we weren’t staying in Virginia,” Kathy Auriemma said. “But this [Connecticut] felt like home to us. He’s always had wide-eyes, the kind of guy who buys a car and two months later starts thinking about the next one he wants. But he never felt like he needed or wanted to leave. It always just got better and better.
“My husband is ambitious in a very good way. He feels like you can accomplish [in life] more than you ever thought you could.”