Geno Auriemma coaches his 1,000th game at UConn on Feb. 22 at Houston. To commemorate the milestone, the Hartford Courant will occasionally publish a memory or remembrance of the Hall of Fame coach from someone who helped play a role in his journey.
Kris (Lamb) Caruso came to UConn in 1986-87, a part of the first freshman class Geno Auriemma brought to UConn. She was a mainstay during a career spanning the program’s formative days, ending after the 1989-90 season – one year before the program’s first Final Four.
“A day I will never forget is my junior year in high school,” she said. “Coach Auriemma, who had been recruiting me since my freshmen year. He called to tell me he was leaving the University of Virginia to go be head coach at some place called the University of Connecticut. Here was this young, charismatic, confident assistant coach taking his first head coaching job at a place that this southern girl did not know even existed.
“He quickly began telling me of his vision to make UConn a special place where he was going to win championships. At the time, Coach did not have a lot to work with to help him recruit: They played in the field house with a leaking ceiling and all; shared the locker room with volleyball team where there were metal lockers and campus was empty every weekend – they called it a suitcase school. You cannot even compare the campus now to when he first got the job.
“My campus visit, needless to say, was interesting since a lot of the students, including the players went home [for the weekend]. However, it did not matter to me. The way coach spoke about what he was going to do there got me fired up. I wanted to go and play for him that day, and then he and Chris Dailey visited me at my home. His passion and commitment for the game and making me a better basketball player had made a huge impact on me.
“I decided that day to follow him hundreds of miles away from my home, family and everything, to this place called UConn to be his first four-year basketball recruit. I wanted to help him build a program to what he envisioned to be a championship program one day.
“A lot has changed for the women’s basketball program at UConn since thenm but Coach is the same man that I followed from my home in Virginia in 1986. He has remained steadfast in his desire to make his players the best player/person you can be and his passion for the game and perfection remain the same. He has set a wonderful example with his work ethic and in doing things the right way.
“Don’t get me wrong, he is demanding; each practice must be as close to perfection you can get, his intensity level and competitiveness are unsurpassed. But what you take away as a player is how much he cares about you both on and off the court. He cares about you as a person and takes over where your parents left off to help develop you into a young adult with the work ethic, toughness and passion that you need to survive in the real world when basketball may no longer a part of your life.
“Even though Coach Auriemma’s style, plays, resources, players, his suits and shoes have changed, the intangibles he possessed that day in 1985 when he walked into my home to tell me that he wanted me to be a part of something very special are all still there today. He kept his word and going to Connecticut to play basketball for Geno Auriemma was one of the best decisions of my life.”