Camp, Calhoun And Auriemma Stand Above All Other Coaches

A decade ago, on a bleak March day in 2004, Geno Auriemma sat down in a blue plastic chair inside the gray hallways of Gampel Pavilion and began to chat with the basketball writers who were finishing their day's work.

The coach was a month from winning his third straight national championship but his own team was not on his mind. The UConn men were. This was the team with Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon that had been a target all season and seemed to be straining under the weight of expectation as the finish approached.

"They're going to be OK," Auriemma said. "It's hard to play a whole season when the game means more to the other team than it does to you. It's like you can't wait for March."

He paused for a moment and smiled. He was about to say something nice about the coach who worked down the hall from him. The smile seemed an acknowledgment that kind words between the two were few.

"He's had to hold on to that team this whole season," Auriemma said. "You have to with really great teams. You wait, he's going to let them go play now and nobody can play with them."

Geno was right, of course, and in April he and Jim Calhoun were part of a victory parade through the streets of Hartford, a ritual that had almost become a seasonal certainty, but never before like this. National championships had been won on back-to-back days and Connecticut had become college basketball's Mecca.

Calhoun and Auriemma never pretended to be friends and never really understood why it was news that they weren't, but together they transformed the sporting sensibility of a state until it is no longer possible to think of winter in Hartford without thoughts turning to March and the approaching tournaments.

It wasn't always this way.

Those old enough to remember what it was like before these two men started stalking the sideline in Storrs are also old enough to remember what it was like to turn the pages of an actual book.

Thumb a few pages backward in the record books and you will find that in the seasons before these two men arrived — one year apart — the men and women were a combined 20-34.

Calhoun and Auriemma changed all that and so it should be no surprise that they are included on the very short list of coaches who have carved their images indelibly into whatever monument this state wants to erect to coaching. They are joined, of course, by Walter Camp, whose influence on a sport is seen every weekend in the fall when millions sit down to watch a weekend's worth of football. Add in that he lost two games in five seasons as Yale coach and there is no question he belongs.

Those three are apart from the rest. To be sure, there are other coaches who have captured the attention of state sports fans, either through excellence or passion.

For sheer dominance nobody can top Trinity men's squash coach Paul Assaiante, who has coached the Bantams to 14 national championships in the past 15 years and, at one point, had led the school to 252 consecutive victories. Such success is unrivaled but men's squash is not college football. Assaiante's impact on his sport is immeasurable but, for the most part, his work has been done far away from the searching lights of TV cameras and the unending scrutiny of newspapers.

On any given Sunday during the 1970s and 1980s, Joe Morrone convinced thousands of people to turn off the NFL and turn out to watch UConn play college soccer. Crowds of more than 4,000 were the norm but the Huskies drew as many as 9,000 fans. There were a number of reasons for such astonishing box office success. Morrone insisted that if American universities were going to give scholarships they ought to go toward improving American soccer and so his team, in contrast to rivals such as Alabama A&M and, later, Seton Hall, were entirely American-born players. Flag-waving and chants of "U-S-A" were popular when UConn was at its best, winning the national championship in 1981 and reaching three consecutive Final Fours from 1981-1983.

But fans turned out for more than simple patriotic chest-thumping. Morrone coached the unusual game of college soccer, with its liberalized substitution rules, in such a way that UConn was constantly playing with fresh legs. The result was an attractive blend of attacking, fast-paced soccer that sometimes unsettled foreign-born players who had been taught to conserve energy.

More than this, Morrone, 358-178-53 during 28 years in Storrs, was a show all to himself, stalking the sideline and breaking clipboards over his knee when fortune or the referee's whistle was unkind.

Others might point to Diane Wright, who coached UConn to two national championships in field hockey during the 1980s, or Nancy Stevens, now the winningest Divsion I field hockey coach in the country who took over in Storrs in 1990. There's Bill Detrick, who won 468 games as Central Connecticut's men's basketball coach and helped the program transition into Division I; and Eastern Connecticut baseball coach Bill Holowaty, who recorded 1,404 wins and four NCAA Division III titles in 45 years .

Some might make the case for Carm Cozza, who was on the sideline at the Yale Bowl from 1965-1996 and won 179 games. Others might admonish that the high school coaches be remembered and point to men such as Chuck Jarvis, who guided Ansonia football from 1938-1966 and won 175 games against anyone and everyone who wanted a game.

There is even room for those who might wish to ask: What if? Might Jack Evans be on this list if Mike Liut had snuck his left shoulder up and deflected Claude Lemieux on the high right side? Might the Whalers — the only real challenger to the Canadiens that year — have won a Stanley Cup and changed hockey history?

Might Bill Belichick crowd out all others if that stadium had gone up on the banks of the Connecticut River? Fun to think about on a snowy winter day but reality intrudes. The list of great coaches our state has seen goes on and on, as does the roster of what ifs, but our list stops at three: Camp, Calhoun and Auriemma. They remain our Rushmore.