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.
Walter Camp: Innovator
Much has been written about Walter Camp but to sift through those volumes is to somehow imply that he belongs to the past. The truth is that nobody's legacy is more alive.
Try this. The next time you are watching a football game just close your eyes and listen. "Third down coming up for Brady and the Patriots at the Jets 14," Jim Nantz says. Camp invented the system of downs, the line of scrimmage and the quarterback. There is no part of modern football that escapes his ghost. He took American football forcibly away from rugby and set it on a new path and within the rules he created, he developed tactics such as the flying wedge that promoted a raw-boned violent style of play that was successful and brutal and overcome only through intervention of Teddy Roosevelt.
Even the controversies that swirled around Camp during his long tenure as guardian of Yale football are utterly modern. During his time, Camp was beset by concerns over the violence of football and by the sham amateurism of college athletes.
He might have believed in "chivalry that protects the weak" and the "physical strength that makes that chivalry effective," as he noted in his seminal fitness book, but there was no place for the weak on his football field. As historian Taylor Branch noted, in his short book "The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA", Camp's football was a game where a tackled player could crawl along the ground with the ball until the elbows and kicks of his opponents became too much and the ball carrier cried out "down" in submission.
The result was a game that became increasingly popular and increasingly violent. But if Camp believed a "nation should be made up of people who individually possess clean, strong bodies and pure minds; who have respect for their own rights and the rights of others and possess the courage and strength to redress wrongs," he also believed that a university should be made up of people who were paid for playing college football.
The combination of a fund that Camp kept on hand to pay football players and the brutal physical toll of Yale's style allowed Roosevelt to call for a meeting with Harvard, Princeton and Yale in 1906. Through some deft politicking, Roosevelt was able to establish a commission that altered football's rules to favor Harvard's tactics at the expense of Camp. As Branch wrote, "At a stroke, Roosevelt saved football and dethroned Yale."
But Roosevelt, who had graduated from Harvard in 1880, was not able to dethrone Camp. All these years later, Camp's influence on football remains and the game he developed is a behemoth that dominates the attention of American sporting culture. Perhaps as notable was Camp's humility. A quick thumb through an old copy of "American Football," Camp's 1891 text on the rapidly developing game, is devoid of any mention of his own impact on the rules of the game. The line of scrimmage and the system of downs developed not because of his own advocacy but because "the decision was made" to adapt a new style.
Camp died March 14, 1925 in a New York hotel room of a heart attack. He was there for a meeting of the college football rules committee, of which he was serving as secretary. When he was not present at the start, the meeting commenced, but it seemed strange. When he did not answer a call to his room, a few men entered. He was found in his bed.
From a Courant story March 15, 1925: "A wave of sadness spread over the university tonight when word spread of the death of Walter Camp, regarded as one of the great leaders in athletics of the institution. ... Many of Mr. Camp's most intimate friends were stunned at the news, because some had seen him only yesterday before leaving for New York, and he had seemed in such excellent spirits and had spoken of the meeting he was to attend."
Jim Calhoun: Tougher Than You
Calhoun and Auriemma, both in the basketball Hall of Fame, cannot boast of making such radical changes to their sport but they did change our state. Fans of a certain age might fondly recall Tony Hanson or Corny Thompson but what the nation thinks of as UConn basketball began when these two men arrived in Storrs.
Neither arrival was auspicious. Many years later, Auriemma recalled leaving Charlottesville, Va., on a beautiful spring day in mid-March of 1985 and arriving in Storrs to an afternoon slush storm.
"I wanted to cry," he said years later.
Calhoun's first meeting with the UConn media is famous for his terse assessment of the job that was in front of him: "It's doable."
There were growing pains. Both men had losing records in their first seasons but all that did was make the fans' first full-throated roar of celebration all that much louder. For the men, that moment came Jan. 20, 1990 in what was then the Hartford Civic Center. The Huskies, off to a promising 13-3 start, met Georgetown, led by Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. As the din inside the usually somnolent Civic Center increased, veteran TV announcer Mike Gorman was attempting not to shout as he stripped his usual economic style to its bare minimum. "It's 10-0," he said, the astonishment clear in his voice. And then, a moment later, after a steal and hoop, "It's 12-0."
"I didn't want to shout but I couldn't hear," Gorman later recalled. "That crowd had been waiting for a moment like that for a long time."
Veteran basketball writer Ken Davis, who covered the game for The Courant, insists the crowd a week later, during the first game at Gampel Pavilion, was louder. No matter. This 10-game winning streak in January announced UConn as an emerging force on the national scene and announced Calhoun as a coach who would not surrender an inch on the court or in the interview room.
Calhoun, who went 625-243 at UConn, remains famous for his occasionally volcanic interviews. None more famous than his clash with freelance journalist and activist Ken Krayeske, who asked if the coach would consider giving back part of his salary during the state's budget crisis.
"Not a dime back," Calhoun said. The two sparred but when Krayeske said he wouldn't have asked such a question if the other writers were doing their jobs, Calhoun screamed louder. To outside observers it seemed just another Calhoun outburst, but to those more attuned to the situation, something else was behind the eruption.
The basketball writers were Calhoun's guys to joust with. He might lose his temper with them and they might write something he didn't like but nobody was going to come in and insult his guys and leave unscathed.
Just as nobody was going to criticize his players and leave unscathed. During one memorable game against North Carolina, the oft-maligned Taliek Brown drew a charging foul at a critical stage in the second half. Calhoun sprinted the length of his bench and found one columnist who had been particularly harsh seated along the baseline.
"He's not bad," Calhoun shouted above the din of the Dean Dome. "He's not [expletive] bad."
Even after he reached his first Final Four in 1999, Calhoun's response was a challenge to a media that had become obsessed with the missing page in his resume.
"I'm not a better coach than I was a couple of hours ago," he said after the Huskies had beaten Gonzaga in the regional final. "My biggest fear was that I didn't want people perceiving I needed to make the Final Four to legitimize myself and put more pressure on the kids. There's no fear anymore."
That wasn't exactly true. For Calhoun there was always another mountain. After the 2002 season, which ended in the Elite Eight after an epic struggle in the Carrier Dome against a heavily favored Maryland team, Calhoun was speaking off the podium with his back to a wall, a place he always seemed comfortable.
"I didn't want it to be like we went away," he said. "We had to make it back here."
Calhoun made it back to the Final Four three more times and won two more national championships and yet, sometimes it seems as if people forget how astonishing this record is. But consider this: Calhoun won more national championships at Connecticut than Dean Smith did at North Carolina. He won as many at Connecticut as Bob Knight did at Indiana. He was a couple Tyus Edney miracle shots, , or a Steve Blake three, or a Denham Brown three, or a Donyell Marshall free throw from winning as many at Connecticut as Adolph Rupp won at Kentucky. He won more national championships than any single coach ever won at Kansas. Perhaps the best way to tell it is to listen to George Blaney, who was a good enough coach to win 357 games at Holy Cross.
"Even the people who think he is a great coach don't know how good he is," Blaney said one summer afternoon at Gampel Pavilion. "He makes his team as tough as he is."
Geno Auriemma, Mr. Cool
If Calhoun was able to instill his toughness, Auriemma has a different gift. His teams always seem to be the coolest, most confident bunch when it comes time to play an important game. This was never more evident then in the prelude to the Huskies' first appearance at Cameron Indoor Arena on Feb. 1, 2003 against then No. 1 Duke.
ESPN viewers got to see an interview with Duke coach Gail Gostenkors, who looked like she had just gulped down six or seven espressos and kept insisting that the Blue Devils' next game – against North Carolina State – was a bigger game then the sellout on national television. Then came Geno, who looked as if he had just returned from an island vacation.
"This is a big game," he said.
Auriemma has always had a gift for outrageous pregame banter. Whether it was the comparison between neighboring cheesesteak restaurants Pat's and Geno's during the Final Four in Philadelphia or his famous remark about Duke ("There are just as many Duke graduates waiting on tables as there is from any other school in the country. They may just be working at a better restaurant."), Auriemma has made a habit of tweaking rivals. He is a gift for those who must cover his team aware that, even after all these years, there will be but a handful of competitive games.
It wasn't always this way. Fans might wish to think UConn women's basketball was born fully grown on Jan. 16, 1995 when the Huskies defeated top-ranked Tennessee 77-66 before a raucous home crowd. The game began a rivalry that would define the sport for the next decade but 1995 was the second trip to the Final Four for the Huskies. The first team Auriemma guided to the Final Four had a point guard who didn't shoot (not couldn't shoot but didn't) and a center who was the team's press breaker. That team – the same as Calhoun's 1990 team – is the definitive retort against those who suggested during the lean years that he was a collector of talent and not a gifted tactical coach.
Such silliness about both coaches pervaded the state in the '90s. It was as if no one realized that Auriemma had completely revamped his offense to adapt to new talent or that Calhoun had scrapped the full-court pressure that was the backbone of his first great team once the Bobby Hurleys of the world figured out how to beat it.
As charming as the run in 1991 was, it was the 1995 team that vaulted the UConn women into the national spotlight such that when actor Samuel Jackson spied the team on a trip through Europe he called out, in his inimitable voice, "UConn, the team that beats everyone."
The UConn women became a basketball version of a traveling circus. In every town, fans – most of them wearing national flag blue – filled the arena. Many of these fans had never cared about sports before and they cheered with the zealousness only a convert can muster.
"We don't have the young guys but we have everyone else," Auriemma said one night in Knoxville. "We have the older guys, the women and the kids. We have all of them."
Their devotion was astonishing. During the first Storm of the Century in 2001, a winter punch that dropped two feet of snow on Hartford, more than 15,000 folks snowshoed to the Civic Center to watch the Huskies beat Tennessee. On another night when the snow fell so fast and furious that water began to drip through the Gampel Pavilion ceiling, more than 5,000 trekked to Storrs to watch them beat Rutgers.
There were times when Auriemma seemed uncomfortable with the frenzied flock he had created but he also took every opportunity to honor them, sending his team back on to the floor for a wave of appreciation or arranging to have injured stars introduced in the starting lineup a final time so fans could say good-bye.
Someday Auriemma will say good-bye, too. He has eight national championships, coached more than 1,000 games, winning about 87 percent of them, and shows no sign that his competitive fire burns any dimmer than it did when he was battling Providence and Tracy Lis for the Big East title but all true stories must have an ending. Calhoun, of course, has already stepped off the stage though anyone who spies him on the sidelines can see that his competitive energy pulses through him.
The Huskies' athletic future and the athletic future of a state are in a precarious state and there is no disguising the need to find a home in the Big Ten or the ACC. But no matter what happens, years from now, those lucky enough to have been there will gather the young and explain that once upon a time Connecticut was the center of the college basketball world. And the two men who made it happen.
Matt Eagan is a former Courant sports writer who covered the UConn men's and women's basketball teamsCopyright © 2015, CT Now