Chris Dailey learned in mid-February that she would be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and about four months will have passed when the enshrinement ceremony takes place June 9 in Knoxville, Tenn.
A new Hall of Famer’s list of responsibilities is long. After Dailey, UConn’s associate head coach, helped Geno Auriemma lead the Huskies to another Final Four the first weekend in April, she had a guest list to create, a speech to think about, travel plans to arrange and an important decision to make: Who will walk her to the stage and usher her into the Hall?
“I picked Geno,” Dailey said in mid-May. “I don't think I've told him yet.”
Maybe Dailey got around to asking, or notifying, Auriemma over the two weeks that followed.
“I haven't heard anything about it,” Auriemma said Wednesday, laughing. “When I hired her [in 1985], I actually called her after I got the job, and I said, ‘You need to come up here because I told [UConn] you're going to be my assistant.’ And she argued with me, said, ‘I’m not coming.’ Now she probably figures, ‘I already told the Hall of Fame that you're walking me down so you have no choice.’”
This anecdote is a near-perfect representation of the comfort in a friendship that started on recruiting trails and in committee meetings when both were young assistants in the early 1980s, and of an unspoken understanding in the working relationship between co-architects of the top women’s basketball program in the nation.
Together they have won 1,027 games and 11 national championships over 33 years. Nearly everything one has accomplished in the sport has been, in some way, because of the other, for the other, with the other — and even sometimes, their sarcasm goes, despite the other.
“I work for CD,” Auriemma jokes from time to time. Of course, officially, it’s the opposite. The buck ultimately stops at Auriemma’s neatly organized desk, not at the desk Dailey has buried under scattered papers and trinkets on the other side of an office wall in the Werth Champions Center.
But in the way they function, even with distinctly different personalities and roles, this is a true partnership, the synergy in one of the most impressive runs in modern day sports. They aren’t always on the same page or taking the same path, but Auriemma, 64, and Dailey, 58, are always working toward the same goals and moving at the same pace, taking care of their own business while trusting the other to do the same.
“Any time you put a staff together, you have to be mindful of your own strengths and weaknesses and surround yourself with people who have different strengths and weaknesses, who can match or work well with yours,” Dailey said. “We balance each other.”
Dailey will be one of seven people inducted Saturday as the Hall celebrates its 20th anniversary. The others are Ceal Barry, Rose Marie Battaglia, Mickie DeMoss, Chamique Holdsclaw, Katie Smith and Tina Thompson.
Dailey and DeMoss, best known for her time on the bench with Pat Summitt at Tennessee, are the first assistants to be inducted. Coaches in their position don’t always get recognition, but Daily’s existence has been unique in that Auriemma celebrates her role, attributes UConn’s success to her participation and gladly shares the spotlight.
“I had a choice to either give her a lot of credit for what she did or argue with her, because she was going to take credit anyway,” Auriemma said. “I might as well go along. Because when something is true, it's true. You have a lot of egos in this game, big egos in this business, people who think they know more than everybody else and invented the game and don’t even realize what they don't know. … I've always said that Chris is way, way better than me at so many things our program needs to reach the level it has reached. For me to think otherwise is foolish and for me to say otherwise is foolish.”
Every national championship and milestone have been “we” moments. A framed jersey celebrating 1,000 victories, reached early last season, hangs in Dailey’s office.
“I’ve got to tell you, I'm tired of talking about myself,” Dailey said. “Because in the last few years, there have been a lot of milestones and I have been recognized in a way that most people in my position are not recognized. I appreciate it, but it's not necessary in order for me to continue to feel good about what I do. I work with someone who is comfortable with that happening. There are not a lot of head coaches who be as comfortable or as supportive or as positive about all of the attention I get as Geno has been. If I was him, I would be tired of answering questions about me.”
Atop Dailey’s desk is a sign that reads, “I’d Agree With You But Then We’d Both Be Wrong.” She is the stubborn program caretaker, its protector, in charge of recruiting efforts that focus on the best players in the nation but equally valuable in how engaged she is with current members of the team.
She analyzes everything behind the scenes while Auriemma is the voice on stage. She emerges with a powerful voice when needed. She organizes city tours during road trips because she wants players out in fresh air in the hours before a game. She comes up with the trivia questions she asks during those walks, organizes Easter egg hunts and Christmas-themed competitions. She keeps players loose, tries to create a sense of normalcy in what is a very different world.
“The expectations we have are greater than any expectations the outside world can have on us,” Dailey said. “I never want our players to feel the pressure from the outside world. I only want them to feel the pressure we put on ourselves. I never want all of [the attention] to impact them. So I like to do things that are fun, that the outside world doesn't know about, to just keep them away from us. I don't ever want them to not have fun playing a game that is supposed to be fun.”
Dailey is tough, organized and direct with players, media, administrators — everyone.
“I don’t think I’m difficult,” she said. “I think I can be demanding. But I have grown to realize that you can get people to do what you want them to do without beating them over the head to do it. My background is in teaching. My favorite teacher was my hardest teacher, my strictest teacher. As a teacher, you have to start out strict, but as the year goes on, you can loosen the reins. You can’t start willy-nilly and say do whatever you want and pull the reins later. I was always taught you start this way and, as you grow as a person, and your kids grow and understand, you can lessen. But there are always going to be certain things that are acceptable and not in your classroom. When I first started, it was this, this and this. That's how you have to be as a coach starting off and establishing your program. After I had been doing it a while, I started realizing that I can give our players choices, and nine times out of 10 they’ll choose what I want, but by giving them choices they will feel empowered and feel like they've evolved.”
Dailey says she should be a party planner in her next life.
Really, haven’t she and Auriemma been that, in a way, for the Connecticut sports scene? They cut down nets and celebrated the first national championship in 1995, a time when advancements in sports marketing met a program’s success and created a giant of record-setting winning streaks and unprecedented national exposure. Auriemma was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
“It’s worked really well from the beginning because we started off the relationship as equals instead of her coming to work for me, which is unusual in most coaching circles,” said Auriemma, who was an assistant at Virginia when he befriended Dailey, then an assistant at Rutgers, her alma mater. “It doesn't start out that way. This one started out like, 'Hey, Chris, obviously I can't do this by myself. I've never been a head coach before. I’m going to need a lot of help.' It was really good to go about it with two as opposed to me trying to direct everything and her having a supporting role. It just grew from there. There was a lot of stuff that I wanted her, needed her, to handle that I just didn't have the capabilities to handle at that time.”
Dailey, who grew up in New Brunswick, N.J., and helped Rutgers to the AIAW national championship as a senior in 1982, will have about 30 guests, not including a large UConn contingent, in Knoxville.
Her role at UConn has changed over time because the world has changed and the program has changed. In the 1980s, Dailey wrote flowery letters to recruits about the rustic orange of New England foliage, she scheduled halftime entertainment, pre-game clinics, team meals, booked travel. She even meticulously put together scrapbooks from each season, filled with newspaper clippings and photos. They once served as something to show recruits. They now are stored away in Werth, pulled out occasionally to relive the early days, back when she would hit the road to recruit whenever Auriemma got on her nerves. She remembers the early struggles with a smile now, like the time she wanted a facility manager to change team sandwiches from ham to turkey.
“I remember looking at [Geno] and he was like, ‘Why are you crying?’” Dailey said. “He said, ‘Do you realize you're crying over a ham sandwich?’ I was like, ‘That's not the point!’ Everything I asked for … our biggest struggle was, within our own building, changing the perception of our program, of how we wanted to do things. The opposing team was totally separate. Trying to change people's idea of how to get things done, that took me a while. I'm sure they thought I was a whirlwind and wanted everything immediately, and I probably did. [We were] just trying to set a good foundation how we want our program to be viewed, how we want to run our program.”
Auriemma’s name first appeared in The Courant on May 18, 1985, in the agate-type transactions, his hiring announced just below the Toronto Argonauts’ signing of defensive back Lee Miller. Dailey’s name didn’t appear until nearly four years later, March 1989, when she filled in as coach while Auriemma served a suspension over a scheduling snafu. She coached the Huskies to their first Big East tournament title.
“I have this discussion all the time with coaches at these meetings who complain, ‘If we had a marketing director we'd win more games, if we had a ticket person we'd win more games, if we had a better SID or if we promoted our program better, if my AD supported me more, we'd win more games,’” Auriemma said. “I know it was a different era, but I tell them, ‘You know who our recruiting coordinator was? It was Chris Dailey. And our promotions director was Chris Dailey. And our ticket liaison was Chris Dailey. And our academic adviser was Chris Dailey.’ So I think back to those days and I don't know how we survived it, but it was a more simple time, the demands of the job weren’t as great. We were young, we didn't know any better, and we made it work. We put our whole life into this and it became our 24/7.”
Dailey, who lives in Ellington and owns a home on the Jersey shore, has had a few opportunities to be a head coach over the years.
“It's kind of like the awards and acknowledgement,” she said. “Truly, I am grateful and appreciative. But I know that it's not necessary for that to be out there for me to know that I’m good at what I do and the impact I've had. The same way I don't have to be a head coach to feel that I'm a good coach and have accomplished a lot in my career. I feel confident and comfortable in what I bring to the table with what I've done. And I'm happy. That doesn't mean I want everyone to take the awards away.”
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