Written By: Matt Craig | @MrMattCraig
Editor in Chief of Chirp City
Host of the Ball Hogs Podcast
Member of Ball State Sports Link
Matt covered the UCONN Lady Huskies for the NCAA social/digital team at the 2016 Women’s Final Four in Indianapolis.
“There’s three key ingredients that go into this kind of success,” said Geno Auriemma while standing on stage in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis after winning his fourth straight national championship and eleventh overall.
Every person hung over his next words, anticipating the answer to a question that every women’s college basketball fan has asked over and over.
Holly Rowe, who had asked the question, looked so happy she was about to burst. She was extracting the secret!
Geno knows he’s commanding the stage. He pauses for dramatic effect. Then he leans over slowly and extends one finger.
He points it toward Brianna Stewart, the three-time National Player of the Year. “One.” He points it toward Moriah Jefferson, first team All-American and winner of the Nancy Lieberman award given to the nation’s best point guard. “Two.” He points it toward Morgan Tuck, another All-American and the third and final senior on the roster. “Three.”
Everyone laughed the incident off as just Auriemma’s antics.
Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, as the WNBA draft unfolded Thursday night, Stewart was again called “one,” Jefferson “two,” and Tuck “three.”
For the first time in the history of not only women’s basketball, but any sport, three players from one college were selected as the top three overall selections in a professional sports draft.
Okay, sure, UCONN had the three best players in college basketball this year, so they should’ve won every game.
But it can’t be that simple can it? Geno Auriemma deserves the credit right? He is the architect of the dynasty. He’s the one that built the program from having one winning season ever to having eleven national titles. He’s the constant connecting generations of superstar players.
Yet throughout the years, Geno Auriemma has been quick to deflect any credit for his dynasty in favor of heaping it all on the players he’s coached. This was after all the fifth time a Huskie graduate has gone number one overall, as Stewart joined Maya Moore (2011), Tina Charles (2010), Diana Taurasi (2004) and Sue Bird (2002).
This is one of the reasons why there’s an ignorant opinion out there that Connecticut Women’s Basketball always wins because they always just get all of the best players, so it’s unfair.
But Brianna Stewart was very clear in the press conference after winning the championship.
“If we were to come to any other school, as a group, we wouldn’t have done what we did here.”
The evidence says she’s probably right.
In 2012, Stewart was the #1 recruit coming out of high school according to HoopGurlz Recruiting Rankings, the most trusted rankings service in women’s basketball. Jefferson was #2, and Tuck was #6.
But in 2013, UCONN’s only recruit was the #75 player in the country out of high school (Saniya Chong). That year, Tennessee got the #1 and #8. North Carolina had the #3 and #7. Duke had the #6, #10, and #12.
In 2014, UCONN only hauled the #14 (Gabby Williams), #17 (Sadie Edwards), #31 (Courtney Ekmark), and #33 (Kia Nurse). South Carolina had #1 and #7. UCLA had #4, #8, and #19.
How did that work out? In the past four years Tennessee, North Carolina, Duke, South Carolina, and UCLA combine for a grand total of ONE Final Four appearance. Connecticut has four national titles.
So yes, there’s a million things that Auriemma does differently that has built UCONN into this dynasty.
He doesn’t let players have visible tattoos, or wear any headbands or armbands during games. Their jerseys don’t even have names on the back of them. He doesn’t let them use Twitter during the season, or phones during team meals and on the team bus.
In his book GENO, Auriemma says, “I’ve just never been a gimmicky person. We don’t have names on the back of our jerseys. There’s no bull**** with our program.”
Some people may see these things as petty or unnecessary, but it creates a culture that’s as tightly knit as can be found anywhere in any sport. The players play UNO in the locker room, they hangout off the court constantly, and laugh and joke like any group of college-aged best friends would.
But it’s not all smiles. Auriemma rides them extremely hard in practice and in games, never letting them settle for just “good enough.” When they’re up 10 they want to get up 20, then 30, then 40, then 50.
“I’ve noticed in some other places the best players get days off. They get to take plays off. They get certain liberties that the other players don’t get. That doesn’t happen at our place,” said Auriemma in a news conference during the Final Four.
“If Stewie is the best player in the country, then she has to be the best player in the country every day in practice. There’s no days off. Our best players have to be great every single day, and that raises the level of everybody around them.”
This was noticeable in the open practice for media and fans on Saturday of the Final Four weekend. The team was a well-oiled machine, transitioning from drill to drill without taking any time to chat or laugh. The ball didn’t touch the floor.
(Below is a video I shot and produced following UCONN on media Saturday)
By that point, Auriemma didn’t have to say a word.The players are going 110% in the most meaningless practice of the season. This practice was just for show after all. Imagine how much harder these would be back in Storrs, Connecticut in November.
Whether or not these players were the top-rated recruits coming out of high school, it’s really no surprise that they have the most talented players in the NCAA by the time they’re upperclassmen.
Surrounded by talented players and hounded by an intense coach, it’s impossible to be a part of this program and not push yourself to the absolute limit every single day in practice. Substantial progress is unavoidable.
But if the players were just passive participants in the system, they wouldn’t last at Connecticut long. If there’s one trait that Auriemma makes sure to instill, it’s a competitive drive that’s almost insatiable. The most impressive trait of any of their players is the hunger to improve and to be the best.
Still, none of these things solve the secret. We’ve seen other great coaches throughout history have excellent systems, incredible locker room cultures, and strong player development programs.
But no one else has eleven championships. No, what makes Geno Auriemma special is not the system he’s set up, but the fact that there’s no “system” at all.
The reason why the hordes of journalists cannot figure out the key to UCONN’s system, and why Coach Auriemma and the players never have any quotes solving the mystery is because there is no mystery.
This is confusing for journalists. Coach John Wooden won ten national titles, but he had his “Pyramid of Success.” Geno, what’s your pyramid of success?
“You ask me what Coach Wooden’s pyramid of success was, I couldn’t name you one of them. So my pyramid of success is the same as his: His was Alcindor, Walton, and Gail Goodrich, you name them down the line. Mine’s Diana, Maya, Stewie. That’s my pyramid of success.”
Read between the lines for a second. If anyone is in position to pound his chest and tell the world that he’s a genius, it’s Geno Auriemma. He’s earned that right, no one would blame him for it. And yet, he makes it about his players.
Auriemma can push his players to incredible limits, and get them to sacrifice their personal ambitions for the good of team because instead of fitting players into his system, the players ARE the system.
He didn’t mean to, but he actually spilled the secret in a throwaway comment in the post game press conference after the national championship.
“There is no such thing as a program without the people in it. During their four years here, they are the program.”
How often do we see coaches put themselves above their players and lord over them? Turn on the TV and you xcould find a dozen in as many minutes.
Auriemma doesn’t operate that way. The responsibility is handed over to the players. The weight of national championships, All-Americans, and undefeated seasons falls on their shoulders. They can either sink or swim. But Geno usually picks the strong swimmers.
Even strategically, he will adapt whatever style is most effective.
In 1995, the Lady Huskies won their first national championship. Because of their advantage on the interior with 6’5″ center Rebecca Lobo, Auriemma implemented the triangle offense. It was based around passing, cutting, and finding creative ways to get a post player in scoring position.
Connecticut won it all again in 2000, this time led by two guards in Sue Bird and Shea Ralph. That team played pressure defense and forced Tennessee into 26 turnovers in the national championship game.
There’s example after example.
This year, Auriemma adopted the small ball trend, putting five players on the floor that could all shoot threes. He spread the defense out on the perimeter creating driving and cutting lanes. The style of play wouldn’t have been recognizable to Lobo’s team, except for the fact that Lobo was sitting courtside doing the color commentary for ESPN.
During Diana Taurasi’s years, the team was incredibly deep and used a deep bench. This year, they didn’t like to run more than six or seven deep if they could help it.
People look from the outside and cannot understand how UCONN players don’t feel the immense pressure of upholding the standards of perfection. And don’t get it twisted, the standards are perfection.
But as implausible as it sounds, Auriemma isn’t pressuring the players, he’s empowering them.
When you give the keys to the program to the players, they take the responsibility extremely seriously. Each group decides it doesn’t want to be the group that doesn’t live up to expectations. So they push themselves.
As much as Auriemma yells and gets on the players all season in practice, you’d be surprised to witness him pacing the sidelines during the Final Four. He’s calm, and most of his communication is reassuring his players that he’s prepared them and they’re ready.
In fact, you can really only find him yelling at his players and challenging them when the team is up big. He just won’t let them settle for being less than the best they can be.
Don’t just take it from me. Hear it from one of the greats, Diana Taurasi, who wrote the forward for GENO.
Coach pushed the pedal for four years. And when I look back on it, I’m not just talking about basketball. He made me become a better person.
If I had never played for Geno Auriemma, I would be just like everyone else. I really believe that. He forced me to become somebody special, and I’ll always be grateful.
Taurasi and the other UCONN alumni perfectly illustrate my point. At the championship game in Indianapolis, there was an entire section filled with former players. Sue Bird, Tina Charles, and Maya Moore were there, but also a dozen players who weren’t even stars in their time with the Huskies. They were cheering as loud or louder than anyone there.
“It’s great to be a part of history,” said Colleen Healy during the game, who graduated in 1994 and still comes to support twenty two years later. “This is a family…it’s an honor frankly to be a part of it.”
Auriemma cares, and the players feel that even decades later. But what keeps them coming back is that ownership of the program they felt in the years they played. Sure he was still the coach, but it was their team.
Rarely does Auriemma ever show a moment of vulnerability, but twice during his acceptance of this year’s AP Coach of the Year award he broke down into tears.
But not at times when talking about himself or what the honor meant to him. It was the eighth time to get the award, so at this point he’s probably pretty used to it.
Both times he got emotional came when describing the people around him, the first time those that had influenced him and the second for assistant Coach Chris Dailey and the players. The thing he kept saying over and over was “this time it just feels different.”
With the departure of Brianna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, Auriemma not only loses his three best players. He loses his “three key ingredients.” He loses the program.
So yes, the trio now moves on to the WNBA, to separate teams. They’ll probably all have great careers. Stewart even gets to play with Sue Bird, and Tuck with Kelly Faris, another Connecticut alumn.
But the best quote of the Final Four weekend came on the dais for the post game news conference after winning the national championship, when Stewart was asked about preparing for the WNBA draft and the Olympics this summer.
She gave a polite answer, then paused for a couple beats, turned to her fellow seniors on the stage with her and said:
“You don’t really want to move on.”
(Below is the hype video I produced in the lead up to the National Championship game)
By Matt Craig
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