As Jim Calhoun prepares to head off into the coaching sunset with the announcement of his retirement today, I figured it was probably worth re-posting the three-part story on the rise of UConn basketball called “The Miracle in Storrs” that I wrote back in 2008.
It’s a long read, but I think it’s worth it.
The Miracle in Storrs
By CHRIS ELSBERRY
STORRS – On game nights, he would sit in his bedroom with an old transistor radio, adjusting the dial ever so slightly, trying to get the station to come in as clearly as he could. Some nights, the reception would be great and a young Jim Calhoun of Braintree, Mass. would hear the voice of George Ehrlich of radio station WTIC as clear as a bell. Other times, the reception wasn’t nearly as clear and Ehrlich’s voice would often times get lost in static.
Still, Calhoun would have his ear to the radio, listening, for Ehrlich to mention the name Gordon Ruddy.
Like Calhoun, Ruddy was from Braintree. Like Calhoun, Ruddy played basketball. But while Calhoun, an eighth grader at the time, was playing the game on playgrounds, Ruddy was playing for the University of Connecticut. And Calhoun followed Ruddy’s exploits intently. As a senior in 1956, Ruddy averaged a team-best 16.6 points a game as the Huskies finished with a 17-11 record, winning the Yankee Conference championship and reaching the NCAA Sweet 16.
A couple of years later, when Calhoun was at Braintree High, his high school basketball coach, Fred Herget, took him to the UConn Field House to see the Huskies play. Ruddy had graduated but UConn had established itself as a pretty good regional program, winning 16 Yankee Conference titles in 20 years between 1950 and 1970.
“It was kind of electric, really,” Calhoun recalled of those games in the Field House. “It was an exciting place …4,000 people. That was a lot of people. It seemed big time.”
But it wasn’t. Not really. From 1950 through 1982, UConn went to the NCAA tournament 13 times and to six NIT’s. They won just six games, four in the NCAA and two in the NIT.
“I think the university truly did believe, that there was a terrific commitment to athletics,” said Tim Tolokan, UConn’s former Sports Information Director and now the university’s Associate Director of Athletics/Licensing and Athletic Traditions. “But when we’d reach the postseason and step up in class as it were, we’d lose. As an athletic program, we were not ready for prime time. We were not ready.”
The university, nestled in the state’s northwest hills, was basically … a cow college. When it first opened its doors in 1881, it was known as the Storrs Agricultural School. In 1899 it became the Connecticut Agricultural College before becoming the Connecticut State College in 1933 and finally, the University of Connecticut in 1939. In the early 80′s, undergraduate enrollment was around 12,000. The running joke was that UConn was “a safety school” for students who weren’t accepted by their first college choice.
“The big question that I always had was, why would let a resource like this flounder to the point where every kid in the state says, ‘I’m not going to UConn unless I absolutely have to,’ ” UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma said, looking back at those early days. “Why would you let that happen? So the mentality of the people making those decisions had to change.”
Calhoun took it one step further. “I thought (UConn) had an inferiority complex,” he said.
By 1985, the university still didn’t seem ready for prime time. The Field House, which had opened in 1954, was now 31 years old and was a dingy, aging mess. Men’s basketball had suffered through four straight losing seasons and women’s basketball, which had begun play in 1974, had just one winning season in 11 years. The women’s coach, Jean Balthaser, had decided she wasn’t coming back, so John Toner, the athletic director, had a very important decision to make.
A year later, when men’s coach Dom Perno resigned after his fourth straight losing season, Toner had another very important decision to make.
Toner’s two decisions forever changed the face of UConn athletics.
“Within the span of 12 months, John Toner makes arguably two of the greatest hires in the history of this state and maybe the history of college athletics,” Tolokan said. “A brash, young guy, 31 years old (Geno Auriemma) and then Jim (Calhoun). John does that and I still look back at that and say to myself, ‘That’s when it started.’ ”
Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun. Two coaches, but more importantly, two people, who believed that they could build something from nothing. Two people that looked past all the potential problems and pitfalls and decided that there was potential.
“Doable,” was what Calhoun said when he was hired on May 14, 1986.
Doable? It could be. But to make it doable, a lot of things would have to change.
What happened next?
“I call it, ‘the miracle in Storrs,” said former men’s basketball coach Dee Rowe.
As the story goes, Auriemma never saw the Field House when he came to campus for his interview in 1985 regarding the women’s head coaching position. Not that that would have made a difference. He wanted to be a head coach, no matter what. Facilities or no facilities. Besides, he didn’t expect to be at UConn that long anyway.
“My goal when I took this job was ‘Look, if can prove that I can coach, that I can recruit and that I can win and build a program, there was no way I was going to stay at Connecticut, ‘ ” Auriemma said. “Because it didn’t have the things that you would want as resources to help you win a national championship.
“There was no commitment. I thought, given the resources the athletic programs had available, it was a step up from what you’d find at a Division III school, Division II. Competing at the Division I level costs a lot of money and when I got here in 1985, I didn’t see that. But it wasn’t surprising because I didn’t see it in the university either. The university itself didn’t act like a Division I university, a big-time university that expected to be talked about among the best universities in America.”
When Auriemma was hired, his office – if you could even call it that – was a shared room in the Field House with the track coaches. There was one phone, an old rotary that all the coaches shared. There were two small desks, one for Auriemma, the other for his assistant, Chris Dailey. Auriemma’s other assistant had only a chair.
The men’s office was no better. “I sat next to Dave Leiato, another assistant,” said former men’s assistant Howie Dickenman, now the head coach at Central Connecticut State University in an earlier interview. “It was tight city. You could hear every word the other guy was saying. I’d call a kid and I’d put my finger in my open ear so I couldn’t hear Dave. When I was talking, Dave would leave the room. He said he couldn’t think.”
The Field House was the only place athletic teams at UConn could practice. The basketball teams worked out there but so did the track team. And the baseball team. A net was strung around the basketball court in an effort to try and keep out errant baseballs and shot put balls. Starting guns often went off during track practice, scaring the heck out of unknowing basketball coaches.
“It was a bad classroom,” said Calhoun.
But the Field House was all they had. For years, there had been talk of a new athletic facility. Tolokan will tell you that there had been plans on the drawing board since the mid-1970′s. But every time, those plans got put on the front burner, something else, something more important would come up.
“It would always get pre-empted by good causes, a library or whatever,” Tolokan said. “And because of the money situation, only so much could get done.”
The “money situation” according to former Speaker of the House Tom Ritter was this: the state would give the university money to specific projects but when funds ran tight, the governor (whoever that might have been at the time) would call the university president.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times, the (university) president would just give back the money, thinking he had no political clout,” Ritter said. “There were other times when UConn would get money but have no vision of what to do with it.”
Big East or Big Least?
In the middle of all this lack of legislative support, lack of facilities and lack of vision, UConn had joined the Big East Conference. In 1979, Dave Gavitt’s dream of a powerful northeast basketball conference had come true with established programs such as Syracuse, Georgetown, St. John’s and Villanova.
And right in the middle was Connecticut.
“We didn’t know what the Big East was going to become. We knew Dave Gavitt was a visionary, we knew it could be something special, but we just didn’t know.” Tolokan said. “But John (Toner) says ‘yes’ and we join. What if he had said no?
“Now, we join the Big East and suddenly, we join these programs … John Thompson at Georgetown, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Lou (Carnesecca) at St. John’s. We have perhaps our best team ever. Players like Mike McKay, Corny Thompson, Chuck Aleksinas …but we had changed leagues. Now we’re playing against Patrick Ewing and Pearl Washington and Chris Mullin. We weren’t ready.”
In their second year of the Big East, UConn won eight league games. Then that number dropped to seven. Then five. Then three. The competition kept getting better. The Huskies simply stayed the same.
The women’s side was even worse. In its first season in the Big East (1982-83), the women’s program won one game. The next year, they didn’t win any. The third year they won just three, prompting coach Balthaser to resign.
The future did not look bright.
But on May 17, 1985, over a cup of coffee at a local Dunkin’ Donuts, Toner decided that Geno Auriemma would be his next coach.
“Geno and I went out for a ride and we stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts and the only thing I said was, ‘Can I trust you?’ ” said Toner, UConn’s athletic director from 1969-87. “I knew all his credentials. We had the search committee and the results of that and the only thing I was concerned about was whether he would be the kind of guy I envisioned and he’s been very bit of that and more.
“Geno was a street basketball player from Philadelphia. And he was very good-looking, attractive kind of personality and at that time politically, the women wanted to learn how to play the men’s game and there weren’t too many women at the time who coached that way, so picking a male coach wasn’t that bad. And picking a guy like Geno, you’ve got to recognize that Geno and his whole family contributed greatly to the comfort level of the kids they recruited because they knew they would have a home away from home.”
What Auriemma sold in those early years was trust. And himself.
“I never sold the university. I never sold the basketball program. There wasn’t anything to sell,” Auriemma said. “The kids we were trying to attract back then were the same kids that Boston College, Villanova, Providence was going after. And when you looked at our facilities, when you looked at (athletic) complex, the campus layout, the whole physical plant, we had nothing to offer a kid that coming here was a better situation than going to those schools would be. So it became like, ‘Trust me.’ I promise you that you’ll get something out of this that you won’t get from those other schools.”
It worked. In Auriemma’s third season, he landed Kerry Bascom, a 6-foot-1 forward from Epping, New Hampshire. She was a Parade Magazine fourth-team All-American and had averaged 29 points and 17 rebounds in her senior year of high school. She believed the sales pitch. She believed that she would get something from Auriemma that she wouldn’t get at another school.
“He was the only one that didn’t promise me anything. When I asked him what the program had to offer, he said, ‘Whatever you put into it.’ “Bascom said in a December, 2006 interview. “And that’s exactly what I was looking for, someone who wasn’t going to give me anything.”
From that moment, as far as the women’s basketball program was concerned, everything changed. In Bascom’s sophomore year (1988-89), the women won their first Big East regular season and tournament championship. In her senior year (1990-91), they went to the NCAA Final Four for the very first time. Because of Bascom, Auriemma was able to recruit Rebecca Lobo and Jen Rizzotti. Nykesha Sales and Kara Wolters. Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph. Swin Cash and Barbara Turner. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore, building a program that has now won five national championships.
“We wouldn’t have gone to that first Final Four without Kerry,” Auriemma said. “We wouldn’t have established ourselves as the dominant program in the Big East. She gave us something to build on.”
Likewise, Calhoun didn’t sell the basketball program. He sold the Big East.
“What we did, truly and definitely, was sell the Big East, not UConn,” Calhoun said. “UConn is part of the Big East. Playing in Madison Square Garden, playing in Boston Garden. You will get to play in these places. We took the banner of what the Big East had done, the most powerful league at the time, and we sold a dream that kids could become something special here. If they went to St. John’s they could be the next Chris Mullin, but if they came here they wouldn’t be someone else, they would be them.”
For Bridgeport’s Chris Smith, that was good enough.
By CHRIS ELSBERRY
STORRS – Chris Smith wanted to break the mold.
So many of the other great high school basketball players in the local area over the past decade had left for green pastures. Walt Luckett went to Ohio. Wes Matthews went to Wisconsin. Frank Olyenick went to Seattle. John Bagley went to Boston. Charles Smith went to Pittsburgh. They all might have thought about playing for UConn but in the end, they all went elsewhere, and to great success.
But Smith stayed home.
He was the superstar player at Bridgeport’s Kolbe-Cathedral High School. The kind of player that could have gone anywhere. Kentucky. Duke. UCLA. But he didn’t. Jim Calhoun spoke. Chris Smith listened. Chris Smith believed.
“I definitely wanted to break the mold,” Smith said in a 2007 interview. All those great guys, John Bagley, Wes Matthews, all those guys went to other places and it was just right for me to stay in Connecticut. I felt UConn was going to be an up and coming program. It was just a great opportunity for me to go there and play right here in my home state.”
“The first time I went into the Field House, I couldn’t believe it. I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is Big East basketball?’ There were birds flying around in there, other teams practicing in there. It was crazy,” Smith said. “But that stuff didn’t matter because when I got there, all the guys were great. Everyone wanted to make the program better.”
And the greatest statement of change was right there before everyone’s eyes. Right next to Memorial Stadium, a state-of-the-art 8,000-seat domed arena – the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion – was rising out of the ground. The state legislature had finally …finally, allocated some $22 million for the $27 million facility. The university would have to raise the rest. The task went to former basketball coach Dee Rowe, who had been named as the first official athletic fund-raiser. He needed to raise $4.5 million.
He raised $7 million.
“That was a great passion for me,” Rowe, 79, said, who was the men’s basketball coach at UConn from 1969-77 and is now a special adviser for athletics. “Because I knew that if we had a new building it would help us in so many ways. It would help in recruiting, it would help in scheduling, it would help in making us competitive with the other teams in the country. That was a labor of love for me.”
“It was a real milestone because no one else in the northeast had anything like that,” said Todd Turner, who was athletic director at UConn between 1987-90. “A brand-new on-campus with all the bells and whistles. It was a far cry from the old gym that was there.”
A building like Gampel had been talked about for years. But for one reason or another, never got off the ground.
“Everyone talked about it,” women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma said. “They told me it was going to happen. They said, ‘Hey, we’re going to build this beautiful building. That was in 1985, It finally opened in 1990. I was pretty much convinced that it would happen, the only problem was I didn’t know when or whether or not I’d be here to take advantage of it.”
But by the time Gampel opened on January 17, 1990 with Calhoun’s 20th ranked Huskies beating No. 15 St. John’s 72-58 (the same team that had beaten UConn 92-63 three weeks earlier) in front of a sold out crowd of 8,241, the winds of change had already started to blow across the campus.
“It’s a miraculous story,” Turner said. “All the pieces of the puzzle sort of came together at the same time. That’s the most remarkable thing about the transformation of UConn, not only as an athletic program, but in some cases, the university. It was largely because of some of the successes, first by Geno and then by Jim, that awakened the state to this gem that was the university of Connecticut and subsequently, the whole face of the university has changed in the last 30 years. It’s just been incredible.”
In 1987-88, Calhoun’s second season at UConn, the Huskies finished 15-14, a winning record for the first time since 1981-82. That finish was certainly good enough for the NIT committee, which selected them as one of their 32 teams. They won their first NIT game at West Virginia 62-57 in overtime and then defeated Louisiana Tech at the Hartford Civic Center, setting up a quarterfinal match-up against Virginia Commonwealth … in the Field House.
The Civic Center was booked that night. The Muppet Babies, if you can believe it. George Thoroghgood and the Destroyers were playing in the Richmond Coliseum. That left the Field House.
“We had bought the (NIT) game and hosted it, you know, just trying to get things going,” said Turner. “It got so loud in there that dust started falling down from the rafters. It looked like smoke but it was dust. We had a great crowd and all the people from VCU were really upset that they had to play this NIT game in this old field house.”
Capacity for the Field House was listed at 4,600. The “official” box score attendance for the VCU game was 4,801. Officially, there were 201 more people in there then were supposed to be. Unofficially, there were a lot more.
“People still say that there were more illegal people in the building that night than ever before,” said Tim Tolokan, former UConn Sports Information Director and current Associate Director of Athletics/Licensing and Athletic Traditions. “The place rocked so much that dust fell from the catwalks.”
UConn beat VCU 72-61, earning a trip to New York City for the NIT semifinals. On back to back nights, they defeated Boston College (73-67) and Ohio State (72-67) to capture the NIT Championship.
“If you look at what we did … we were a reasonably good team and we go to New York and win the NIT. We had four total wins in the NCAA tournament. Beating Ohio State in Madison Square Garden, having the fans pour onto the floor like we had won the national championship,” said Calhoun. “And to come back here and hear horns beeping at the toll booths, seeing everyone so excited. It gave us validity.”
Said Tolokan: “That NIT win, it said something. It was a statement. It told the state, it told our alums, it told our fans that we …it was the first time we had won anything big.”
Added Rowe: “The bright lights went on. We started to get national attention.”
The next year, with freshman Smith in the fold, Calhoun’s team went 18-13 and was again selected for the NIT, continuing a string of what would be 19 straight post-season (NCAA or NIT) appearances up until 2006-07.
In Smith’s sophomore season, Calhoun’s “doable” became done. UConn went 31-6, won the Big East regular season and tournament championship and came within a split second of reaching the Final Four. In Storrs, to this day, they still call it the “Dream Season.”
“The single most important recruit we ever got was Chris Smith. No question, we was the greatest recruit we ever signed,” Calhoun said. “He set the standard. His words, I still remember them to this day. He said, ‘I think we can be a great program and if you want to do great things, you might as well do them at your state university.’ Once he said that, the rest is history. When a kid within the state says that, it makes it much more important. If you get rejected by your own, you’re never going to get people from the outside. He realized that.”
Like Kerry Bascom on the women’s side, Landing Smith had the same kind of domino effect for the men. Donyell Marshall came to UConn. Then Ray Allen. And Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin. Followed by Caron Butler, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Charlie Villanueva and Rudy Gay.
“When I played, I didn’t know how big it was becoming,” Smith said. “After I left, it hit me. People were always coming up to me, thanking me, saying ‘Chris, you started it all.’ As a player, I didn’t know. We were just trying to win games.”
When Lew Perkins was hired as UConn’s new athletic director in August of 1990, he called Jeff Hathaway, who was working at the University of Maryland as the Director for Marketing and Promotions, and asked if he wanted to work for him in Storrs.
“I checked in with a friend of mine who was very much in tune with the Big East and I told that individual that I had an opportunity to come to UConn, give me your perspective,” Hathaway said. “His perspective was that this was a place just waiting to happen. It was waiting to be developed and to be given a catalyst to start what many people felt could be a growth period at the university and in particular, the athletic department.”
The men’s Dream Season was over, but in 1991, another dream was coming true. With senior Kerry Bascom leading the way, the UConn women were on their way to a 29-5 record and their first ever Final Four. Bascom averaged 20 points and 7.6 rebounds for the Huskies, who went 14-2 in the Big East, losing at Pittsburgh and at Providence by two points each.
She had 39 points and 12 rebounds in UConn’s 81-80 second round win over Toledo, making a game-winning three-point play with 19 seconds left. She had 23 points in the East Region semifinals against North Carolina State, 22 in the East Region championship against Clemson and 14 points and 14 rebounds in the NCAA semifinals against Virginia.
“I remember coming to watch Kerry play. She was fantastic,” Rebecca Lobo said. “She was a big-game player. I wanted to help build a program but I didn’t want to do it from scratch. She did that.”
“I just basically wanted to go to a school where I could be a part of something, where I could play and try to make something of a program,” Bascom said. “I don’t think anyone could have ever predicted it would become this.”
Since 1993-94, the UConn women’s Big East regular season record is … get this, 224-12. Overall, they have won 15 regular season and 13 tournament titles. Auriemma has had 12 30-plus win seasons, two undefeated seasons, six National Players of the Year, 10 first-team All-Americans and five (count ‘em) five, NCAA championships.
“I think I really first saw the buzz in 1994,” Auriemma, 54, said. “The crowds started to get bigger. There seemed to be an excitement about our team. Rebecca was a junior, Jen (Rizzotti) and Jamelle (Elliott) were here, Kara (Wolters) and Carla (Berube) had just come up and we were recruiting Nykesha (Sales). I think that in 1994, that kind of got everything going and in ’95 it just steamrolled.”
That first NCAA championship? Todd Turner said it best: it woke the sleeping giant.
“I had left UConn for North Carolina State and came back to visit Geno and (wife) Kathy and I remember going into this mall and there was Geno’s picture in almost every store window, celebrating his first national championship and I said, ‘Geno, you are a rock star.’ This place has awoken and erupted and it’s important not only for the women’s basketball program and for you, but for the entire university. And shortly after that, they got that great grant from the state.”
Every great cause needs a champion and in the case of UConn 2000, that champion was Tom Ritter.
It was January of 1995. The Speaker of the House, a democrat, wanted to try and find a way to work with the new governor (John Rowland), a republican. Being a UConn alum, it seemed only logical: help the school.
“A lot of people said the sky was going to fall, we would never get a budget done, nothing would happen and I was just trying to think of something positive to do,” said Ritter, who now works as a lawyer in Hartford. “People just thought it was going to be a terrible, terrible session and I just thought of UConn. I didn’t have the UConn 2000 proposal but I said we should do something special for UConn and do it in a bipartisan way, so it won’t be a partisan, ugly session.”
So in the initial weeks after the election, Ritter met with UConn officials, president Harry Hartley, athletic director Lew Perkins and others about what the university needed (which was pretty much everything) and went to the governor with the bill. According to Ritter, the governor wasn’t quite on board with the plan. He wasn’t hostile, but … a billion dollars is an awful lot of money.
But during this time the UConn women were working their way though an undefeated regular season and were closing in on the national championship.
“That helped,” said Ritter. “There was a lot of excitement in the legislature. The governor became more open to the idea but we still hadn’t finished the bill.”
Back in 1986, Calhoun’s first year as coach, Ritter wanted to invite the men’s team to the Capitol. He went to the Speaker of the House at the time, R. E. Van Norstrand, who said he could do it but only on a non-session day, he didn’t want waste the legislators’ time. The day the team arrived, there were only 10 members or so in the House, Ritter recalled, so he quickly sent out an ABP.
“I had my aides go around the building and find whoever they could to sit in the seats and act like legislators so it wouldn’t look bad,” Ritter said. “We’d invite the team every year and by 1988, it became the most popular day in the general assembly. People would bring their families, players were mobbed and it shows you that right around that time was when UConn basketball changed in terms of its following. People started to care a great deal about it.”
And on the day in 1995 when the NCAA champion UConn women’s team came to the Capitol to be honored, Ritter and Rowland had an announcement. They had reached an agreement on a 10-year, $1 billion plan called UConn 2000 to “rebuild, enhance and renew” the university.
“We have a first-class state university here in the University of Connecticut and it’s about time that the state government recognizes that,” Rowland said in ’95 after signing the bill into law.
“It’s hard to say that it (UConn 2000) wouldn’t have happened without the success of the basketball programs, but there were legitimate, valid, documented reasons why it needed to happen,” current athletic director Jeff Hathaway said. “There was this need and this tremendous amount of excitement. It all came together and gave us UConn 2000, which quite frankly, transformed this university.”
Making a vow
Christian Laettner had just driven a dagger into the heart of the Connecticut Huskies. Two days earlier, Tate George had hit a miracle shot with one second left in regulation to stun Clemson and put the Huskies within a victory of making their first-ever Final Four. Only Duke, and Laettner, stood in their way.
For 40 minutes and almost five more of overtime, the two teams went back and forth. Finally, with just 2.6 seconds left and UConn leading by one, 78-77, Laettner inbounded the ball, took the return pass and made a jumper as the horn sounded to give Duke a one-point win. The 1989-90 “Dream Season” was over.
After the loss, coach Jim Calhoun came out of the locker room and agreed to do an interview with WTNH-TV, Ch. 8′s Bob Picozzi. Standing nearby, Tolokan remembers the vow that came from the coach’s lips.
“Jim says right to the camera, ‘I’m telling you, I don’t know when it’s going to happen but even with the heartbreak of today, this is a major step because it tells me, it tells our fans, it tells the state, one of these years, we’ll get to the Final Four,” Tolokan said. “And you had to believe it. We had come from such humble beginnings, no track record, four NCAA wins in our history before 1990. We’d been a nice, regional program and Jim changed that model. And (women’s basketball coach) Geno (Auriemma) got good and he went to the Final Four in 1991 and started to get some incredible recruiting and it all comes together.
“Dee (Rowe) said it. It had ‘become fashionable to be a Husky.’ You wore it across your chest. Before that, even if you were an alumni, you almost might have been a closet fan. But by 1995, the entire state had picked on basketball’s success and it became fashionable to be a Husky.”
Tomorrow: The Miracle in Storrs, Part III – Dual championships, cashing in on the success and what the future holds.
By CHRIS ELSBERRY
STORRS – Jeff Hathaway called the 1990′s, “the breakout decade of UConn athletics.” And with good reason. In just 10 seasons, Geno Auriemma had taken the women’s program from nothing to NCAA champion. Jim Calhoun had taken the men’s program from being a Big East doormat to a Top 25-level program. There was talk, serious talk, of football moving up to the Division I level. After a nine-year absence, men’s soccer returned to the NCAA tournament in 1998. Women’s soccer was NCAA runner-up in both 1990 and 1997 while field hockey reached the NCAA quarterfinals in 1996 and 1997 and the NCAA semifinals in 1998 and 1999.
“So many programs had great times,” said Hathaway, UConn’s current athletic director. “And I think that’s when (athletic) fund-raising really took off and the marketing really took off. It gave the university community and it gave the state of Connecticut something to embrace, something to wrap their arms around, whether you were an alumni of the university or just a fan or friend. That success gave people something to believe in and call their own and in so many ways, became the pride of the state of Connecticut.”
Dee Rowe knew it all along. The former UConn men’s basketball coach (1969-77) knew all about the sleeping giant. He knew about the state’s passion for basketball and how that passion had waned over the past 15 to 20 years because of the underachievement (especially in the early days of the Big East Conference) of the men’s program. But in 1987, as the steel beams for Gampel Pavilion soared into the sky, he knew the giant was about to wake.
“Could I see it coming? No. But Dee could,” former athletic director Todd Turner said, who was at UConn between 1987-90. “I give him all the credit. He understood the community about as well as anybody and he said: ‘If we get this going, you’ll be amazed.’ And I was. He knew that there was a real devotion to basketball in the state but joining the Big East gave basketball the chance to re-assert itself. And once it did, the passion that Dee had told me about … it just erupted.”
In both the men’s and women’s programs, better and better recruits started coming and so did better results. In the decade of the 90′s, Calhoun’s men, with Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin and Kevin Freeman won five Big East regular season and three Big East tournament titles, going 253-79 and in 1998-99 “shocked the world” as El-Amin put it, defeating Duke 77-74 in St. Petersburg, Fla., for the school’s first NCAA championship.
Auriemma’s women were even better. With Rebecca Lobo, Kara Wolters, Jen Rizzotti, Carla Berube, Jamelle Elliott, Nykesha Sales, Shea Ralph, Svetlana Abrosimova, Sue Bird and Swin Cash, UConn went a remarkable 301-44. They won eight Big East regular season and tournament titles and in 1994-95 and again in 1999-2000, won the NCAA national championship, the 1994-95 team going a perfect 35-0 in doing so.
“Building a basketball program here … it was difficult but the Big East made it doable,” Calhoun said. “Then the state made it doable. The love and the passion the state had for basketball …that had always existed. I had been successful at Northeastern and I just couldn’t see a reason why it couldn’t be successful here. I thought, because of the Big East, I could get into any house in the country. That might have been somewhat untrue but I got into a lot of homes. I thought we had a program to sell. Obviously, we did.”
“You have to recognize,” says John Toner, the former athletic director at UConn between 1969-87. “That there was this force, much bigger than athletics, the political force that willed the state to build a great institution here. We were becoming successful in the Big East and the legislature was starting to show a change. They recognized that we needed a lot more support than what we were getting.”
And as support gathered in the state legislature, support came from other places as well. Being a Husky fan wasn’t just fashionable anymore. It was a blood-brother bond.
In 1987, donations to the athletic department from alumni and outsiders totaled $385,000. In 1990, after the “Dream Season” that figure jumped to $2 million. In 1995, after the women won their first NCAA title, the number rocketed to $4.7 million and when the men won the NCAA crown in 1999, donations hit $10 million. In 2003-04, donations hit the $14 million mark, in ’04-’05, $16 million and in ’07-’08, that figure reached $18 million.
“We had a lot of support. We had a lot of people who were willing to stand up and be accountable and you don’t get that in a lot of places,” former athletic director Lew Perkins said. “Jim and Geno were able to lead their programs and we were able to provide them with the resources that they needed to be successful and we were able to put it all together. It’s just attitude, thought process and vision.”
Added Tim Tolokan, the university’s Associate Director of Athletics/Licensing and Athletic Traditions: “A lot of UConn grads were becoming a lot prouder of what was on their degree.”
Changing the mindset
When Lew Perkins arrived in August of 1990, the afterglow of the Dream Season was still fresh in the minds of many. Why not take the next step, he thought? For years, UConn had basically been a regional program, with regional aspirations. But with the men winning 31 games and reaching the NCAA Elite Eight, people’s perception started to change. Out with the regional. In with the national.
“We began to think that way (nationally),” Perkins said, who was athletic director at UConn from 1990-2003 and is now the AD at Kansas. “We had the ability to take our programs nationally, so that’s what we did. We started to schedule nationally, we started to build some more facilities, we were able to get our finances going, our budgets increased. We started to recruit both nationally and internationally. Our whole thought process was we wanted to win national championships and we weren’t afraid to talk about that.”
They didn’t just talk. They spoke. Loudly. The women won their first NCAA title in 1995. The men followed with their first in 1999. The women won their second national championship in 2000 and between 2002, 2003 and 2004 won three straight NCAA crowns. What made the women’s ’04 championship in New Orleans even sweeter was that the day before, the men had won their second NCAA title in San Antonio.
And heading into the 2008-09 season, the UConn women are the preseason No. 1 ranked team in the country … the UConn men are ranked No. 2 in the preseason Top 25 poll.
“We’ve become a symbol for a lot of schools that weren’t like a (North) Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Duke, some of the traditional powers in basketball,” Calhoun said. “If Connecticut can become one of the top five programs over the last 25 years in basketball, then we can do that too. Look at that picture of what we were 20-plus years ago to what we are today. We sold kids a dream and the kids bought the dream. They bought my vision and my passion … we looked up and here we are.”
A lot of people have seen that same vision. Back in July, UConn finalized a deal with NIKE on a 10-year, $46 million dollar contract that makes NIKE the official provider for footwear, apparel and equipment for all Husky athletic teams through 2018.
“The NIKE deal is significant to the university because NIKE is a world-wide recognized brand,” Hathaway said. “It’s an appealing brand for all markets but certainly to the youth market. And I think what that deal had done has allowed us to outfit our student-athletes in the highest quality of athletic gear for all of our teams and to do that without expense to the Division of Athletics.”
And this September, UConn reached an agreement with IMG College, a division of IMG Worldwide, on a 10-year contract worth $80 million in guaranteed payments to the university. IMG will handle the rights associated with corporate partners, on-site opportunities, signage, corporate suites, game programs and all on-line components.
In addition, the school, recently extended its contract with CPTV to broadcast women’s basketball games through the 2011-12 season, generating an additional $3.6 million to the university.
“UConn, through its dominance in the Big East Conference, has established itself as a NCAA powerhouse and one of the most recognizable athletic programs in all of collegiate athletics,” IMG College senior vice president and marketing director said in a statement. “We look forward to bringing new opportunities to the Husky brand and expanding its presence in numerous areas.”
Said Hathaway: “The multi-media marketing rights deal? … frankly, we deal with a budget that we live on, year to year. It’s not a situation where we’re putting a lot of money away, so we know that we have to go beyond the state to find marketing partners and so we did what so many other BCS schools have done and get someone to come in and work with us. We ended up selecting IMG. IMG on average is running 11 major events per day all over the world. They represent schools like Texas, Nebraska and Michigan, Tennessee, Florida, strong athletic brands. You’re talking the best of the best. IMG is a worldwide brand. We’re marketing the UConn brand domestically and worldwide.”
No kidding. According to Hathaway, NIKE is planning to open several athletic outlet stores in China, featuring seven United States universities. UConn is one of the seven. Not bad for a school that 25 years ago, didn’t really even have a logo.
“When we started, we didn’t have a brand. We had no continuity. What color were we? Navy blue? Dark blue? We didn’t even have an identity,” Tolokan said. “We had created the Husky dog logo but we weren’t selling a lot of stuff. Even on campus there was no consistency. So I met with these people from the CLC (the Collegiate Licensing Company) and they told us the reason we should start a licensing program and a merchandising program is you will build a brand, create consistency and you’ll be prepared for when you get good.
“When Jim won the NIT, it became exciting to be a UConn fan. It finally became fashionable to buy something that said ‘Connecticut’ on it. In 1990 and it became fashionable to buy something that said ‘UConn basketball’ on it. In 1995, people were asking about women’s basketball items and in 2003, again we move up in class and now it’s football that fashionable. All of those steps were critically important. It branded us. We now have a presence on the national stage.”
Academics and athletics
People love a winner. And when UConn started winning in men’s and women’s basketball, a lot of people, especially new students, wanted to be a part of that. In 1995, the university received 10,809 freshman applications. In 2005, the university received 19,763 applications.
Since 1995, a total of 928 valedictorians and salutatorians have enrolled at UConn. In the fall of 2007, 40 percent of the freshman entering the Storrs campus were ranked in the Top 10 percent of their high school class.
The average SAT score has jumped 79 points since 1996 and is now 1,192.
“We have always been an excellent undergraduate institution with a lot of good graduate programs in different areas and I agree that we weren’t always recognized,” said professor John DeWolf, who taught mechanics and structural engineering at UConn from 1973 until his retirement in 2008. “The best thing about the whole athletic program is that it has brought us that recognition and in my view, it’s done that because outstanding athletic teams belong not just to the university but to the state of Connecticut. And that had increased recognition and increased enthuasium.”
Thanks to UConn 2000 and 21st Century UConn (a second 10-year, $1.3 billion financial package signed in 2002), there are new buildings for the schools of Chemistry, Business and Pharmacy, while the Babbidge Library, Wilbur Cross Building, Museum of Natural History and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have all been renovated.
“The average SAT score is up 200 points since I’ve been here, that’s an incredible increase,” Calhoun said. “The kind of professor we’re getting here are obviously more qualified, the facilities they work in are so much better.”
Added Auriemma: “I always said that I never thought our program could become what it is today unless the university made some changes because you can’t be greater than your university. You can’t aspire to be the number one program in basketball in America while your university has no aspirations academically, graduate school, facilities, professors. If you’re not committed to having the absolute best you can have in those areas, you’ll never have it in basketball either.”
And while the success of the basketball programs working to sway the legislature in terms of passing UConn 2000 and 21st Century UConn, so did a little old-fashioned embarrassment, according to professor DeWolf.
“Seeing the library wrapped in all that plastic way back when, I think that helped change people’s minds,” DeWolf said. “Remember that? It was wrapped up to protect it and it was an embarrassment. I rarely watch TV but I did this one time and there was a story about UConn. It was nothing about the library at all but that was the visual part they opened with, a shot of the library wrapped in plastic. This is our state institution and look at the way it looked. That was an embarrassment.”
Geno Auriemma, 54, is starting his 24th season as head coach of the UConn women. His won-loss record is a mind-boggling 657-122 (.843). His overall Big East (regular season and tournament) is 379-65 (.854). He has won 16 regular season and 14 Big East tournament titles. He was elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 2006.
Oh yes, Auriemma has won five NCAA titles.
Jim Calhoun, 66, is entering his 23rd season in Storrs. He is 526-200 (.726) at UConn (774-337 overall, including 14 seasons at Northeastern). His all-time Big East record is 267-147 (.645) with 10 regular season and six tournament titles to his credit. He was elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 2005.
And … Calhoun has two national championships.
If you ask Hathaway, he feels the two have more coaching fire in their bellies today than they did back when they were first hired. And he hopes neither wants to stop coaching anytime soon.
“I think they have more fire now than ever. I think what happens is, everyone aspires to win a national championship and then you finally win one, you say, ‘Is that the only one we’re going to win?’ and ‘We need to win another one.’ I think that’s just the mentality. It’s a nice view from up there,” Hathaway said. “Jim and Geno are both Hall of Famers. They are at the highest level in their profession, they are consummate professionals and have done great work for this university, but the reality is that one day they will both want to go out and enjoy life and I think the institution needs to be prepared for that.”
That’s part of the reason why the university hired HOK architects in August to begin designing a new men’s and women’s basketball practice facility that is expected to cost an estimated $30 million, so whoever replaces Calhoun and Auriemma can keep up with the Duke’s and Kentucky’s of the college basketball world.
“It’s been a great ride. I’ve really enjoyed it. I have no idea when I’ll step off the train. It could some at an unexpected time, but the two things I don’t want is I don’t want to ever leave unsuccessful and I don’t want UConn not to carry on the vision of what we’ve done,” Calhoun said. “It’s been exciting, it’s been tough. There have been incredible moments. I’ve watched us become part of the landscape.”
Twenty-plus years ago, that landscape was all but barren. Today, two of the most elite and famous college basketball programs in the nation, stand tall. But success hasn’t been limited to just basketball, the entire university has undergone a transformation that now has it standing among the Top 25 public universities in the country.
From cow college to champion.
‘Basketball made all that possible. Maybe it’s a jaded perspective but you could feel it coming and it’s been such an enabler for the university,” said former athletic director Todd Turner. “And I’ve got to give the university credit. They’ve kept Geno and Jim there and those guys, as much as anybody, are the face of the University of Connecticut. And they’ve been a good face. It’s worked out, really, really well.”