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Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The UConn Experience: Insiders of the Past Recollect

(Guru’s Note: This is a sidebar to the main advance for Sunday’s UConn-Ohio State game involving the 88-game winning streak posted just above this. Just letting you know if you arrived here first via search engine.)

By Mel Greenberg

Though having lived through the growth of the powerful University of Connecticut women’s basketball program through 14 seasons, Temple coach Tonya Cardoza still marvels at the Huskies’ ability to keep winning and try to match the 88-game win streak of the UCLA men’s team set in 1971-74 under the legendary John Wooden.

UConn (9-0) can tie the record Sunday afternoon by beating No. 11 Ohio State (8-1) in the second game of the Maggie Dixon Classic in Madison Square Garden in New York. Rutgers (7-4) will meet No. 15 Texas A&M (8-1) at noon.

Cardoza last week talked about her former employers, especially her former boss Geno Auriemma, the Hall of Fame coach whom she left in July 2008 to succeed her friend Dawn Staley as coach of the Owls.

She would love to be in the Garden Sunday but Temple has a Big Five date, the Owls’ first of the season, at Villanova, guided by coach Harry Perretta who stopped the last UConn record streak at 70 straight in the Big East title game at Rutgers in 2003.

“It is kind of remarkable for any kind of streak that has lasted this long,” Cardoza said. “It’s something that only one other program has been able to do and that’s the great John Wooden and the fact that they’re in position to break that record or tie that record on Sunday is unbelievable.

“I talked to (Auriemma) a couple of weeks ago and I told him `That I hope they get a hundred.’ He wasn’t for that – he just nodded off, `Yeah, right. Let’s just try to win the next game.’

“You know the way they’re playing right now – they’ve been doing that for almost 2 1/2 years without losing a game and that’s unbelievable when you think about the streaks that have happened like Brett Favre’s streak of starting and Cal Ripken’s streak of how many games he played – it’s unbelievable when you look at a women’s basketball game and to see a team has gone almost 2 ½ years without losing a game – that’s unbelievable – especially with the parity of women’s basketball nowadays and all the great teams that are out there,” Cardoza continued.

“It’s not like they’re winning against cupcakes – they are competing against the very best and 87 times they’ve gone out they’ve come out on top. A lot of that has been against competition in games that have really mattered like championship games – Final Four games,” she added.

Having been on Auriemma’s staff, Cardoza has been an upfront and personal eyewitness to his magic in turning recruits into championship contenders.

“The thing is he builds these guys and molds them to wanting to compete and wanting to win and not accepting losing no matter what it is,” she said.

“In practice they don’t want to lose anything, no matter what score he puts up on the board. He always challenges them. We used to always say that practices are tougher than the games, that when you get to the game, that’s the easy thing.

“No matter what the circumstances have been for them, because there’s been adversity throughout this streak, they’ve been able to have players and step and take control.

“Like even in the Baylor game – I watched the last few minutes of the Baylor game and they’re down and they have the freshman (Bria Hartley) come in and nail jump shots to win the game. That is reminiscent of Diana (Taurasi) when Diana was there,” Cardoza said recalling the last set of Huskies’ run to NCAA titles.

“To have players step up when needed. That’s what they do every day in practice so I’m not surprised at anything that happens in the games.”

Cardoza, of course, was around during the 70-game domination but says that group had a much easier time getting things done.

“The difference back then is we knew we were really good – we felt like we were the best team out there with the players that we had,” she recalled.

“This time around they had a lot of guys step up that weren’t expecting things to be great.

“Even with Tina (Charles), even the year before that, Tina hadn’t really proven herself, but her last two years were awesome for her. But they really needed that,” Cardoza explained.

“And even with Rene (Montgomery), they needed Rene to have a senior year that she did and starting this year – Tiffany (Hayes) and their little freshman -- Bria Hartley – those guys stepping up and meeting the challenge every day.

“When Caroline (Doty) went down I’m sure a lot of people around were like, `Well, maybe this is the time,’ but you have people stepping up and I’m sure Lorin’s (Dixon) stepping up as well.”

When Auriemma was downplaying the streak until this week, Cardoza wasn’t buying any of the comments.

“That’s just him talking – He knows, he’s excited about all this. Anybody in his or her right mind is going to be excited about this.

“I told him -- `Dude, you’ve won 87 straight games – we’ve been going at this 2 ½ years now and we got like 50 – you won eighty something straight games without losing – you know there are people that coach that don’t win 87 games in their career and you’re saying 87 straight games. – I can’t even fathom something like that.’

“It’s against quality competition and a tough (Big East) conference at that. But like I said every single day they are preparing for this in practice.”

Auriemma endeared himself with the media early on when the Huskies started experiencing success making such outrageous comments during the first championship run in 1995 as “Do you know how difficult it is for me to be me.”

Cardoza and Hartford coach Jen Rizzotti, who starred in the mid-1990s, said everyone around Auriemma felt they needed to write things down to remember because he has said so much.

But the Temple coach knows one former star that has everything stored in her memory banks.

“He has said so many things – that if you asked Sue Bird, Sue Bird remembers every single thing that he’s ever said,” Cardoza said with a smile.

“But we used to talk about how we had to start writing things down because he’ll say things that didn’t make much sense or just like `What are you talking about.’ But whenever you come back at him and let him know he said something that wasn’t great or that funny, he would try to turn it around and you’re the one.”

Stacey Nasser, who is now the operations director on Cardoza’s staff, was a manger at UConn during the lean years of the last decade (2005-08).

“I was there when they didn’t win championships,” she said with a laugh and talked about life at practice as a manger.
“I thought he was hilarious,” Nasser recalled. “He was just funny. Clearly it was cool watching him because he’s a basketball genius so you learned a lot.

“But the stuff that came out of his mouth at practice was hilarious. We just laughed on the sidelines.”

Abby Gordon, who has been an equipment manager for the WNBA Connecticut Sun, was also an UConn manager.

“He was definitely funny and very charismatic and personable,” Gordon recalled. “Easy to talk to for everyone. He never picked on the managers, not usually.”

Cardoza said that sometimes there were more managers at practice than players and if a ball went out of bounds into the stands and no went after it, Auriemma might blurt out:

“We have 10 managers and no one is paying attention.”

Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti is the first former UConn player to make a successful transformation to the sidelines after helping the Huskies reach their first title in 1995.

During a recent trip to Philadelphia when Hartford played Temple Rizzotti recalled her recruiting process and also talked about the ongoing success of the Huskies.

“The first real impression I had of Geno is when he came to do the home visit at my house – obviously I met him before that,” Rizzotti related.

“But that was the first I got to spend some time and got to know him and certainly he made a good enough impression that I wanted to go up there (to UConn) and do an official visit,” she said.

“He was obvious a big reason why I chose to go there. And there were many reasons but the coaching staff and him in particular and me knowing he could make me into a great player was a huge reason I wanted to go there.”

Recalling her decisions on choosing a college, she noted, “My last four schools were UConn, Providence, Iowa and Rutgers.
“At the time, Providence and UConn were the two best teams in the Big East, Rutgers was not in the Big East yet, but Theresa Grentz was down there, and Vivian Stringer was at Iowa,” Rizzotti said.

“So as far as coaches go, it was a lot of great women and men in the game. I was pretty happy with my final choices but I knew UConn was the one for me.”

Then Rizzotti spoke of the work ethic with the Huskies and Auriemma’s ability to usually recruit his type of player.
“I just think there’s so many good memories – he got on us like the best of them, but I think the thing we remember the most was that we wanted it. We relished it. We wanted him to demand excellence of us so we took it on as a challenge every day we came to practice,” she said.

“He’s done a great job of now being able to recruit the best players. But also I feel like he picks the best of the best that are going to work for him and are going to get a lot better in his four years,” Rizzotti added.

“He doesn’t just say `She’s the No. 1 player, she’s the No. 2 player, I need to go get them.’ He looks at that group of who are the best players and he says those three or four will be the best for UConn. He knows whose exactly they are and he gets them.”

Despite the notoriety of the streak, Rizzotti knows where Auriemma’s focus is most, something he himself confirmed on Friday’s teleconference to preview Sunday’s game with the Buckeyes.

“It’s unbelievable but at the same time I believe him fully when he says that they’d rather lose their next game then lose in April because being at UConn the expectation is high at winning a national championship and it’s what everybody wants,” she said.

“So that streak can certainly go over a 100 but I’m telling you right now if they don’t win that last game in April he’s not going to care what the streak is.”

Auriemma agreed with Rizzotti’s comments.

“Yeah, I’ve always felt that way,” Auriemma said. “I’ve always felt whatever happens during the regular season is all well and good and certainly nobody wants to win every game more than I do, more than more than my team does, for sure.

“But given your choices, win Saturday, or win this Sunday, or win next Tuesday, or win Wednesday, it doesn’t matter, or be guaranteed that you’re going to win six in a row in March and April, I think that means everything in terms of why you play in the season,” he added.

“You play in the season to win a national championship. And to me that’s still the reason why you would want to compete every day because you are trying to compete for a championship – not necessarily how many games in a row you can win and whose record you’re trying to break.”

Rizzotti likes the way the schedule played out in terms of who the Huskies have to beat to become the new standard bearers.

“It’s kind of fun he’s got two ranked teams to do it against because I feel like – I don’t know, they always rise to a challenge against the best. I feel like Maya (Moore) always has her best games against the best and it’s so exciting to watch.”

She also referenced the relationship between Auriemma and Buckeyes coach Jim Foster, the man who introduced Auriemma to women’s basketball by hiring him as an assistant coach at Bishop McDevitt High in suburban Philadelphia in the early 1970s.

“I’m sure Jim Foster would love to be the guy to beat him, I’m sure he’d love it but it’s a really fun thing to be on the periphery to be a part of it to watch,” Rizzotti said.

“But we’re proud of it and we had our part in the history of that program and it’s great to see where it’s gone and how high it can go.”

Wilnett Crockett, who is an assistant coach at Temple to Cardoza, was on two of the UConn’s championship teams (2003 and 2004), though she often was the whipping girl of Auriemma, even in the media, when things weren’t going well.

She spoke of the experience but first got into what the Huskies’ mindset should be at game time in New York.

“I hope they focus and realize it’s just another game and I think that’s how they focus each and every game in this streak – just taking it one game at a time and coach is going to over and they’ll be fine,” Crockett said.

She also thinks there’s more excitement over making more history than the Huskies have displayed in recent weeks.

“How could you not be excited?” Crockett said. “They’re about to break a record that’s been there for a long time and it’s a men’s record that a women’s team is going to break – I think that’s awesome in itself. Eighty-eight games in a row, that says a lot about your team.

“Though he can’t say a lot because he wants them to focus – I know in the back of his head and even with his assistant coaches they’re talking about it. They’ll probably talk about it so much more after they get the win.”

Then Crockett talked about dealing with adjusting to life at UConn under Auriemma after her arrival.

“It was a learning experience,” she recalled. “You have to get used to how he was – his sense of humor and everything like that.

“I think that initially it’s like `Are you serious? Did you just say that right now out loud for everyone to hear?’

“I mean, once you get past that and you realize that’s just how he is and he’s just trying to motivate you and get the best out of you and then you pretty much brush it off.”

However, unlike others who have been around Auriemma, Crockett couldn’t recall many personal joyous moments during her time with the Huskies. But she also said it all came out great in the end.

“Do I have any funny stories – I don’t think my stories are any too much funny that I recall. It was plenty of nights – tears and not too much left,” Crockett said.

“I think when you’re in the moment you don’t realize everything but once you step out of it, and you get around your teammates that you went to school with and you start talking about what went on and you laugh about it.

“But in the moment, I’ll be honest. I wasn’t laughing about anything that was going on. Even though you’re going through it and you say, `This is hard. This is hell.’ You always have your upperclassmen your teammates to tell you `Don’t worry about it. Brush it off.’”

“I look back now and I don’t regret anything. I’m happy with my four years. Two national championships. You can’t complain. You take the good with the bad and you move on.”

Moving on is something UConn has excelled at, especially if one recalls the circumstances of the spring prior to the 87-game streak getting under way.

The two marquee recruits in a prized class were Elena Delle Donne, the national high school player of the year out of Wilmington, Del., and Caroline Doty of Germantown Academy in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Delle Donne lasted one day in summer school, ultimately admitted to home sickness,. She enrolled at nearby Delaware where as a freshman last season she became both the Colonial Athletic Association rookie and player of the year.

Her first major major collegiate game to date will be Sunday afternoon when the Blue Hens visit Penn State.

Doty suffered an ACL injury early in her freshman year, as the current 87-game streak got under way. She returned last season to help in the second unbeaten run but suffered another ACL injury last summer to force her off the court until next season.

Despite it all, Connecticut has rolled on, a trait that Auriemma warmed up to during Friday’s interview.

“We’re kind of in a situation we’re in where we have to play all these freshmen because of what happened in recruiting and because of injuries – People you thought were going to be here aren’t,” Auriemma noted. “Caroline, who we thought was going to be starter this year after playing so well last year for 39 games, all of a sudden can’t play.

“It is really a testament to the will and strength of the players and the coaches that we’re able to just shrug it off and say, `Hey. Kelly Faris you’re going to have to do more. Tiffany (Hayes) you’re going to have to do more. Or Bria Hartley, you’re going to have to play as well as Caroline did – even though you’re a freshman. Samarie Walker you’re going to have to play just as well as Kalana Greene did,” Auriemma explained.

“So I think the fact that we’ve been able to do that is something is probably we get more satisfaction out of than people realize.”

-- Mel


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