UConn’s dual success transformed Storrs from cowtown to hoops hotbed
Back in the early days of collegiate sports as big-time athletics, long before the University of Connecticut became the new Point Guard U and turned itself into a women’s basketball dynasty, it was another school in the middle of nowhere. The location, a village named Storrs, was so rural that to most people, the school was the town.
From the nearest highway, the drive into campus was a series of slow and wandering slopes and curves on a two-lane blacktop that took you over a hill where your first view was not an ivory tower or a gleaming work of contemporary architecture, but rolling farmland. Where you were expecting to see students, there were cows and sheep and horses. Depending on what time of year it was or the prevailing headwind, the smell might hit you before the view did.
This was what men’s coach Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma had to work with. When Auriemma arrived in August 1985 and Calhoun followed nine months later, there was no on-campus arena, no state-of-the-art weight room, nothing much to woo recruits.
Among its Big East rivals, Syracuse could flaunt its massive Carrier Dome, Boston College was in the hub of America’s best college town, Georgetown lived in the national seat of power, and St. John’s called Madison Square Garden home.
"We had the cows out there with the ice cream. That was about it. There really wasn’t much to do on the UConn campus," UConn’s all-time leading scorer Chris Smith told FOX Sports.
This was the canvas for dual masterworks, a school that prior to their arrivals had as its most notable sporting tradition the UConn-created game of Oozeball, a volleyball game played in eight inches of mud and often in temperatures that seemed to invite hypothermia as a guest of honor.
So how did they do it? Through sheer force of will, mostly, though looking in his rearview mirror, even Calhoun acknowledged that it took unwavering, almost irrational faith to build Storrs into a hoops hotbed.
"In this mind that I have, logic goes out the window," he said recently at Madison Square Garden during the Sweet 16. "The desire to win, the desire to compete, the desire to show people that you can do this, you can do something very special, my kids in 40 years of coaching eventually believed as I believed. If you’re a coach, if you can impose your will on your kids to believe that, they then can impose their will on the other team."
There were two things about Storrs that were keys to the programs’ growth. First, the quiet setting invited frequent interaction among teammates. Where there’s nothing else, there’s each other. And where there’s each other, there’s chemistry. Second, both coaches could boast the Big East. You want to play against the best in the nation’s marquee conference and make your own mark? Join us.
That was the pitch to Smith, who in 1988 was Calhoun’s first blue-chip recruit and later helped guide UConn to its first Elite Eight in a quarter century. That was the real start of "Huskymania," which swept through with a fervor, giving Connecticut the first team it could unconditionally love. Until then, it had been a state divided.
As a kid growing up in Stamford, in the southwestern corner of Connecticut, I felt closer to New York than Storrs. The sports fans around me rooted for the Yankees and Mets, Giants and Jets, Rangers and Knicks. We felt far removed from the other side of the state that looked at the Whalers, Bruins, Red Sox and Patriots as its home teams.
This came as something of a revelation when I moved to Storrs for my junior year in 1994: It was then I realized that New Haven was something of the Mason-Dixon line of sports. Cross the boundary and you were in enemy territory, but we could all agree on our Huskies. And once we realized we could win on a national level, the state’s embrace of UConn basketball was immediate.
"When we went out in public, things got a lot different," said Jennifer Rizzotti, a four-year starter and the 1996 AP National Player of the Year. "We went from kind of just being focused on our basketball to all of the sudden, everywhere we went, people knew who we were and recognized us. It was pretty neat. It was fun."
I was a senior in 1995 when things reached a new crescendo. On Feb. 12, the UConn men beat Syracuse on the road, and in the next day’s poll, hit No. 1 for the first time in history. I was at that game and I’m pretty sure I floated home. The women’s team was better. A few weeks earlier, they had beaten Tennessee and hit the top spot in the rankings, so when the men joined them, it was the first time a school had both the men and women atop the national polls. Our little cowtown was the center of the basketball universe.
That 1995 women’s team would go on to capture the NCAA championship, UConn’s first. The men followed in 1999, beating Duke in a game that signified we were truly elite. Years before, Smith’s team had lost at the buzzer to Christian Laettner and Duke, robbing the program of its first Final Four berth. Everyone remembers Laettner beating Kentucky at the horn; few remember his double-clutch jumper against Connecticut.
"It was great because UConn had always been looked at as a team that wasn’t going to beat that powerhouse," Smith said. "When Khalid El-Amin said we’re going to shock the world, nobody believed him. After that people couldn’t doubt us anymore."
Calhoun and Auriemma built their programs preaching team as family. That’s not a novel concept, but the lengths they went to follow through on that philosophy can be seen today in the interweaving of past and present.
The current men’s coach Kevin Ollie played under Calhoun. His associate head coach, Glen Miller, was on Calhoun’s first staff in 1986. Assistant coach Karl Hobbs played at UConn and is in his second stint on the staff. Ollie’s staff is rounded out by 1999 championship team members Ricky Moore and Kevin Freeman.
The women’s team is no different. Associate head coach Chris Dailey, for example, is in her 28th year working with Auriemma, while assistant coach Shea Ralph was an All-American guard at UConn. It’s a family tree worthy of a prime spot of Storrs farmland.
"What I remember through the recruiting process is that so little of what the campus looked like or where it was located had anything to do with what I based my decision on," said Rizzotti, now head coach at The University of Hartford. "It’s funny, because now that I’m on the other side of coaching, I tell kids all the time that your impression of the campus doesn’t matter. It’s the people that you surround yourself with that really makes your experience."
All of the generations of the UConn basketball family stay close. Ollie calls Calhoun his "second father." Graduated players often return in the fall to help out, to pass on advice and the tradition that has been built over time. Whenever names like Cliff Robinson, Donyell Marshall, Rebecca Lobo and Sue Bird come back, the program embraces them and reminds the next generation of the past that rolled through Storrs.
For both programs, family has been a theme of 2014. Calhoun recently said that Shabazz Napier didn’t turn into a leader until he "gave himself to the team." Geno Auriemma said his team is "in a league of our own," as if the outside hoops world doesn’t matter.
"I came from a big family, and it was like that at UConn," Smith said. "We went to all the football games, the women’s games. We were always together. It was easy to love an atmosphere like that."
It still is. There was a time when UConn’s biggest yearly celebration was Spring Weekend at X-lot, an outdoor party for 10,000 with no real purpose. Calhoun and Auriemma have changed that, along with a cast of hundreds who have worn the blue and white over the past three decades with the same belief that they were doing something special. Somehow, through dogged determination and ingenuity, the program would produce a tradition of excellence. The national visibility that followed was no small factor in the rise of the school as one of the nation’s top public universities. In time, Storrs became a name that people in sports and academia both knew. All this from scratch.
Now, here the programs are again, the men chasing their fourth national title, the women hunting their ninth, the teams from the school in the middle of nowhere taking the sloping, winding curves side by side, past the farms, all the way to the Final Four.