The Making of Champions On and Off the Court
35 years ago, Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey came to UConn, where they continue to grow an unmatched list of coaching statistics. Their most impressive stat may just be the number of current and former players making a difference not just in the world of basketball, but in the world at large.
By Kevin Markey
hen debating excellence, the old GOAT argument, sports fans love to toss around numbers. This many titles won, that many points scored. Well, here’s a statistic to consider: Student athletes from the UConn women’s basketball team have been named the Academic All-American of the Year four times. No school can claim more. Eight Huskies have been named Academic All-Americans a total of 14 times since 1985, when head coach Geno Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey ’99 MA arrived together in Storrs and began to build something truly special. The pair also has consistently achieved a graduation rate on par with the best in the country.
When debating excellence, the old GOAT argument, sports fans love to toss around numbers. This many titles won, that many points scored. Well, here’s a statistic to consider: Student athletes from the UConn women’s basketball team have been named the Academic All-American of the Year four times. No school can claim more. Eight Huskies have been named Academic All-Americans a total of 14 times since 1985, when head coach Geno Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey ’99 MA arrived together in Storrs and began to build something truly special. The pair also has consistently achieved a graduation rate on par with the best in the country.
Which is not to discount all those other numbers. For the record, they include 49 conference regular season and tournament championships; 20 Final Four appearances (including 12 in a row); 13 National Player of the Year honorees; 11 national championships; six perfect seasons; six Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductions (Auriemma in 2006, Rebecca Lobo in 2010, Jennifer Rizzotti in 2013, Kara Wolters in 2017, Dailey in 2018, and Swin Cash in 2020); and two enshrinements in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (Auriemma and Lobo).
Amid their unprecedented run, college basketball’s dynamic duo quietly reached another milestone this season: 35 years of coaching together. In that time they’ve brought distinctly different styles to the sidelines. She’s the calm master of detail; he’s the emotionally intense motivator. He’s the one rushing the court after a perceived bad call; she’s the one restraining him. “He was annoying then,” Dailey says with affection, “and he’s annoying now.” Dailey has turned down numerous head coaching job offers acknowledging that partnership magic and “happiness” here. Auriemma often notes he could not have won any national championships without her. Players and other coaches sing both CD and Geno’s praises as masters of strategy and game basics. But both Husky coaches deeply believe young players need to learn more than Xs and Os.
“They still need you to guide them. They still need you to push them. They still need you to look out for them,” says Auriemma. “They want to learn how to be successful in the real world, and the people that can teach them is us.”
In tribute, at year 35, we look back — and ahead — at just some of the Huskies who have helped define what’s at the heart of UConn women’s basketball through their achievements on the court and, perhaps more importantly, on the world stage.
We know we’ve barely scratched the hardwood. Share your favorite former players/good citizens in the comments section below.
ESPN’s Lobo during the 2019 WNBA championship series at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Once upon a time, the women’s basketball team had never won a national championship. The year was 1995, and Rebecca Lobo was about to change all that. As a junior she’d led her team to the NCAA Elite Eight. As a senior, she refused to be denied. The consensus all everything — Big East player of the year, college player of the year, first team All-American, Academic All-American, Associated Press Athlete of the Year — dominated both ends of the court, and the Huskies outscored tournament opponents by an average of 24 points. In Minneapolis on April 2, they edged Tennessee by six, securing UConn’s first NCAA title and first undefeated season. The team’s 35 wins set a season record for an NCAA basketball team — men’s or women’s. After graduation, Lobo won Olympic gold in Atlanta, then in 1997 entered the WNBA, where her popularity helped drive the new league’s growth. Among the most widely recognized female athletes in the world, she appeared on “The Daily Show,” “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” hit 1990s sitcoms “Mad About You” and “Martin,” and, of course, “Sesame Street.” When her playing career ended, she became a basketball analyst for ESPN. “I only cover women’s basketball,” she once told The UConn Blog in wonderment, noting that such a thing would have been impossible when she started playing. “There weren’t enough women’s basketball games on TV.” Among other things, Lobo is an active spokesperson for women’s health. She and her late mother RuthAnn Lobo wrote “The Home Team: Of Mothers, Daughter, and American Champions,” about RuthAnn’s battle with breast cancer and created UConn’s RuthAnn and Rebecca Lobo Scholarship in Allied Health. Since 2004 Lobo has served on the University’s Board of Trustees. Stating emphatically and emotionally that he would not be here without her, Auriemma said upon her 2017 induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, “No one in all the years has had the impact on the court and off the court that Rebecca has had.”
After helping UConn win its first national championship as a freshman in 1995, Sales went on to average 20.9 points a game her senior year and became UConn’s career scoring leader. She made the WNBA All-Star team seven times and is now an assistant coach at University of Central Florida.
A USA Today national high school player of the year, guard Ralph came to Storrs amid high expectations. In 2000, she won a national championship and was named Final Four MVP and Sports Illustrated for Women Player of the Year. Since 2008, she has been a key member of the Huskies coaching staff.
Bob Stowell/Getty Images; Jeff Zelevantsky/Getty Images
Head Coach, George Washington University
Starting point guard for UConn’s first national championship team, Rizzotti will always be remembered for her length-of-the-court drive that catapulted the Huskies into the lead with under two minutes to play in the 1995 title game. After collecting virtually every player collegiate accolade — Big East player of the year, Big East scholar-athlete of the year, AP player of the year, Collegiate Woman athlete of the year, Academic All-American of the Year — and winning a couple WNBA titles, she embarked on a distinguished coaching career. Taking the reins at University of Hartford as the youngest D1 coach in the country in 1999, she led the school to five America East championships and six NCAA appearances in 17 seasons, earning Coach of the Year honors three times and compiling the most wins in conference history. In her fourth season at GW, she continues to shape the lives of young women as a teacher, mentor, and role model. When the American women go for Olympic gold in Japan this summer, she’ll be right there with them, serving her seventh stint on the Team USA coaching staff.
Seattle Storm Point Guard
UConn’s victory over Notre Dame in the final of the 2001 Big East championship has been called the greatest women’s basketball game ever played. Which would make Bird’s buzzer beater for the win the greatest shot ever made. For all her hardwood heroics — two NCAA championships, three consecutive Nancy Lieberman Awards as the country’s top point guard, three WNBA titles with Seattle, most games played in WNBA history, four Olympic gold medals (alongside UConn friend and teammate Diana Taurasi) — some of her strongest work has come off the court. A tireless volunteer, she mentors kids through partnerships with organizations like Z Girls, which uses sports to teach girls life skills and build self esteem. After a 2015 shooting at Washington State’s Marysville-Pilchuck High School, she and then–Storm coaches Jenny Boucek and Brian Agler reached out to the girls’ basketball team. “As soon as Sue walked into the gym, the girls were speechless and smiling and giddy,” Boucek said. “She cares deeply about people.” Since coming out as a lesbian in 2017, Bird also has been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights. Last year she took aim at another gender barrier when she joined the front office of the Denver Nuggets, becoming one of a small but growing contingent of women working high profile jobs in the NBA. “As athletes, we have a unique position because we have a platform,” she says. “People can literally and figuratively look up to us.”
Phoenix Mercury Point Guard
Asked to sum up her team’s top playmaker, Mercury exec Annie Myers once said, “Diana Taurasi changed the game of basketball. When her playing days are done, no player will ever compare.” Late NBA legend Kobe Bryant was even more succinct: He called her the White Mamba. After leading the Huskies to three consecutive NCAA championships and twice being named Naismith College Player of the Year, “D” was selected first overall by Phoenix in the 2004 WNBA draft. She proceeded to rewrite league record books: Rookie of the Year, three-time champion, First Team All-WNBA nine times, two-time finals MVP, five scoring titles, most 30-point games, highest scoring average for a season, and all-time leading scorer. In the midst of that, she also won six EuroLeague championships with Russian and Turkish teams, three FIBA World Cups, and four Olympic golds with Team USA. Less heralded is work she has done with organizations like KaBoom!, a nonprofit that builds playgrounds in underserved communities. “I just thought if you had the resources, and you really want to do it and have the influence to do it, it’s a good thing,” Taurasi says. “Something to be unselfish about and to give kids something to smile about.”
“How good do you want to be as an individual? Coach challenges you with that, with every play.”Taurasi on Auriemma to Sporting News at the Rio Olympics
VP, New Orleans Pelicans
Reflecting on her playing days, WNBA All-Star and Husky of Honor Cash once told ABC News, “When I first started playing — baseball, basketball — everything was against the guys. Seventh, eighth grade, that’s when the institutionalized stuff — this is girls’ basketball, this is boys’ basketball — that’s when it kicked in.”
She spent much of her subsequent career breaking down such barriers. Prior to joining the NBA’s Pelicans as VP of operations and team development, Cash was director of franchise development for the WNBA’s New York Liberty. She also has compiled a daunting broadcasting resume, working as a studio analyst for ESPN, providing in-game commentary for NBC during the 2008 Olympic games, and covering the New York Knicks for the MSG Network as TV’s first female analyst for an NBA team. “If it were a guy, no one would discuss this,” said legendary New York Yankees color commentator Suzyn Waldman at the time. “As long as we are, Swin is perfect, and I hope that she does this for the next 20 years. All you need is credibility. She’s a champion. So there’s your credibility.” Among Cash’s personal projects are Swin Cash Enterprises, which runs youth basketball camps; the Cash for Kids Foundation, dedicated to providing children with health, education, and mentoring programs; and Cash Building Blocks, a real estate development company focused on affordable urban housing.
Preceding all this, of course, was the player. Winner of two national championships and a Final Four Most Outstanding Player award with the Huskies, Cash went on to become a three-time WNBA champion, five-time All-Star, and three-time Olympic gold medalist. She was just named a 2020 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.
There’s your credibility.
Thirteen years after debuting at UConn, Montgomery premiered a new talent when she starred in the 2018 Amazon Prime movie “Not My Favorite Christmas.” After 11 WNBA seasons, currently with the Atlanta Dream, she’s involved with multiple off-season acting projects as she looks ahead to life after hoops. A few career highlights:
- 2009 NCAA national championship
- 2009 Nancy Lieberman Award as nation’s top point guard
- 2009 first team All-American
- Graduated as career leader in games played (150), third in assists (632), fourth in 3-point field goals
- (254), fifth in steals (272), sixth in points (1,990), ninth in free throws (330)
- Named a Husky of Honor senior year
- Two WNBA championships
Business Wire; Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
New York Liberty Center
In high school Tina Charles was always the best player on the floor. She made dominance look easy. But when her first two seasons in Storrs ended in NCAA tournament disappointment, she realized she still had room to improve. “I didn’t know what hard work was until I got to UConn,” she would later confess. “I still remember those first practices and that steep learning curve — what it took to work hard, not to take any possession off, taking the game seriously with every shot, every rebound, every sprint.
There were so many things I hadn’t put together.” With a fully committed Charles patrolling the paint, the Huskies went on a historic tear. The team did not lose a single game during her junior and senior seasons, going a ridiculous 78–0 and winning back-to-back national championships. Along the way, she became the program’s all-time leading rebounder and scorer. Professional success arrived more quickly. Top pick in the 2010 WNBA draft, she was rookie of the year and has been a perennial all star ever since, even earning the WNBA MVP award in 2012.
Her off-court exploits set an even higher standard. Over the years she has outfitted entire youth sports programs in Jamaica, birthplace of her mother; singlehandedly underwritten construction of a school in Mali; and created Hopey’s Heart Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting sudden cardiac arrest. Beginning in 2013, she has donated every penny of her WNBA salary to the cause, and to date has placed 350 defibrillators in schools and rec centers around the United States. “Tina Charles is the personification of the WNBA’s mission to inspire others both on and off the basketball court,” said then–league president Laurel Richie in 2012, when Charles was honored with the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award.
Lately she has found yet another outlet for her restless urge to make a difference in life: documentary filmmaking. Her movie “Charlie’s Records” premiered last May at the Tribeca Film Festival. It tells the story of her father, Rawlston Charles (pictured above), noted Caribbean music producer and owner of the legendary Brooklyn record store Charlie’s Calypso City. Nostalgic for the culture and rhythms of his native Tobago after immigrating to New York in 1967, Charles started looking for ways to celebrate soca and calypso music and the artists who make it. His label and store put the genres on the map in the city and around the world, and became an important touchstone for the Caribbean community. His success, Tina feels, is a uniquely American story of immigration, hard work, and the pursuit of dreams. “I believe that immigrants are the reason why America is where it is today,” she says. Regarding her own career and those of her teammates, she wants people to know that basketball “is just what we do. It’s not who we are . . . it’s about using your platform to be able to inspire others and advocate for what you believe.”
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
“She wants every single player to come out of UConn as not only a great basketball player but a great woman ... it’s not only about the game of basketball but the game of life and having discipline, commitment, a respect level, accountability.”Tina Charles to the New Haven Register for Dailey’s Hall of Fame induction
As Geno’s first major recruit, Bascom led UConn to a pair of Big East championships, its first-ever Final Four, and an era of excellence that continues today. Her unrelenting work ethic set the standard for every player who followed. “Other schools were promising me the world,” Bascom said. “Coach Auriemma never promised me anything. He told me I’d have to work hard.” Back home in New Hampshire, she brings the passion that helped make her an All-American to social service, working as a case manager for adults with developmental disabilities and training athletes for the Special Olympics.
’96 (BUS), ’98 MA
“I’ve coached a lot of bright players,” Auriemma has said, “but Jamelle is the smartest and the toughest.” A dual UConn degree holder, Elliott spent 12 years as an assistant coach here before taking the head women’s coaching job at Cincinnati. The player who famously never missed a game or practice returned to her alma mater in 2018 as associate athletic director for the UConn National C Club, connecting alumni athletes with one another and current students for mentorship, networking, internships, and jobs. She also oversees the Office of Student–Athlete Development and chairs the Athletic Department’s diversity and inclusion committee.
Being the first Husky to win an NCAA championship, a WNBA championship, and an Olympic gold gives Wolters a certain stature. For 20 years she has used it to advance special causes as a motivational speaker, operator of the Dream Big basketball camp for girls, and, since her father’s 2018 diagnosis, as an advocate for Alzheimer’s awareness and research. And, yes, you’ve seen her announcing WBB games on SNY.
Arriving from St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1997, Abrosimova electrified American fans with an array of pull-up threes and slashing drives. One of the original Huskies of Honor inductees, she went on to a distinguished 11-year career in the WNBA and international play before settling back in Russia, where the business administration major is now general manager of the women’s national team.
An honors Nursing graduate, Buck exchanged her Huskies uniform for scrubs. First in the ER, and now in the pediatric ICU at Connecticut Children’s Hospital, she notes an overlap in skills required for medicine and UConn basketball. “Playing in big situations prepares you to be calm under pressure. My heart might be racing, but I’m keeping cool, processing and reacting at high speed to moving situations.”
In a program noted for recruiting reach, Lawlor was the rarest of things: a walk-on player. The sustainable farm and ranch management major from nearby Ansonia hustled her way onto the team during open tryouts and in two years earned a full scholarship. “There aren’t any words to describe how grateful I am,” says Lawlor, whose next dream is owning a fully sustainable dairy farm.
Bob Stowell/Getty Images; Nathan Oldham; Hartford Courant; Andy Lyons/Allsport; Peter Morenus; Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment
CD/Geno at 35:
All-Americans of the Year
Criminal Justice Reform Advocate
Sports Illustrated once called Maya Moore the greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball. A strong case can be made. The high school Gatorade National Player of the Year led her team to three straight Georgia state championships and a four-year 125–3 record. During this same period, her elite club travel team took home four national championship trophies. At UConn her four-year record was 150–4. She captained the group that won back-to-back NCAA championships in the midst of an historic 90-game win streak. Top pick of the 2011 WNBA draft, Moore became rookie of the year while guiding the Minnesota Lynx to its first league championship. She then went to Europe, swapped uniforms, and captured Spanish league and EuroLeague titles before changing again and propelling Team USA to gold in the 2012 London Olympics. Subsequently, she added three more WNBA rings, three Chinese League championships, a second EuroLeague title, another Olympic gold, and every MVP award invented, including 2014 WNBA MVP.
She knows winning. Which made her announcement after the 2018 season (EuroLeague champion, WNBA All-Star game MVP) all the more shocking: She would be taking the year off from basketball to concentrate on criminal justice reform. The news stunned. Athletes at the apex of their games don’t just walk away. Even Auriemma, who always encourages players to think beyond sports, admitted he was taken aback.This January, Moore announced her sabbatical would last another year.
The star’s engagement with a growing movement to overhaul American jurisprudence began in 2007, the summer before UConn. In Jefferson City, Missouri, her godparents introduced her to a person they’d met through an outreach program at their church. His name was Jonathon Irons, a maximum-security prisoner. Convicted of shooting a man during a burglary at age 16, Irons was 21 years into a 50-year sentence. Moore’s godparents and many others familiar with his case believed he was innocent. Moore says the more she learned, the more she agreed. None of the physical evidence collected from the crime scene belonged to Irons. The victim told investigators he couldn’t identify the shooter and twice picked out suspects other than Irons in photo lineups. Witnesses who placed Irons elsewhere at the time of the robbery never testified at trial.
“That began a journey for me,” Moore told NBC News, “of having my eyes opened to — oh my gosh, people are in prison who shouldn’t be there.” In 2017 she joined Mark A. Dupree Sr., a Kansas district attorney, and former federal prosecutor Miriam Aroni Krinsky to launch Win With Justice, a social action campaign dedicated to overhauling a U.S. system that incarcerates more of its citizens by far than any country in the world. “Over 10,000 people may be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. Every year. And I know one of them,” Moore said. “There are seasons of life when you run harder after certain things than others. And so, I felt like the season was coming for me to run harder after criminal justice reform.”
A win in this arena would be the biggest of her career.
Seattle Storm Forward
Courtesy of Breanna Stewart
Breanna Stewart has always embraced a challenge. Before she won anything at UConn, she went public with her goal: four years, four titles. Then she laced ’em up and made it happen. To go with the clean sweep of national championships, she collected four straight NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player awards. No player — female or male — had ever done that before. To exactly no one’s surprise, she did not miss a beat at the next level. At the end of her first professional campaign, Stewie was named the best rookie in the WNBA. After her second, she was recognized as the best player, period: WNBA regular season MVP, WNBA finals MVP, FIBA World Cup MVP, and EuroLeague MVP.
But for sheer degree of difficulty, nothing can top the feat she performed in the fall of 2017. “I wish it was as simple as saying that it’s just something that happened to me,” she wrote on the Players’ Tribune website. “Part of it is just that simple — it literally is something that happened. But I don’t know why it happened. I don’t know why this happens. Or why sexual abuse keeps happening.” As a child she had been serially abused by an adult acquaintance. She eventually mustered the courage to tell her parents. The man was arrested and the abuse ended. For years afterward, she tried to bury the memories. Basketball became a refuge. Then came #MeToo, and she was inspired to share her story. Having gone public, Stewie wrote, “I now assume a certain responsibility. So I’ll start by saying this: If you are being abused, tell somebody. If that person doesn’t believe you, tell somebody else. A parent, a family member, a teacher, a coach, a friend’s parent. Help is there.” Bearing witness, she has provided hope to countless victims. If she stopped right now, her legacy would be complete. Hall of Fame player, Hall of Fame person. Coach Auriemma, for one, believes she’ll keep moving forward. “Knowing Stewie,” he recently said, “there’s probably the same motivation” today as on her first day of college.
One of the best high school players in Canadian history, Nurse was recruited by every top college team. Where she’d end up was never really in doubt: She had dreamed of being a Husky since seventh grade. Now a WNBA All-Star and member of the defending champs in two different women’s professional basketball leagues, she recently formed Kia Nurse Elite, a Nike-backed, 7-team AAU program that is Canada’s only girls’ Elite Youth Basketball League member.
Jessica Hill/AP Photo