In dissimilar environments, similar tools led UConn, South Carolina to top

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, center, talks to his team during a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, against Cincinnati earlier this month in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

COLUMBIA — They played not in Gampel Pavilion, but in a 4,000-seat field house built shortly after World War II. There was no track record of winning, and certainly no national championship banners hanging from the rafters. When the new coach arrived prior to the 1985-86 season, the basketball team wasn’t even the preeminent women’s program at the University of Connecticut.

“When we played in the field house, I asked for some cheerleaders and a band and was told no,” Geno Auriemma remembered. “I asked for our own locker room, and was told we couldn’t have one. Our women’s field hockey team had won two national championships when I got here, and they were probably the flagship women’s team on campus.”

Three decades later, Auriemma has 901 wins, nine national championships, and a program that sets the standard not just at UConn, but in all of women’s college basketball. He started with an outdated facility, no history and little name recognition among recruits. And yet the way he built UConn into a power bears a few similarities to what’s happening now at South Carolina, which travels to Gampel Pavilion as the No. 1 team in the country for Monday’s 8 p.m. game against the second-ranked Huskies.

Granted, the parallels are hardly exact. “Geno — there was zero,” television analyst and Mount Pleasant resident Debbie Antonelli said. UConn had enjoyed just one winning season before Auriemma’s arrival and showed no signs of being able to compete at a high level. Meanwhile, when Dawn Staley came to South Carolina in 2008, she brought the cachet of one of the best-known figures in women’s basketball, and took over a program with an 18,000-seat arena, an SEC budget and eight previous NCAA tournament appearances.

“USC is a big (major-conference) school with great facilities, while UConn used to be I-AA in football with an old field house to play in,” Auriemma said. “So I think in the beginning, the scenarios are two completely different things.”

And yet, both coaches built their rosters through strong local recruiting efforts. Both galvanized the support of the community. Both landed a potentially transformative signee who helped to change the face of their respective programs. Both embarked upon gradual climbs that netted a debut Final Four appearance in Auriemma’s sixth season at Connecticut, and an unbeaten record — to this point — in Staley’s seventh campaign at South Carolina.

“With Geno, they went to the Final Four the year before I got to Connecticut, but it wasn’t until the mid- to late-’90s when I think it became a real program,” said Rebecca Lobo, a former All-American for the Huskies. “And Dawn’s doing the same thing. When you look at the youth on her team — maybe youth isn’t the right word, but they’re not a senior-heavy team. They’re not in it just for this year. They’re in it for the long haul.”

Monday’s storyline will surely cast South Carolina as the upstart and Connecticut as the establishment, but decades ago those roles easily could have been reversed. Both programs were started in 1974 as a result of Title IX, the legislation that mandated equal educational opportunities for men and women. The Gamecocks had a winning season out of the gate,made the postseason for the first time five years later, and enjoyed a run to the Sweet 16 before their first decade was out.

UConn? The Huskies started with a part-time coach who was also a high school physical education teacher, awarded no scholarships, and according to a 2004 New York Times story, practiced in a gym with a roof that leaked when it rained. Money was tight, and crowds were small.

“We used to have 50 people in the stands,” former UConn coach Wanda Flora told the Times. It took eight years before the Huskies had a winning season, and then they had five more losing ones right after that.

This was the environment Auriemma walked into when the former Virginia assistant took over in 1985. He recruited almost exclusively in the Northeast, he won a little bit more each season he said goodbye to the shared locker rooms when Gampel Pavilion opened in 1990. In his sixth season, Connecticut reached the Final Four for the first time — but in an era when women’s basketball still operated in relative media obscurity, even that breakthrough could do only so much.

“There just wasn’t as much publicity,” Auriemma said. “It wasn’t a game-changer for us and didn’t change the way we were recruiting. It didn’t all of a sudden allow us to get in the door with a different level of player. I think today it would, though. Remember, we played in front of 8,000 people at the Final Four in Lakefront Arena in New Orleans and we had one beat writer come with us. So obviously, going to the Final Four didn’t mean quite as much as it means today.”

Still, it was enough for UConn to land a transformative recruit in Lobo, a Connecticut native pursued by every major program in the country. UConn wasn’t getting just regional players, but the best regional players, and the starting five from the Huskies’ first national championship team in 1995 — Lobo (Connecticut), Jennifer Rizzotti (New York), Kara Wolters (Massachusetts), Pam Webber (Pennsylvania) and Jamelle Elliott (Washington, D.C.) — was as Northeast as a bottle of Yuengling.

“There weren’t a whole lot of kids from a whole lot of other places,” said Lobo, now an analyst for ESPN. But things began to change after that first national title, Auriemma said, and suddenly Connecticut was a truly national program reeling in players like Shea Ralph from North Carolina, Stacy Hansmeyer from Oklahoma, and Paige Sauer from Nevada. The program Lobo left was much different from the one she had joined four years earlier, although she realizes that more now than she did then.

“I knew all of a sudden, you couldn’t miss the fans in the stands,” she recalled. “Students couldn’t just show up and get in free and get a good seat. You saw all that when it was happening. But I really didn’t understand the bigger picture of it all.”

Fans suddenly showing up in the stands. A gradual climb from mediocrity to greatness. A roster built by recruiting the best players from the region. That was what happened at Connecticut over Auriemma’s first half-dozen seasons. And it sounds a little like what’s happening at South Carolina right now.

Auriemma and Staley share a few common traits. Both grew up in Philadelphia, both served on the staff of the U.S. national team that won the world championships in Turkey last fall, and both have ties to Virginia — Staley as a player, and Auriemma as an assistant under Debbie Ryan, whose influence helped him land the head-coaching job at Connecticut.

But when it comes to building a program, there is no blueprint. Recruiting players is one thing, but coaching them is another, and Auriemma has won so consistently in part because he oversees a consistent system that puts a premium on practicing at game speed and taking uncontested shots. “That’s it. Those are his two offensive rules,” Antonelli said. “It’s not robotic, because they read and react. But it is robotic in terms of their consistency — pass, cut, read.”

It’s no secret. “We know what UConn is going to do. We know what they’re going to do,” Staley said, in reference to what the Gamecocks will face Monday night. She refers to Auriemma’s system as “sharp” and “efficient. There’s no fat to what they do,” she added, making it seem less like a basketball strategy and more like the inner workings of a finely-tuned watch.

So why not copy it? While some certainly do, Staley felt it necessary to emphasize defense when she was building USC with a caliber of player not quite as high as she has now.

“When you’re working with players who aren’t even top 100 in the sport, to try and emulate that style of play wouldn’t do you any good as a coach,” she said. “But when you start getting those types of players who are skillful enough — we are doing things I’ve never done in my coaching career, because we have the personnel to do it.”

That commitment to defense remains evident in games like Thursday’s smothering performance at No. 22 Georgia. Auriemma is more of an offensive wizard who oversees a precision scheme; Staley preaches defense, disruption and turning blocks and turnovers into transition points. But that clash of styles can’t eclipse more fundamental commonalities that have turned this February nonconference game into a battle between No. 1 and No. 2.

Just like Auriemma owned the Northeast when it came to his early recruiting efforts, so did Staley own South Carolina. Her signing of former Miss Basketball Aleighsa Welch of Goose Creek triggered a wave of in-state signees, and eight of Staley’s current 14 players call South Carolina home. The starting lineup of this unbeaten USC team comes from a geographic area roughly 350 miles in diameter, harkening back to that 1995 UConn squad comprised entirely of players from the Northeast.

The signing of forward A’ja Wilson from Hopkins brought to South Carolina a hotly recruited local player with potentially transformative ability, just as Lobo brought to Connecticut in 1991. And in the wake of the program’s first No. 1 NCAA tournament seed last season, the addition of McDonald’s All-American guard Bianca Cuevas from New York — who has led USC in scoring in each of its past two games — was a clarion call that the Gamecocks were no longer confined to the Carolinas.

“It takes special coaches to be able to take their local recruiting base and turn them into a success so they can recruit nationally,” Lobo said. “I would imagine that Dawn, if she chooses, can recruit nationally now with the success she’s had, with the name she has. She obviously was a respected player, but now she’s really a respected coach because of what she’s been able to do.”

In the mid-1990s, the fervor over Connecticut women’s basketball reached such a level that state public television — yes, the home of “Sesame Street” — began broadcasting Huskies games. They stayed there for 18 years before moving to a regional sports network. That kind of outpouring has to sound somewhat familiar to South Carolina fans, who have been showing up at Colonial Life Arena in five-figure totals since late last season, lifting the Gamecocks to the top of the nation in attendance.

“You went from 3,000 a game to selling out the arena to sustaining sold-out arenas for long stretches of time,” Lobo remembered of her time at UConn. “It seems like Dawn is getting there. When you look at the attendance numbers this year, it’s amazing how it’s grown in South Carolina.”

It’s another sign of a program nearing full bloom. Auriemma started with nothing and built Connecticut into the preeminent force in women’s college basketball. Staley started with the resources of an SEC school and has taken USC to unprecedented heights. Both programs were created, shaped and elevated by the will of their respective head coaches, who used similar tools in dissimilar environments to reach a No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup Monday.

But what happens later — after Gampel Pavilion is emptied, after March arrives and a new NCAA champion is decided, after this magical South Carolina season completes its run? There is little doubt that Auriemma and Connecticut will be back near the top of the national rankings again next year, just as they’ve been for most of the past three decades. Will South Carolina?

“There was an Elite Eight here under Susan Walvius. They did have a window of success. They couldn’t sustain it,” Antonelli said, referring to Staley’s predecessor. “I think that’s the question for Dawn — can she sustain it?”

That Elite Eight run in 2002 was largely unexpected, given the program had finished with a losing record the campaign before. That was more of a team than a program, which is what Staley is clearly building now. It’s all been part of a steady progression, complemented by swelling home crowds and an expanding recruiting base, in some ways just like the one Auriemma engineered at Connecticut all those years ago.

“It’s neat to see that somebody is building a program,” Lobo said. “When I was coming up, there was Tennessee and Louisiana Tech and Stanford. Tennessee and Stanford have maintained that, and Connecticut has maintained that, and now you have Notre Dame. But now you have a new one, and I’d be surprised if it’s not one of the top programs for years to come as long as Dawn is still there.”