The core four behind UConn’s 90 straight wins
- Updated: January 10, 2017
In winning 90 games in a row the first time, the University of Connecticut women's basketball program accomplished what no predecessor had in more than a hundred seasons of men's and women's NCAA basketball. It then took the same program less than a decade to do it again.
The same group of people, with the smallest of asterisks, shaped both streaks.
So perhaps this is a curious scene to paint a picture of perfection. For when coach Geno Auriemma, associate coach Chris Dailey and assistant coaches Marisa Moseley and Shea Ralph sit down for a staff meeting, watching video is often among the first orders of business. Not of the next opponent, mind you. But whichever bit of YouTube catnip is most addictive that day.
"That seems to be a large portion of the beginning of any staff meeting," Dailey noted dryly.
Perhaps a more apt scene would be one of the countless moments during the course of a game when UConn makes the precision its opponents fail to find look routine. UConn wins with almost robotic regularity. No other NCAA women's team ever won as many as 60 games in a row. UConn has three streaks of at least 70 wins since 2000. But it isn't a machine. It doesn't manufacture greatness. It's a group of people who empower others who seek to be better.
And people sometimes get distracted by YouTube videos. Even people presiding over empires.
"It could start out kind of organized," Moseley said of a typical meeting. "Then it can be chaotic. Then it can go back to organized. Someone might tell a story. There's no rhyme or reason."
The record streaks are distinct, though separated by barely enough time for basketball to catch its breath, let alone catch up. The first began with Renee Montgomery on the court, a player born during the Reagan administration. The second sprang to life under Breanna Stewart but belongs now to the likes of Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, born to the Google age.
What has changed little across the streaks, altered only by the addition of Moseley after the first season of the first streak, is the staff. Now in its eighth season together, the particular quartet owns a quintet of championships. So it was that Auriemma, such a master of quips and so fluent in sarcasm, choked up with sincerity when he accepted yet another award during the Final Four a season ago.
"They're relentless," Auriemma said at the time of the coaches. "We never talk about it. It's almost what we talk about is the basketball program at the University of Connecticut. Like it's this massive ship crossing the Atlantic that just goes by itself, you don't even realize that there are people on it, driving this thing. And there are people making it happen."
It was specifically in singling out Dailey, or "CD" as he and just about everyone else in the state seems to call her, that Auriemma was most emotional in his comments during the Final Four. The emotion was raw enough that some wondered about her health, up until he quipped soon thereafter that while she thought she was Mary Poppins, "practically perfect in every way," there was enough wrong with her for him to fix. Same as ever. It is a back-and-forth, a brother-sister dynamic as former UConn player Morgan Valley put it, honed over 32 seasons together.
"Coach Auriemma is the show, but CD makes the show," said Valley, now an assistant coach at the University of Washington. "Coach is the head of it. He runs the program, and he's the face of it, but CD is kind of the backbone for the whole thing. They're a perfect combination."
That balance is sometimes front and center, as when Dailey restrained Auriemma during a particularly vehement disagreement with officials late in a recent game at Maryland, when a technical foul and the resulting free throws could have altered the outcome. It is famously present behind the curtains, Dailey the enforcer for the program's well-chronicled standards. Look people in the eye. Don't wear hats indoors. Tuck in your practice jersey. Wear your socks the proper way. On and on.
"The older you get, once you leave, she becomes more awesome because you appreciate her more," Valley said. "When you're there, it's like having another mom almost."
Indeed, the rules attain almost folktale status in the hands of former players.
"Sometimes when I hear Sue Bird and those guys talk about the rules, half the rules, I think they made them up," Dailey said. "I'm not even sure where some of them came from."
Yet it does Dailey a disservice to confine her influence to details. Or rather, it misunderstands the role small details play. Moseley -- a former Boston University standout who is the rare outsider on a staff that has included several of Auriemma's former players -- came to understand as much while working with Dailey and the post players soon after she was hired.
"We were very meticulous about the player-development piece of it and being very deliberate about the fundamentals and our footwork and our positioning," Moseley said. "Things that I probably glossed over in the past, thinking you're getting talented kids to play Division I basketball and you've got to give them moves and counter-moves, this and that.
"What we did here was scale that back. Before we could move on to multiple combinations of moves, you've got to be able to hold somebody off and catch the ball and have the right foot placement."
"Our strengths and weaknesses balance each other, just like they balance with Geno. It's made for a good run, a great staff and really great friends, actually."Associate coach Chris Dailey on working with fellow Type A personalities Shea Ralph and Marisa Moseley
It isn't about doing things no one else does. Do the things everyone does. But do them better. Do them better not because you memorized them but because you understand why you do them.
Dailey recalled that the first time she put together a scouting video ahead of a game against Tennessee, a rivalry that would come to define women's basketball, Auriemma chided her that it was so long that she should have included an intermission and offered popcorn and drinks. Many teams spend long stretches in darkened rooms going over opponents. UConn's assistants spend the same long hours as their peers breaking down video, but the Huskies watch maybe 6-8 minutes before a given game.
In a world of finite practice time, each minute is its own zero-sum game. Do you spend it on your opponent or on yourself? For UConn, it might be less important to have a specific response to a specific opponent's ball screen than to understand the basic principles of defense.
"We don't want to tell them every little thing to do," Dailey said. "Sometimes you have to make decisions. The interesting part is kids today, they want always or never. Well, that's not the way the game is."
Those variables make it a game ill-suited to automatons. As dictatorial a figure as Auriemma strikes on the sideline during games, which might pale in comparison to the withering critiques in practice, it isn't in an effort to eliminate all ways but his way. He might be as smart as he thinks he is, but he isn't that much smarter than every other coach. The purpose is to equip people to make their own decisions.
"When I played for him, I didn't like him very much," Ralph joked. "I like him a whole lot now."
Some of the best evidence of that environment is the loyalty of those who work alongside him. If it was stagnant or stifling, they would leave.
When Ralph returned to UConn nine seasons ago after coaching at Pittsburgh, Auriemma told her it was her job to speak up. To work at UConn, she had to be part of that free-flowing discussion that might shift from YouTube videos to basketball ideas in the blink of an eye -- even when his hearing gets selective during the course of a game and your idea draws no response the first three times you tell him.
"It doesn't mean you stop throwing out suggestions," Dailey said. "It just means he's chosen not to do that suggestion. So you can either keep moving and keep giving ideas and thoughts or you can be like your players and pout and not say anything. But that's not how we are."
And like the teams on the court that were never solely about Stewart or Maya Moore or Diana Taurasi but how those generational talents interacted with those around them, a coaching staff that is a mix of generations and basketball backgrounds finds common ground.
"The three of us are much more [Type A] personalities," Dailey said. "And it's kind of amazing we work so well together, considering all three of us probably like control and are very detail-oriented. Sometimes that same type of personality together doesn't work. But I think our overall personalities balance each other. And our strengths and weaknesses balance each other, just like they balance with Geno.
"It's made for a good run, a great staff and really great friends, actually."
A good run and a long run. That isn't the way it usually works. Even success on a smaller scale than 90 consecutive wins or four straight national titles will draw the attention of those programs looking to fill head coaching vacancies. Dailey never heeded those calls, but former UConn assistants Tonya Cardoza -- who played for Auriemma when he was an assistant at Virginia -- and Huskies standout Jamelle Elliott finally did after each spent more than a decade in Storrs. Ralph and Moseley might eventually follow the same path. Just not now.
"I get it, we win a lot and everybody hates us," Ralph said. "I coached somewhere where we got our butts kicked by UConn, too, so I get it. But it's that feeling of us against the world. I know that Coach and CD appreciate us and value us. To work with them every day is a gift.
"It's going to take a lot for both of us to leave. It's so much fun, I learn so much and I feel like I'm making a difference in people's lives. Which is why I started coaching in the first place, the difference those two made in my life."