Former UConn standout Carla Berube transforms D-III Tufts into national contender

Tufts coach Carla Berube was the 2015 Women's Basketball Coaches Association NCAA Division III national coach of the year. SportsPix

Only 90 miles separate Storrs, Connecticut, from Medford, Massachusetts, but by basketball standards, it feels like a world away. From the thousands of rabid fans at Gampel Pavilion to the creaky court at Cousens Gymnasium, it might just be a different basketball universe.

And this is where former UConn great Carla Berube thrives.

But this isn't some kind of redemption story, or even a tale of someone looking to reclaim her status atop the college basketball world. This is about a coach and her players who simply love the game, and play for no other reason.

Meet coach Berube and the Tufts Jumbos -- a Division III powerhouse, ready to start its quest to reach its fourth straight Final Four and perhaps earn its first national title.

A coach is born

In Berube's small office, located between the gym's main entrance and the bathroom, sits the 2016 national runner-up trophy on a filing cabinet. It's the only noticeable decoration, and it somehow seems both oddly out of place and strangely perfect for its environs. It's a constant reminder of just how close the team was to becoming national champions last season.

"We really don't talk about that, or being ranked," the soft-spoken Berube said as she glanced at the trophy while in her office last week. "We really just talk about us, and the next game in front of us. But I know they're hungry, I'm hungry to get back there. But us just getting better every day is our focus, and getting to play one more game."

"I always come back to the lessons I learned from Coach Auriemma in how you treat people and how you need to respect everyone from Player 1 to Player 15 on your team. Every piece is so vital to the success of your team." Tufts coach Carla Berube, on how her UConn experience influences her

And while she might not talk much about the national title game, she's no stranger to the sport's biggest stage. Although she doesn't talk much about that, either.

As a sophomore in 1994-95, Berube was a standout off the bench for the UConn women's basketball team. Known for her grit, hustle and quiet leadership, Berube helped propel the Huskies to a perfect 35-0 season and the school's first No. 1 ranking and national championship. During the 70-64 win over Tennessee for the title, she hit two free throws with nine seconds left to help clinch the victory.

After graduating from UConn in 1997, Berube joined the New England Blizzard of the short-lived American Basketball League. After the league folded in 1998, Berube moved to California to "hang out." But after a few years, she knew she wanted to try coaching and was hired as an assistant at Providence in 2000.

About a year in, an opportunity arose with Connecticut College -- a Division III school she had never heard of. She ultimately decided she needed another year as an assistant under her belt, but was intrigued by Division III and the New England Small College Athletic Conference. When the job opened at Tufts in 2002, the Oxford, Massachusetts, native wanted it. From its location directly outside of Boston to its mission in prioritizing the full college experience for its student-athletes, it felt like the perfect fit.

Fifteen years later, she's still there.

Taking Tufts to the next level

Berube had moderate success -- and only one losing campaign -- in her first few seasons at Tufts. Then in 2007-08, the Jumbos went 26-4 and advanced to the Elite Eight.

The program continued to grow, winning NESCAC titles in 2014 and 2015 and reaching the Final Four in each of the past three seasons. During the 2016 tournament run, the Jumbos advanced to the title game in Indianapolis, where all three divisions held their semifinal and championship games -- including eventual D-I champion UConn.

While she doesn't spend much time reminiscing on her glory days in Storrs, Berube incorporates much of what she learned there into her coaching style and philosophy. From emphasizing the need to play hard, no matter the opponent, for 40 minutes to the importance of defense and mental toughness, Berube calls herself a product of the environment she grew up in at UConn.

"I always come back to the lessons I learned from Coach [Geno] Auriemma in how you treat people and how you need to respect everyone from Player 1 to Player 15 on your team," she said. "Every piece is so vital to the success of your team -- and not just on the court, but off. So everyone feels like a big part of it. ...

"I think one of the reasons we've been successful in the past few years is that we've had really great chemistry and everyone knows how to treat each other."

Berube's players know her UConn experiences are reflected in what she teaches them.

"Just her aura, her competitiveness, and understanding of the commitment to the game," sophomore guard Lauren Dillon said. "I think you'll find our practices might not have the same skill [as UConn's], but it's a similar gist. We're sprinting to drills, we're silent while listening to her, we're getting after each other."

Auriemma isn't surprised by Berube's success, but he is surprised about her chosen profession.

"When Carla Berube was a player at Connecticut, I think she probably said one word as a freshman, two as a sophomore, three as a junior, and then I think she may have said a sentence when she was a senior," he said during the 2016 Final Four.

"So for her to go into coaching was an unbelievable shock to me. For her to be a really good coach, I'm not surprised because she's really competitive, she's very bright, she's a tough kid. I singled her out to shoot the two free throws that iced the game in the national championship game her sophomore year."

Auriemma and UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey provide advice when asked, but Berube is just grateful for the support and encouragement they've provided over the years. "It's a big family down there," she said, "and once you're in the family, you're always in the family."

March Madness awaits

After a 63-51 loss to Thomas More in the 2016 national title game -- Auriemma and the Huskies cheered on Tufts from the stands -- the Jumbos entered this season at No. 1. They won their first 21 games before suffering their only loss of the regular season, a 36-35 stunner against rival and fellow unbeaten Amherst during senior day earlier this month.

Amherst took over the No. 1 ranking and got home-court advantage in the NESCAC tournament. But after beating nationally ranked Bowdoin in the conference semifinals, Tufts lost to Amherst again Sunday in the NESCAC title game, 41-37 in front of a vocal Amherst crowd.

It was a disappointing loss, but the Jumbos easily secured an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament and will host the first two rounds. Tufts plays St. Joseph's (Maine) in its opening game Friday. Should both teams advance, the Jumbos would face their conference nemesis in the national championship.

"I think you'll find our practices might not have the same skill [as UConn], but it's a similar gist. We're sprinting to drills, we're silent while listening to her, we're getting after each other ..." Tufts guard Lauren Dillon

For now, they are focused on the first round, but Berube can't help -- when prompted and while knocking on wood -- to reflect on what a national title would mean for her program.

"I want it for [my players]," she said. "Sure, it's a nice little line at the bottom of my email and a nice trophy, but knowing the amount of work they put in, I'm sure there are a lot of teams that deserve it, but I think we do, too. The time and the work, and the work on our chemistry, and we have three seniors who really deserve it."

With no athletic scholarships, Division III affords student-athletes the opportunities of typical college students, in addition to playing sports. Berube boasts about her players getting the opportunity to hold internships over the summer that will prepare them for a career, and a chance to participate in other extracurricular activities on campus -- things she didn't have the opportunity to do at UConn due to the time commitment of being part of the team.

"To represent Tufts is something they take a lot of pride in. They're smart, strong, motivated, they love the game of basketball but also have a lot of interests on campus. Not just their majors but activities," Berube said. "That's the great thing about D-III basketball, they really can have a great balance of college life.

"When they take to the court, they're passionate about it and want to get better every single day. They play for their university, the program and each other, and I think that shows in the way we play day in and day out. There's something really pure about D-III athletics and you can see it when we're playing out there."

And Berube isn't interested in leaving anytime soon, though every winning season brings more whispers that she's a candidate for a D-I coaching job. While still very much a demanding job, coaching at the Division III level allows her to spend time with wife, Meghan, and their two kids, 3-year old Parker and 4-month old Brogan, and be involved in other things at Tufts.

"I'm happy right here, right now," she said. "Who knows down the long road, but I'm not a 'the grass is greener on the other side' type. It's pretty green right here."