During last year's college basketball season, Rebecca Lobo watched in person a number of Connecticut's practices.
And during one of these afternoons, the former UConn star and current ESPN analyst noticed something strikingly familiar: coach Geno Auriemma running ragged one of the team's best players.
Lobo also instantly recognized the drill: one-on-one from the wing, the emphasis on defense. The players form a line at each wing. First player in line is the defender; next one has the ball. If the defender gets a stop, she rotates to the back of the opposite line; if she gives up a bucket, she immediately runs to the opposite wing to try again -- against a fresh offensive player.
The thing about this drill: Each repetition is exhausting. So if you don't get a stop within the first two attempts, the likelihood of ever getting one plummets. After successive reps against fresh teammates? Might as well wave the white flag.
Except, of course, a white flag doesn't exist at UConn.
The day Lobo watched, then-sophomore Breanna Stewart found herself caught in the middle. She failed to get a stop on either of the first two attempts, and things quickly deteriorated from there. Auriemma stood on the sideline, watching, relentless in his scorn. On her third try, Stewart fouled the offensive player -- an act of surrender, really.
The star forward stood, chest heaving, legs burning.
But Geno didn't care. "Go again!" he called.
Again, Stewart had to foul to stop the offensive player from scoring. From the sideline came calls of encouragement. Teammates Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson yelled, "You got this, Stewie, stay focused!" (Both players had empathy. They had found themselves caught in the middle -- literally and metaphorically -- more times than they cared to remember.)
"Go again," Auriemma said. He wanted his young forward to find a reserve she didn't know she possessed. Figure out a way to win.
Eventually, someone missed a jumper and Stewart beat the drill.
After practice, Lobo asked Auriemma about the moment. "That's the Taurasi drill," he said, referring to former UConn star Diana Taurasi. "She used to do the same thing -- just foul the hell out of people because she knows she's too tired to stop them."
UConn has won eight of the last 15 NCAA titles. Since Auriemma took over as head coach, in 1985, the Huskies have compiled a record of 911-134. In the last 30 years, Auriemma has consistently won at a faster rate than any other college coach. Just for comparison, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski recently reached 1,000 wins, and he began his coaching career at Army in 1975.
The Philly native has the best winning percentage in college hoops, and on Feb. 3 against Cincinnati, he became the first man in NCAA women's basketball history to reach 900 wins. (Six women have reached the mark: Pat Summitt, Sylvia Hatchell, C. Vivian Stringer, Tara VanDerveer, Jody Conradt and Barbara Stevens of Bentley University.)
Some of this success is due to the existing model in women's college basketball -- the rich get richer. Once the Huskies established themselves as elite in the early 1990s, recruiting became that much easier, as many of the best young players wanted to wrap themselves in UConn's colors, in its cool factor. (In 1995, the Huskies were on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a place few female athletes land.) The program solidified its dominance on the recruiting trail in 1998, when Auriemma landed what many consider the greatest class in history: Swin Cash, Sue Bird, Tamika Williams, Asjha Jones and Kiersten Walters. Two years later, UConn wooed Diana Taurasi, who would almost single-handedly deliver the Huskies' titles during her final two seasons, 2003 and 2004.
Still, that explanation -- the ball just got rolling in the right direction -- is too simple; it doesn't tell the whole story. All good things come to an end sooner or later. That is, unless someone (or many people) are working hard to keep "later" at bay. Enough has been written about Auriemma's program to know that the devil is in the details. So what are those details? What is life like on the inside, for the people stepping onto the court every day?
Because here's the thing: There's something different about UConn players. Around them is an aura: it's attitude, skill, personality. It's swagger, overflowing.
The place isn't for everyone. Over the years, nearly a dozen players have transferred. Just a few years ago, three players from a class of five decided Storrs wasn't for them.
All of these players, past and present, transfer or alum, have a story (or seven, or eight, or nine) like the one Lobo tells above.
Sometimes players will explain a demanding coach's behavior by using the phrase "breaking point." As in, "Geno Auriemma knows Breanna Stewart's breaking point." The assumption in that statement is that coaches won't push their players past that point.
In Auriemma's case, that's a lie.
"He doesn't care what anyone's breaking point is," Lobo says. "He pushes you to where he needs you and if you break before then, that's on you. There are a handful of people who transfer, and that's almost always why."
Lobo speaks from experience.
"He doesn't care what anyone's breaking point is. He pushes you to where he needs you and if you break before then, that's on you. There are a handful of people who transfer, and that's almost always why." Rebecca Lobo on UConn coach Geno Auriemma
As a UConn sophomore -- this was back in 1993 -- Lobo was miserable. Auriemma was on her every day in practice. If she made a mistake more than once, he would stop practice and ridicule her in front of the team. "He's not into pulling anyone aside," she says.
Needing to change something about the dynamic, Lobo went into his office to talk. He pulled out the media guide, flipped to her page.
"Says here that you want to play on the Olympic team," he said.
"Yes," Lobo responded, cautiously.
"Well, some days in practice, you're good," he said. "Some days, you're terrible. You have what it takes to make the Olympic team, but if you don't make it, it's because I failed you."
Lobo could work with that explanation. The next few days, she practiced well, and Auriemma didn't say a word to her on the court. The starting center figured she was through the worst of it. Coach and player had settled the matter, discreetly, off the floor.
But the next day, Lobo struggled. And after one mistake, Auriemma turned to assistant coach Chris Dailey and said, intentionally raising his volume, for all to hear: "She's going to come to my office and complain about how I'm treating her, then she's going to come in and play like s---?"
Lobo, of course, had assumed the conversation was in confidence. "And then he puts it on blast," she said. "Eventually, I figured it out. He was not going to change. He is never going to change. It's on the player to change."
UConn recruits a certain kind of player. Someone who possesses a blend of talent, work ethic and character (often not even in that order); someone who stands a chance of bending -- often more emotionally than physically -- far past the point she thought possible; and someone who recognizes that she's not playing for UConn to make the program better, but rather in the hopes that the program will make her better.
In the spring of 1999, Morgan Valley found herself on the receiving end of recruiting calls from the UConn coaching staff. She wasn't sure yet whether playing for Geno was what she wanted, so when the Vermont native traveled to Storrs for an unofficial visit, to play pickup with the team, she thought of the moment as a kind of tryout.
Valley was sitting in the locker room, tying her sneakers, when star guard Shea Ralph walked through the door. She was a few minutes late -- class had gone long and it was raining outside -- so she didn't have time for pleasantries. Valley watched as Ralph, head down, changed into her workout clothes.
The court wasn't exactly a more welcoming place. This was back when UConn was between generations. Lobo and guard Jennifer Rizzotti had led the Huskies to an undefeated season just a few years previously, and a recruiting class including Sue Bird and Swin Cash was spearheading a new kind of dominance. And included between those two classes were a handful of now-legendary players, such as Ralph and Russian guard Svetlana Abrosimova.
So this pickup game was legitimate, like the women's college basketball version of "Field of Dreams." And about midway through, Valley made the pass of her life. The kind of impromptu dish that comes from a creative space you can only occasionally access. Valley was driving the lane when the center on the other team, Kelly Schumacher, stepped up to defend. Out of the corner of her eye, Valley saw a teammate cutting to the hoop at an angle; she instinctively whipped the ball behind her back. "The second after it happened, I remember thinking, 'Oh s---, I don't know how I did that, but that worked out. And I remember hoping everyone else noticed it, too."
Because here's a thing about being recruited to UConn: The players have to want you, in addition to the coaching staff. The players have veto power on any recruit, though the coaches rarely bring someone to campus who doesn't mesh with the team's vibe.
One of Valley's pickup teammates immediately turned to Abrosimova, who was sitting out the game, and said, "That pass was pretty nice, right?"
If the smooth forward was impressed, she didn't give Valley the pleasure of knowing it. "I guess it was all right," she said, shrugging.
The simple fact was: Valley wasn't a teammate, not in that particular pickup game, or at UConn -- at least, not yet.
Right after playing, Auriemma called Valley to his office and offered her a scholarship. The young player was thrilled. "People say sometimes that you get a feeling when you're on a visit -- well, I got a feeling. I thought, 'These girls are as competitive as I am.'"
Valley officially committed in July.
"Nothing is taught, necessarily, at this point, by Geno or any other coach," Valley said. "I don't remember being yelled at, as a group, for many things. If you don't do it, you're the only one not doing it, so you're stranded. I think that's when kids transfer. Everything there is about the whole person; it wasn't just, 'You're the best basketball player in the country, I'll recruit you.'"
Adds Valley: "From the moment you step on campus, everything is about doing more than the person next to you. Lift more weights. Make more shots. Run faster."
When Valley was a freshman, the person next to her was often classmate Diana Taurasi, now widely regarded as the greatest female basketball player in the world. The two were from opposite coasts -- Taurasi was raised in California -- but shared a ridiculously competitive streak. Most days during freshman year, the two would play one-on-one before the start of practice.
"You can't make that shot," Taurasi would often taunt, luring Valley into ambitious attempts, just to prove her teammate wrong.
It rarely worked; Taurasi won -- always.
"And every day, we would walk in the locker room and this d--khead had a thing up in her locker: Morgan 0, Diana however many."
"Our coaches used to say, 'As soon as you cross the lines, everything else in your life should disappear. This should be your sanctuary, where you express yourself, let go of everything,'" Valley continued. "But there were times where there were fist fights. I remember getting in an altercation with Dee, and we were swinging at each other, and as soon as it was over, she was like, 'You want to go get dinner?' But for those 10 minutes, it was bad. And there were plenty of times that it got like that."
So that's UConn: the most competitive team on the planet.
A saying exists: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.
Well what if talent does work hard? And what if they also have fun while doing it?
Meghan Culmo was a freshman in 1988, which was the start of Auriemma's third season as coach of UConn. There were only four players returning to that team, because five players had quit during the offseason; they had signed up for relaxed college ball, and didn't want to stick around for The Auriemma Experience. Geno had yet to teach the teachers, so he was still spending most of all practices in the weeds, demanding an elevated level from his players. These would become things that seniors would teach freshman, eventually: calling out someone's name as you passed them the ball, picking up a teammate off the floor. "I remember running a lot of sprints," Culmo said. "It had to start somewhere. All the people who didn't buy into him, they quit. There were only nine of us on the team my freshman year."
"When he has good leaders, he doesn't have to be a lunatic. Plus, he's at a stage in his life where he doesn't really want to be a lunatic. When he has good leadership on his team, he's much more mellow. You can always tell how he feels about his team based on how mellow he is." Former UConn player Meghan Culmo on UConn coach Geno Auriemma
Culmo also remembers Auriemma repeating a phrase: "Our team is a circle. We don't let anyone in; we don't let anyone out."
(Take from that what you will.)
In Culmo's junior season, in 1991, the Huskies advanced for the first time to the Final Four. The team, seen as a bunch of young upstarts, arrived in New Orleans, greeted at the airport by Robin Roberts. That would prove to be the highlight of the trip, by a long shot.
The team went to Commander's Palace, a New Orleans institution, for dinner. After eating, they gathered for a group photo -- to commemorate the moment. After all, this was the program's first Final Four, and this was the program's first dinner at their first Final Four. "So we're taking the team picture and the table literally shattered," Culmo said. "One of our players, Orly Grossman, literally fell through the table. I don't know how it happened. Then the next day, when we got to the bus after open practice, and Grossman's Walkman had been stolen."
The lesson? Even the UConn Huskies, who seem so polished and cool, who now seem like the team that doesn't sweat anything, have had moments of chaos, times when reaching the zenith of women's hoops felt like someone else's destiny -- not theirs.
"Yeah, so our Final Four was a disaster," Culmo said. "Not to even mention how we did on the actual court."
The Huskies lost to Virginia.
But the next season, Culmo was sharing the court with Lobo, then a freshman, who would eventually help deliver the program its first national title. The two centers would often separate from the rest of the team for position-specific drills. And at one practice, during one of these drills, Auriemma went rogue, transformed into the coach we occasionally see on the sideline, or on the podium postgame, and created a moment the two women still laugh about to this day.
Apparently on the way to the gym that day, Auriemma either saw a squirrel get hit by a car, or hit one with his own. Because the image of a squirrel, indecisive in the middle of the road, seemed freshly burned into the coach's mind, he called on that visual while watching his centers work on their post games.
The two players were doing a drill that required them to read each other: If one made a cut low across the lane, the other was supposed to flash to the high post. But during one repetition, the players found themselves caught in the lane, unsure which way the other was going.
Auriemma stopped the drill and yelled "Be decisive!" He began acting like an animal caught in the headlights. "When I was driving to work today, this squirrel started to cross the road, this dumb squirrel," said the coach. "Then it got hit. And that's what you are, you're like that squirrel, making a half-assed cut. You're like a squirrel in the road."
The coach began shuffling his feet, first one way, then the other, darting his eyes left and right. The two players stood near each other, refusing to look at one another, for fear the laughter roiling beneath the surface would boil over.
Once he was done acting like a squirrel, he finished by saying, "The only bad cuts are ones that look stupid."
Culmo actually wrote down that final line, after the practice, so that she would never forget the moment, and could remind Auriemma of his antics even years later. "When he has good leaders, he doesn't have to be a lunatic," she says. "Plus, he's at a stage in his life where he doesn't really want to be a lunatic. When he has good leadership on his team, he's much more mellow. You can always tell how he feels about his team based on how mellow he is."
We compete against each other more than we compete against our opponents. Every day he tells us what we're not and that we can't, and then we go out and prove him wrong. -- Kalana Greene, guard, UConn, 2010
The beat test.
If you know what this is, your heartbeat is probably already elevated. The test is a sideline-to-sideline sprint. Between each beat -- and the buzzer literally signals the start and end of each repetition -- a player must run five lengths of the sideline (down is one, back is two). At first, the beats are far apart, and running the five lengths is not difficult. Gradually, though, the time between beats shortens, the distance between sidelines appears to lengthen, and fatigue sucks the air from lungs and legs.
Every player gets three strikes -- failing to finish the lengths before the beat is a strike -- before she's out. "It's a mental test more than anything," Greene says. "And that's what makes UConn players have a bit more of an edge."
"He makes sure that at the end of the four years, you're leaving that place with the most confidence of anyone. That no one knows the game better than you. No one is mentally stronger than you. No one's ever going to outwork you in life. I think it's four years of swagger school more than anything else." Diana Taurasi on Geno Auriemma
A player controls how long she's in the drill. So in essence, the test is less about how fast a player is and more about how much misery she'll endure to win.
Players leave UConn for various reasons. Some can't keep up. Some can keep up, but don't want to. Some can keep up, and want to keep up, but realize they'll never get the kind of minutes they want. So they go elsewhere. Lauren Engeln is part of the last category. And of the former Huskies currently playing college ball elsewhere, only Engeln, now a senior at Boston College, was willing to share stories from her time in Storrs. "When you come to UConn, you're confident, in yourself and your abilities," Engeln says. "And you have that ingrained in you when you're there, because you have so many people around you who are winners."
But before players feel like winners, they usually feel like losers -- or, if not losers, then just not quite good enough.
During Engeln's freshman season in 2010-11, she and her four fellow freshmen were kicked out of the locker room for nearly a month. The team's seniors, including Maya Moore, did not feel the freshmen were competing at the necessary level. The decision was suggested by Auriemma, who said, "Upperclassmen, if they're not doing what you want, you have the right to kick them out."
The five rookies spent a month getting changed down the hall, in the visiting locker room, without carpeting or wooden lockers, or any of the other bells and whistles (plasma TV screen, refrigerator) that made the other space comfortable. To make the place more homey, and for inspiration, they used a sharpie marker to write "UConn" on the white board. "It was freezing in there," Engeln says, since the space was usually only used on game days. "And the showers were horrible."
Slowly, very slowly, the freshmen started to realize what the older players wanted from them: a higher gear, more communication. "We thought we were going hard, but there is a whole other level that we didn't know existed," she says. "And when we reached it, people would point it out, 'See how hard you're going there?' I remember thinking, 'Holy s---, this is what makes us good?'"
Most UConn players remember vividly the pickup games -- when chaos often prevailed.
Says Greene: "I remember one year it was Charde Houston and Brittany Hunter getting into it during pick-up. Houston called a travel. And if you're Charde Houston, you specifically do not call travel because you travel every time you have the ball.
"So every time after that, when she had the ball, we called travel."
Or the time Greene and her teammates received text messages from UConn football players Tyvon Branch and Darius Butler -- at 2 a.m. The gist of the missives? We can kick your butt in basketball; meet us at Gampel.
"And we were awake, just hanging out, nothing to do," Greene said. "So we looked at each other and we're like, 'Let's go play ball.'
"We could break into Gampel anytime to play ball, and it didn't matter what time you went, there was somebody on the court."
And for the record: the football players did not win.
Says Sue Bird: "The question that comes the most when you leave Connecticut for the 'real world' is people asking if he's really that cocky and really that big of a jerk. And yeah, can he be a jerk sometimes? Yeah. Can he be super cocky? Yeah. But that's not who he is at all ... but there's always, there's always a master plan. I'm not going to call him calculated, because that sounds maybe a little shady, but he knows what he's doing and why he's doing it at all times."
And Taurasi: "The swagger comes from him. I mean, we get players in there with no swagger, but he makes sure that at the end of the four years, you're leaving that place with the most confidence of anyone. That no one knows the game better than you. No one is mentally stronger than you. No one's ever going to outwork you in life. I think it's four years of swagger school more than anything else."