1985 Preview: Geno Auriemma Is New UConn Coach

He was clear from the start, saying, "I want people to say that UConn is a team that comes at you. I want to win more but I also want to win games we aren't supposed to win. I want to knock off some of the top teams in the conference." Click here to see the full story. (Hartford Courant)

Three months after taking a job he figured would last four years, Geno Auriemma, 31 years old, was certainly ready to coach his Huskies for the first time.

After all, like any aspiring professional, he hoped his day would finally come. And here it was, Saturday, Nov. 23, 1985, New Rochelle, N.Y., and UConn was going to play Iona.

He was worried that his UConn team wouldn't be ready. Even then — so young, so impetuous — he was internally conflicted.

"Yes, I remember him being very nervous," said Lori Kulo, a junior guard on the 1985-86 UConn team.

After years working in construction, selling shoes, stocking shelves and bartending, a prestigious apprenticeship as an assistant for Debbie Ryan at Virginia led Auriemma to a school with an intramural home gym that had won just four conference games in the first three years of Big East play.

"You are always worried. I was worried," Auriemma said. "I didn't know if we'd covered it all, whether I'd instilled what I wanted in them. I didn't know if we would play hard, if the team would be reflective of what I wanted.

"I didn't know if it had learned that [the process] was going to be different than it had been every other year. There were a lot of things going on that didn't involve Iona."

The team Auriemma inherited from Jean Balthaser, who had coached the team since 1980, was enthusiastic but somewhat dispirited. It was definitely set in its ways.

And it was clear from the start that Auriemma and Chris Dailey, who he hired from Rutgers to be his assistant, did not particularly endorse the way the program had done things.

In fact, just about everything had to change.

"I remember we didn't have the most talented group, but it worked hard," Dailey said. "They were good kids, hungry for success, for change. And Geno was straightforward with them. He told them just because they had new coaches didn't mean that would suddenly win 25 games. ... He explained to them there was a reason they had won so few games and it started with how hard they work, the level of commitment, the way we do things."

That preparation for the first game, first season, was all done away from the media pressure today's UConn players face.

When Auriemma was hired, the May 18, 1985 Courant had a small, 14-point headline, "Auriemma Named" as part of a local roundup of sports news:

Geno Auriemma, 31, an assistant women's basketball coach at the University of Virginia the past four years, was named head coach of women's basketball at the University of Connecticut. In his four years at Virginia, his teams posted an overall record of 75-39.

Plenty Of Doubts

Back then, Iona was an eastern power that had beaten UConn by seven points in Storrs the year before. The Gaels were led by Rose Battaglia, a famous high school coach at Paramus Catholic (N.J.) who had coached Anne Donovan, the future Olympic and WNBA championship coach now leading the Connecticut Sun.

"I don't really remember much about that day or that game," Battaglia said. "But what I do recall was how gracious, friendly and genuine Geno was. He was a gentleman."

The two had worked summer camps in Pennsylvania together for the legendary Cathy Rush. Auriemma recruited Battaglia's players for Virginia.

"In fact, the first time we met, we were sitting over some pizza and beer one night after the campus [where the camp was held] went to sleep," Battaglia said. "I knew who he was when he got the position [at UConn]. He wasn't a complete stranger to me at all. He was an interesting guy.

But the Iona roster, or Battaglia's coaching, wasn't what was on Auriemma mind as the bus rolled into New Rochelle.