By John Leonhardt and Kyle Florence
Eastbay Team Sales Staff Writers
The NCAA tournament saw 132 combined men's and women's basketball teams qualify in 2014. When the dust settled, it was all navy and white climbing the ladders to cut down the nets. For the second time — the other in 2004 — the University of Connecticut (UConn) men's and women's basketball teams swept the NCAA Championships. Though the end result for both teams was the same, they took far different paths to get to the top of the mountain that season.
Auriemma continues basketball dominance
While the men's championship run may have surprised some, the UConn women's team, coached by Geno Auriemma, entered the season with high expectations following a championship run the year prior. Auriemma and his team answered the bell in a dominating fashion, capping off a 40-0 season and claiming the program's ninth championship. The UConn women's team has become the most feared and consistent in women's college basketball. Auriemma has a win percentage of 85% over 28 seasons and a 90-game win streak, the longest in NCAA college basketball history.
"We started in 1985 saying, 'We're only going to recruit a certain type of player,'" Auriemma says. "At that time, there weren't enough good basketball players to win national championships. Over the last 30 years — year in and year out — the athletic ability has gotten better, but they're exactly the same kind of people. The only difference between the kids that I'm coaching today and kids that I was coaching 30 years ago is that today's kids are way better basketball players.
"Every year when we recruit, we know what kind of player fits in here, and what kind of player we want to be around and coach. We work really hard to get those players."
As part of the photo shoot for the October 2014 Eastbay Team Sales issue, we recently sat down with both championship-winning coaches for a discussion on approaches to program-building, recruiting, and coaching influences.
Ollie builds strength through adversity
The men's team, led by second-year head coach Kevin Ollie, had a championship run that, outside of the UConn locker room, may have come as a surprise to some. The Huskies were ranked 17th in the preseason polls, finished the season third in the American Athletic Conference, and entered the NCAA Tournament as a seven seed. However, the biggest issue was overcoming a season in which the team was ineligible for postseason play following a one-year ban. Bundle that together, and that is what Ollie believes brought his team closer together.
"The bigger the problems, the bigger the destiny, and that's how I look at everything. There is no good or bad, there's only what your thoughts dictate it to be," says Ollie. "They kept believing. They were loyal. Coach [Jim] Calhoun stepped down, we joined a new conference and were no longer in the Big East, we were banned from the postseason... like I always say, we weren't banned from loving each other, and we weren't banned from encouraging each other and making each other better — that's what we wanted to do every day: get better at something. And I think we accomplished that.
"That's the reason why we were cutting down nets — because we kept believing that in those problems and in those down times, we could pull each other up. I think that was a beautiful thing that all of our guys believed in: they believed in the heart. They believed in what was on the front of the jersey, not what was on the back."
Let's talk about your coaching background. Were there situations that had a huge impact on your development? Were there any mentors or pieces of advice that stuck with you over the years?
Geno Auriemma: I've been able to take a little bit away from everywhere I've coached.
One of the best things that happened to me was starting coaching at a young age. I was maybe 21 or 22, and I was coaching 15- and 16-year olds, so the age gap wasn't that great. They really needed to start at the very beginning, so it forced me to really learn the basics of basketball. I had already been through that as a player, and I was working with kids that just want to know right from the beginning what to do and how to do it.
Because I had to start there, every stop along the way just got better and better for me. I had the opportunity to work at a lot of different camps with a variety of coaches, so I took what I learned and incorporated it into my coaching philosophy. I'm a by-product of everything I've experienced in the last 30 years.
Who are some of your coaching role models and why?
GA: I'm probably at an age where your readers may not recognize who I'm talking about. I grew up in the late 1960s and early '70s, and really admire the old-time coaches and how they did things. Jack Ramsey, down at St. Joseph's [Philadelphia] and then in the pros, is one. I got an opportunity to go to Virginia and be around Coach [Terry] Holland at UVA and work in a lot of camps. He's another.
I watch a lot of college and pro games, and my favorite coach to watch right now is the Spurs' Gregg Popovich. Year in and year out, they're always in contention for a championship. That's what every coach aspires to — to consistently be good every year. I think he's been able to do that better than anyone else I've seen watching basketball.
What were some of the challenges facing you when you took over your program and how did you address them?
GA: The biggest challenge was probably the culture of the team; they were accustomed to losing. The atmosphere was, "We don't expect you to win. We're not going to give you a lot of things, so we don't expect a lot of things back." The toughest thing to overcome was trying to instill in the players a culture of striving to win and be great, as opposed to just settling for being mediocre.
It took a while, but once we started down that path, we haven't wavered. Our approach is still the same — it's the culture that we have, and it's the kind of people we bring in. It has something to do with how good the players are, but more importantly, it's what kind of people they are. That's really what the culture is about now.
You've been a head coach for nearly 30 years. Knowing what you know now, if you could give yourself advice before your first year, what would it be?
GA: Number one, you don't know as much as you think you do! Number two, you can't control as much as you think you can control. Number three, not everything is going to go as you want it to, so don't lose your mind when it doesn't. Expect it to be crazy, and learn how to deal with it. One loss isn't the end of the world.
When you're young, every little thing becomes a big thing. But as you get older, you realize whatever it is that's going on, don't overreact. It'll change.
With nine national championships and a winning percentage of over 85%, how have you been able to build such a consistent powerhouse each and every year?
GA: We started in 1985 saying, "We're only going to recruit a certain type of player." At that time, there weren't enough good basketball players to win national championships. Over the last 30 years — year in and year out — the athletic ability has gotten better, but they're exactly the same kind of people. The only difference between the kids that I'm coaching today and kids that I was coaching 30 years ago is that today's kids are way better basketball players.
Each and every year when we are recruiting, we know what kind of player fits in here, and what kind of player we want to be around and coach. We work really hard to get those players.
What was it like coaching Team USA in the Olympics, and how was your approach different than it would be entering a season at UConn?
GA: In Connecticut, we start in September with preseason stuff, practice starts in October, and our first real game is in the middle of November. You have about a month and a half to get ready, and you've known these players for a couple of years.
With the national team, you get together for six or seven days — ten days maybe. You don't know that much about the players, and they don't know that much about each other. But in a short amount of time, you're going to throw everyone together and say, "Okay, lets go play for the gold medal."
It's a little nerve-wracking, because you don't know what you're going to get out of it. I was very lucky at the Olympics, because six of the players that were on the team were former players I had coached at UConn, so the transition was a little smoother. That's the one downside that USA basketball has — we just don't have enough time with the players like other countries do. But it's offset by the fact that we have the best players, so I think I'd rather take the best players than more time.
What traits do you look for in student athletes?
GA: The players we recruit are great students at their high school — they take pride in their academics. They see themselves as good students who play basketball, not as basketball players who just happen to go to school.
On the court, probably the number one thing we look for is someone who is unselfish — someone who wants to be on a great team rather than show of how great they are. When you're bringing in as many good players as we are every year, they have to be unselfish. It's like growing up in a family of ten — if everyone's selfish, there's going to be a lot of major problems. So if you've got ten players and here they're all really, really good, you've got to make sure there's a giving attitude among the players instead of take, take, take all the time.
When you're recruiting, at what point do you say to yourself, "This is the type of girl I want in a UConn uniform"?
GA: It was hard there for a while, because the amount of time you could spend with players was less. When I first started in 1985, you could spend a lot of time with recruits — go watch them play whenever you wanted, go talk to them whenever you wanted — the rules were more lax. Then, as things started to tighten, you couldn't see them or talk to them whenever you wanted. There were so many restrictions — it got to be really difficult to find out who that person was.
Now we're back to being allowed to spend a lot of time with them, and I like that a lot better. When you're just watching somebody play, you get a sense of who they are, but you're not quite sure. Now after you spend time with them — they're on campus for a couple days, you go visit them at their house, or you see them play more often — it doesn't take long to see whether or not they will fit in.
You just watch the way they act — you'd be surprised. Players come up here and are rude and disrespectful to their parents on their visit here. I think, "Really? That kid thinks she's going to play at Connecticut?" I don't think so.
What are some of favorite practice drills? What types of things do you want your athletes focusing on?
GA: Some of my favorite drills aren't necessarily some of my player's favorite drills. [Laughs] There are drills that we do that are meant to test players mentally, whether or not they can sustain it for long periods of time.
I like drills where you have to do a certain amount of things in a limited amount of time. There are no opportunities to get it wrong and start all over again, so they have to get it right immediately.
I like drills where we have a disadvantage. If we're working on offense, the other team might have an extra defender on the floor.
My favorite drills are the ones where players are put at a disadvantage, and they have to overcome those disadvantages in a very limited time. It gives them the chance to figure things out without being told every minute how to do it. I'm a big fan of "figure it out." I want my players to say, "When I went to Connecticut, I won a lot of games, and I learned how to figure things out."
What are your thoughts on multi-sport vs. specialization athletes? When you're out recruiting, do you watch them play other sports such as softball and track?
GA: The best players I've ever had are the ones who play more than one sport. I think one of the causes of all these injuries that players have, and all this burnout that they suffer, and all the other problems that exist now and never existed before, is because kids start getting scholarship-addicted when they're in 8th and 9th grade. The parents think they need to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week on becoming a better basketball player, or a better soccer player, or a better field hockey player.
I've never believed that, and I've always thought that the more sports you play — the more things you do — the better you become at the one sport you really want to be good at, because you get to see it from a different perspective. Players that step outside their comfort zone and try other things become more well-rounded and better basketball players. I like kids that play soccer, and sports where you have to think a little bit — it makes you a better athlete, and it makes you a better teammate.
Let's talk about some of your coaching background. Were there situations that had a huge impact on your development? Were there any mentors or pieces of advice that stuck with you over the years?
Kevin Ollie: From when I picked up a basketball in Los Angeles to my days in the NBA, my mentors in the coaching profession were all the coaches that allowed me to play and grow.
It's been a great journey, starting with my high school coach Willie West, who allowed me to be a basketball player and, moreso, a leader. That was followed up with Coach Calhoun, who is like a second father to me.
Coach always stuck behind me and told me to believe bigger. You can create anything you want to in your future if you just believe. Then going to the NBA and playing under Larry Brown, George Karl, Chuck Daly — Hall of Fame coaches — really helped shape my coaching career.
Who are some of your coaching role models and why?
KO: Larry Brown, Willie West — those are guys that really stand out to me. They never wavered — they always believed in me and they always believe in their program. In the up and down times, they always stayed true to their core values, and that's effort, that's attitude, that's your character — staying in control of the things that you can control.
Always understand that small details are what make the big details happen. I always pride myself on those things they gave me — emotionally and mentally — that helped me stay in the game and understand what I can do on a day-to-day basis to not only make myself a better person, but everyone around me.
What were some of the challenges facing you when you took over your program and how did you address them?
KO: I don't know where to start — there were a lot of them! The bigger the problems, the bigger the destiny, and that's how I look at everything. There is no good or bad, there's only what your thoughts dictate it to be.
We always have positive thoughts around here. Early on, we knew there were going to be brighter days if we just put our heads down and went to work each and every day. And that's what our guys did.
The players kept believing. They were loyal. Coach Calhoun stepped down, we joined a new conference and were no longer in the Big East, we were banned from the postseason... like I always say, we weren't banned from loving each other, and we weren't banned from encouraging each other and making each other better — that's what we wanted to do every day: Get better at something. And I think we accomplished that. That's the reason why in 2014, a couple of months ago, we were cutting down nets — because we kept believing that in those problems and in those down times, we could pull each other up.
All of our guys believed in the heart. They believed in what was on the front of the jersey, not what was on the back.
In just your second season as head coach, you lead your team to the program's fourth championship, which included beating teams coached by Billy Donovan and John Calipari in the Final Four. How were you able to have such quick success given such a short tenure as coach?
KO: I don't consider championships success. I consider our guys leaving here with their degrees — our guys being better people than basketball players — a true success. I want to win every day, and I think we are setting that example for our student athletes. If we have the right attitude, the national championship is going to chase us. Each of us wakes up in the morning trying to be a better student, a better teammate, a better basketball player, and ultimately be a better person. That's the number one goal around here at the University of Connecticut.
You've obviously played and coached in big games as a Husky. What was it like going from the floor to the sidelines for those big games? What advice would you give to a young coach that may be just coming off a playing career, regardless of level?
KO: Be yourself. I can't be Coach Calhoun, I can't be Geno Auriemma, I can't be Larry Brown, but I can be the best Kevin Ollie I can possibly be.
That's what I wanted to do — be the best I can be. I wanted to have fun, but I also understand the importance of paying attention to the details. I think the genius is in the details. I'm a very detail-oriented guy.
It's very important to get people that you trust around you. I'm a little biased, but I think I have the best coaching staff in America. I trust them. I can delegate some of my duties as a head coach to them and I know they're going to get the job done. I don't tell them how to do it, I tell them: "Get the job done." And they do.
A good coach needs to have a great environment for their student athletes. My student athletes are the center of my universe, and I want them to feel that from not only me, but everybody that comes into contact with them on a day-to-day basis.
What traits do you look for in student athletes?
KO: Three traits: One is high character. They have to have leadership character. Two, they have to understand and know about teamwork. You have to be able to put yourself into a team and think this is bigger than just yourself. Third, you've got to be a great teammate. You've got to understand how to cheer for your teammate, because it's not all about you all the time. It's about giving. The best leaders are the ones who are subservient to their teammates.
When you're recruiting, at what point do you say to yourself, "This is the type of guy I want in a UConn uniform"?
KO: You want to learn about a student athlete before you can make that decision. You don't want to just see him when he scores 40 points, you want to see him when he's having that down game and getting into foul trouble. Is he cheering for his teammates? Is he still involved? Is he separating himself? We need guys that can overcome that, understand their limitations, and get past them, because once they come from high school to the division I basketball arena, it's a different level. The competition is better, and what separates yourself is not only the talent you have, it's the character that you have. It's about resilience. When you get knocked down, can you get back up and keep fighting?
We want guys that have a burning desire to get their degrees, too. It's not just a basketball factory here — we do go to school, and we pride ourselves on getting our degrees.
We also look for community-mindedness. This is a community here, you cannot be in your own world. You have to be able to give. When you give of yourself, people will give back. We want them to understand that it's not only here, but also when they leave Storrs campus they know about being a giver and not just a taker.
What are some of your favorite practice drills? What types of things do you want your athletes focusing on?
KO: We are competitors. We keep score during every drill, and there are consequences for whoever loses. Everything we do is with a purpose — every cut, every sprint, every screen, every step is with a purpose. It's about conditioning and it's about taking the next step.
Either you're moving forward or moving backward. There is no status quo. We always want to be taking a step forward and getting better. We want to be pushing and challenging each other every day.
What are your thoughts on multi-sport vs. specialization athletes? When you're out recruiting, do you watch them play other sports such as football, track, and baseball?
KO: I just focus on basketball. We've got a couple of guys that play football, and I cringe when they're out on the football field and they get hit. I might be looking at my future point guard, and I don't want him being damaged when he gets here.
Yet you don't want your kids doing just one sport. I didn't believe in that; I played football when I was younger. Whatever that student athlete desires, I don't want to take that away from him. If he's playing multiple sports, that's fine. I just want him to understand his body, get the proper sleep, and prioritize.
I think being involved in multiple sports allows you to do that: prioritize and manage your time. If you understand time management before you get here, it's easier for us to put you in our mold and help you be a better student athlete at the University of Connecticut.