Under a table in Chris Dailey's office at the University of
Connecticut sits a large file box containing newspaper clippings
from the most recent women's Final Four. An aide who was hired
specifically to sort and clip articles about the Huskies'
undefeated championship season has already gone through several
similar boxes and filled four expandable 18-by-16-inch
scrapbooks, and she is only to mid-February. Ten years ago, when
Dailey arrived in Storrs as an assistant to new coach Geno
Auriemma, an entire season's worth of clippings filled half a
photo album. "We'd get excited about a one-inch column in the
local paper," says Dailey, now the associate head coach. "Of
course, back then we didn't even have our own locker room."
Even if the scrapbooks of UConn's perfect season are eventually
completed, they may gather dust. The use of clippings to
commemorate a season suddenly seems archaic in Storrs. When
100,000 people show up for a parade in nearby Hartford in your
team's honor, when the talk-show and public-appearance requests
for your players are so numerous that more are declined than
accepted, when luminaries from the world at large are
congratulating you, when a celebratory video has been produced
and your star's autobiography is on the way, scrapbooks seem,
well, quaint. When the nation has finally made space for you in
its collective consciousness, do you still need to cut and paste
to prove that you exist?
"We wanted to get the scrapbooks done before this season
started," says Dailey, who, like her players and UConn coaching
colleagues, remains incurably down-to-earth. "But we've been
overwhelmed. For weeks after the championship, I'd cry when they
brought the mail in."
It wasn't merely the volume of fan mail that made Dailey weep;
like everyone else associated with Connecticut women's
basketball, she is touched by the smallest token of
congratulations. She recalls with equal appreciation the poem
that an elderly New Haven woman composed, framed and personally
delivered and the case of Dom Perignon that rapper Queen Latifah
sent the coaches. Dailey, however, will confess to a favorite
thrill. "Seeing President Clinton was really nice," she says,
"but when Pat Riley congratulated us--wow! I couldn't believe he
knew about our team!"
The admiration and respect have flowed in from every imaginable
quarter. When the Huskies visited the statehouse a few weeks
after beating Tennessee 70-64 in the April 2 NCAA title game,
legislators groveled for autographs. ("There was no political
decorum whatsoever," says UConn senior associate director of
athletic communications Barb Kowal.) Over the summer, junior
forward Carla Berube found herself autographing baseballs at
Yankee Stadium, and senior guard Kim Better received
congratulations from a taxi driver in Sydney, Australia, who had
watched the final in New Zealand. Several members of the Super
Bowl-champion San Francisco 49ers interrupted their own
autograph session at Lake Tahoe in May to discuss the Huskies'
season with a visitor wearing a UConn sweatshirt. Tennis player
Luke Jensen did all the other admirers one better: Through
connections with the coaching staff, he acquired a Rebecca Lobo
Other teams have won national championships. Other teams have
even gone undefeated. But no other women's team and very few
men's teams have enjoyed such widespread adoration. The Huskies
were beloved even as they crushed opponents by an average of
33.2 points per game, the most ever for any college team, men or
women. "Usually you want to hate a team that wins all the time,"
says junior center Kara Wolters. "But players from other Big
East teams [which the Huskies beat by an average of 35.1 points]
would thank us for what we were doing for the league and for
Speaking on National Public Radio the day after the NCAA final,
sportswriter Frank Deford suggested that, like the New York Jets
of Joe Namath and the Boston Celtics of Bill Russell, the
Huskies were "one of those special teams that comes along at
precisely the right moment so that it's able to represent more
than its own incidental victory." Connecticut, he added, took
women's basketball "around a big bend in the river of cultural
acceptance. Never before have women, as a team, been accepted as
At a time when so much about sports is repellent, the Huskies
represented an athletic ideal that seems to be nearing
extinction. With no multimillion-dollar contracts awaiting them,
they played basketball with a contagious passion. "There was a
real spirit of generosity about them," says Storrs restaurateur
Larry Ross. "There was a sense of giving back to the community."
This is what the 1994-95 Huskies offered the community: a
scrappy, close-knit, fundamentally superb team fronted by the
gracious and charismatic Lobo, the national player of the year;
Jen Rizzotti, a point guard whose commitment to academics is so
serious that she declined an invitation to appear on the Regis
and Kathie Lee show so she could attend a class; Big East Rookie
of the Year Nykesha Sales; a bench so zealous that referees
would tell players to sit down "at least a hundred times a
game," according to reserve Missy Rose; a program that boasts a
100% graduation rate and four players on the dean's list;
accessibility to their thousands of fans, who would keep the
Huskies busy signing autographs for an hour after a game;
players willing to dive into scorers' tables for loose balls,
whether they were ahead by two points or 40; a coach who has
been known to tell his players, "God, I love it when you play
Sports fans outside the Northeast might never have known of
these assets had UConn not been located in the backyard of the
nation's media capital. "It was the Eastern media finally
discovering women's basketball," says Vanderbilt women's coach
Jim Foster of the UConn phenomenon. "When New York City gets
hold of something, it takes on a life of its own."
Huskymania spilled beyond Connecticut's borders on Jan. 16,
1995, when a UConn team reached the No. 1 ranking for the first
time in school history, after the women beat top-ranked
Tennessee in a nationally televised game. A month later, the
Husky men joined the women at the top of the polls, making UConn
the first school in NCAA history to have both its men's and its
women's teams ranked No. 1 at the same time.
The men's team lost to eventual champion UCLA in the Elite Eight
of the NCAA tournament, but the women became the first team in
the state ever to win a national collegiate title in a major
sport. "The last thing I want is for our players to think they
have to do better than last year," says Auriemma. "The
expectations for the program are going to be so high that they
could win 100 in a row and it wouldn't be enough."
Rizzotti stalks into the players' lounge, her face dark. It is a
month before the start of practice, and in an unofficial series
of pickup games, her team has lost twice. The senior point
guard's silent ire fills the room as she picks up her belongings
in the back of the lounge and leaves for a class. Lobo may have
been the reason the Huskies were so popular last season, but it
can be argued that Rizzotti was the reason they won 35 games.
"We went 35-0," says Wolters as if it were all self-explanatory.
"Jen hates to lose."
Rizzotti, whose dives for loose balls remind Auriemma of "Pete
Rose sliding into second base," is the first to tell you that
her competitive drive is off the charts. "I'm not a good loser,"
she says, smiling. "I can admit it. A lot of people are brought
up hating to lose. I was born hating to lose."
"When Jen is on the floor, our players really believe we can't
lose," says Auriemma. "She is so competitive. [Forward] Jamelle
Elliott is like that too. Most teams would be lucky to have one
player like that."
Two seniors who refuse to lose and a deeper team--this season
UConn has 15 players, 10 of whom could make major
contributions--will make the loss of Lobo and guard Pam Webber
less painful than it might have been. "It's almost a shame we
went undefeated last year," says Auriemma, "because I think we
have a better team this year."
Soon after Rizzotti leaves, Elliott and Wolters blow through the
lounge door and head for the beverage machine. Gulping blue
Powerade, they plop down in chairs and direct their attention to
a 60-minute highlight video playing on a big-screen TV. On the
tape, Webber is standing, microphone in hand, before the 8,500
people who gathered in Gampel Pavilion to witness the Huskies'
triumphant return from the Final Four in Minneapolis. She begins
to speak, her voice filled with awe: "I feel ..." From the back
of the lounge, Wolters and Elliott chime in melodramatically,
"... so blessed!" They chortle because they have seen the tape a
zillion times. But the truth is, they felt the same way. "It was
magical," says Wolters, getting goose-bumpy all over again. "All
those people! We were all, I think, in shock."
Besides the 8,500 fans at Gampel, another 2,000 frenzied souls,
including Governor John Rowland, met the Huskies' plane from
Minneapolis at Hartford's Bradley Airport. Hundreds more waited
along the 30-mile route between the airport and Storrs. The
people who ran out of roadside convenience stores or popped out
of their cars to wave, cheer and hold aloft handmade signs as
the bus passed couldn't know how stunned its occupants were.
Wolters and her teammates listened in disbelief to a local radio
station broadcasting their every move. "They have turned onto
195 and are heading south...." intoned the disc jockey.
"People were pulling off to the side of the road to let us
pass," recalls Wolters, who didn't know at the time that the
bus's journey was also being televised. "Others were already
waiting by their cars, waving and cheering. People were trying
to touch the bus."
Will Connecticut--state or team--experience such rapture again?
"Our fans love us because of how hard we play," says Rizzotti.
"That won't change."
Other things, though, already have. UConn just signed a
three-year, $2.28 million contract with Connecticut Public TV
primarily for the broadcast of women's games, giving the Huskies
one of the fattest local TV contracts for men or women anywhere
in the country. The women's game in general will be far more
exposed this season (ESPN is increasing its coverage from 26
games to 67) and will be held to a higher standard of play than
in the past. Ticket prices for UConn women's games have gone up,
which might cut out some of the families and retired people who
have been such devoted followers of the team, thereby
threatening what Lobo called the "extended-family" atmosphere of
the games at Gampel.
The complexion of the team has changed too. This season, for the
first time, the Huskies welcome a recruiting class that includes
two players from outside the Northeast: Tammy Arnold of Oregon
City, Ore., and Amy Hughes of Sciotoville, Ohio, both
blue-chippers. Auriemma, who has had only two first-team high
school All-Americas in his 10 years as coach (Lobo and Sales),
will now have them knocking on his door. Will he find UConn's
carefully cultivated team concept challenged by the introduction
of stars? "We have always recruited players who want to be
involved in the total success of the team," he says. "A player
who needs the spotlight is still going to be frustrated here."
The Huskies' immediate concern is to put the glories and
memories of last season behind them and to focus on the season
ahead. In light of how well-grounded the team is, that shouldn't
be a problem. "It's a new year," says Rizzotti. "Being national
champions doesn't mean anything now."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Lobo's Final Four salute thrilled the adoring fans; now Rizzotti (left) and this year's team must try to stage an encore. [Rebecca Lobo; Jen Rizzotti]
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHOThe Husky bench was as intense as the anxious Auriemma and wide-ranging Wolters. [University of Connecticut women's basketball players sitting on bench; Geno Auriemma; Kara Wolters guarding opponent]