The UConn Huskies' Secret Weapon Has Serious Staying Power
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because happiness and comfort can also mean incredible success.
By Matt Foley
It’s been 855 days since the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team lost a game. As the tally grows, so does the attention. Television crews and countless reporters fill Gampel Pavilion for even the most boring early morning practices. Most college athletes would fold under the pressure. Luckily for the Huskies, their secret weapon has seen it all.
For 32 years, Chris Dailey has copiloted the UConn women’s program to incredible heights. Not only are they riding a 107-game winning streak — the longest in college sports history — but only two of those wins have been by fewer than 10 points. Hall of Fame head coach Geno Auriemma hired Dailey as his only assistant in 1985 and together they led a 10-year-old program to historic success. The dynamic coaching duo holds a combined 987 wins and 11 national titles. Over those last four seasons, UConn — the champion of all of them — is 148–1. However, with excellence comes immense pressure.
Growing up in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Dailey loved to teach. While most children played with dolls and action figures, she took to a chalkboard. The family living room became a classroom as Dailey forced siblings to partake in the day’s lesson plan. Soon, a teenage growth spurt birthed a second passion: Dailey would become a star forward for St. Peter’s High School and Rutgers University, there in New Brunswick.
[She] holds this whole thing together.
—Katie Lou Samuelson, UConn’s leading scorer
At Rutgers, friends and family filled the stands to cheer on Dailey as she captained the Scarlet Knights, ultimately winning a national championship as a senior in 1982. After the season, Dailey began a six-week student-teaching stint at a local high school. “The kids were horrible,” she recalls. “After about three days, I was like, ‘I hate this!’ ” Panic set in. For the first time ever, Dailey was forced to rethink her path. She made the move from the classroom to the gymnasium, and after one year as an assistant at Cornell, Dailey returned to Rutgers as the top assistant.
“CD holds this whole thing together,” Katie Lou Samuelson, UConn’s leading scorer and breakout star, told HBO. “We all have a bond with her different than any other coach and player.”
Dailey met her colleague Auriemma while still at Rutgers, where Dailey doubled as the chair of the NCAA’s Assistant Coaches Association. Brash Auriemma — then a Virginia assistant — stuck out at meetings. The pair talked about basketball philosophy and how they would each build a winning program when given the chance. Auriemma’s first call after being named head coach at UConn in 1985: Dailey. The two shared a vision, and Dailey’s strengths (organization, administrative dealings and an uncanny ability to connect with players on the recruiting trail) complemented Auriemma’s skills (game planning, handling the media, scouting). The move made perfect sense for Auriemma, but Dailey needed to be sold.
“It was a difficult decision,” Dailey tells OZY. “My entire family was in New Jersey and I was leaving an established program that recently won a title.” Ultimately, though, Dailey knew that revamping Connecticut’s then-meager program would be perfect training for eventually head-coaching her own fiefdom. When Dailey arrived in Storrs, Connecticut, there was no locker room — just one office with two rotary phones. From Day One, Dailey handled campus marketing, verbally promoting games to anyone within earshot and granting students extra credit (she taught a physical activities class in those early days) for attending contests. Soon word spread throughout campus that a new, energetic program was in town. Dailey’s efforts established a culture of school spirit around the women’s hoops team — one that intensifies with each winning season, providing frenzied support for Samuelson and her teammates on game night.
While Auriemma and Dailey’s partnership — a 50/50 split, as each of them tells it — is commended in sports inner circles, it’s rarely imitated. Successful assistants almost always try to chase head-coaching positions; those who don’t are usually low-level specialty coaches who work their way up to a larger assistant role, like the New England Patriots’ defensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia or Bud Foster, Virginia Tech football’s defensive coordinator. Dailey, by contrast, has happily remained at Auriemma’s side despite occasionally nursing her own ambitions. In 1995, Dailey interviewed — and was passed over — for her dream job leading Rutgers. Since then, some offers have come in, but Dailey remained. Her salary’s great — over $300,000 a year, she tells us, higher than most head coaches in women’s basketball. But more than money, Dailey enjoys the luxury of relevance. “As time goes on, I won’t move just anywhere.”
At the Huskies’ regular season finale against University of South Florida in Tampa, nearly all of the 5,000-plus crowd was clad in blue and white. Tickets for the NCAA Regional in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the Huskies will play when they (surely!) reach the Sweet Sixteen, sold out before a single March Madness game was played. No other host can say the same. Never before has such a fervor surrounded a women’s basketball program. At the postgame press conference, Samuelson and her teammates will confidently address throngs of press. That, says Auriemma, is all Dailey.
Indeed, most head coaches, male or female, “would never be comfortable with their assistant being featured for a story,” Dailey points out, conversationally gesturing to our interview. Making your assistant an owner, however, can keep them proudly by your side. Dailey would be foolish not to entertain head coaching offers, but her departure becomes less likely every year.
And an in-house promotion isn’t out of the question. The UConn men’s team went 16–17 this season. Auriemma could get called over to their side. Filling his shoes would be natural.