As John Wooden led UCLA on its vaunted 88-game winning streak, he knew just the right time to talk about his team’s accomplishments — never.
“Wooden never talked about winning or losing,” Bruins great Bill Walton says. “He talked about today, living in the present, human development, being part of a special team, all the attributes and personal characteristics delineated.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wooden’s model has set a template for some of the most successful collegiate coaches ever. Geno Auriemma and his Connecticut Huskies women don’t talk about their streak, despite being just 12 wins shy of UCLA’s all-time basketball record. And they’ll make it to 78 victories if they win out in the Final Four starting Sunday.
Neither does the Penn State women’s volleyball team, winner of its last 102 straight matches, nor did the North Carolina women’s soccer team, victorious in 92 straight games in the early 1990s.
“It’s pretty much never brought up. That’s the quickest way to get the next ‘L,'” said Stanford women’s tennis coach Lele Forood, whose team won 89 straight matches from 2003-07. “If you’re not looking at the next match something is going to go wrong.”
Auriemma has been through it twice now. The Huskies won 70 straight games from 2001-03 before the current run of 76 consecutive victories that UConn has built over the past two seasons. Taking a page from Wooden, Auriemma and his team never rest on what they’ve accomplished.
“The average person out there thinks we get up every morning like we’re in a prison cell,” Auriemma said. “Go up to the wall and carve out another X and say that’s one less day I’ve got to worry about this. That’s so far from what the reality is. I don’t think there has been one day when I’ve gone to practice thinking how many games we’ve won.”
That attitude reminds Walton of his former coach. He is among those rooting for UConn to keep winning, even if it means the Huskies end up breaking UCLA’s record. The Bruins star was immediately impressed with Auriemma when they first met at Michael Jordan’s fantasy basketball camp a few years back.
“I know firsthand what a class act he is and you don’t have the success that this team’s experiencing without a brilliant coach,” Walton said in a telephone interview. “I had the great privilege to be on a special team and my congratulations go out to UConn. I’m a big fan.”
Walton and many other UCLA players would welcome company up top, unlike the NFL’s undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins — who pop champagne every season after the last unbeaten NFL team loses.
“The women leave better than when they enter,” Walton said of the UConn program. “We couldn’t be happier for them and couldn’t be more proud. I encourage them to enjoy it while it lasts.”
The 57-year-old Walton said that his former coach — who is now 99 — was aware of UConn’s streak. He thinks Wooden would be proud of what Auriemma has accomplished as they have similar coaching traits.
Maybe Auriemma has been channeling some of Wooden’s success during this latest run. The 56-year-old coach has been carrying around one of Wooden’s books for the two years.
“For some reason, this one has stayed in my briefcase,” Auriemma said a few weeks back.
What’s been impressive during UConn’s current streak is not only that they’ve won so many games, but the level of domination they’ve had over every opponent. No team has come within single digits of the Huskies during the entire streak. They’ve only trailed for a handful of minutes and rarely have had to worry about the outcome of the game in the final 10 minutes.
Even UCLA had a few nail-biters during its run.
Penn State women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose can relate to the success Auriemma has had in dismantling opponents. His 2008 squad went through the regular season without losing a game in any of its matches. He’s also heard some grumbling, like Auriemma, that his team’s success is bad for the sport.
“You beat a team by 40 points and they’re calling you out,” Rose said. “He’s not piling it on. Maya Moore is on the bench for 12 minutes. She hits three 3s to start the game and it’s over.”
Walton can’t remember hearing any talk of UCLA’s dominance being bad for college basketball in the 1970s and thinks it’s crazy that people would assault what UConn’s doing.
“That’s ludicrous,” Walton said. “It’s not Connecticut’s or coach Geno’s fault. They have built a remarkable program there. It’s fun, it’s productive, it’s successful.”