Tuesday, April 6, 2004 Updated: April 7, 1:06 PM ET
Connecticut a likely place for champions
By Greg Garber ESPN.com
STORRS, CT. -- Walk-on Jason Baisch strolled onto the floor at Gampel Pavilion on Tuesday evening and drew a credible standing ovation from the frenzied 7,000 fanatics gathered on the University of Connecticut campus.
When Emeka Okafor waxed eloquently about the wakening October dreams of the men's basketball, a woman's shriek stopped him short: "Take off your shirt!"
The hysteria crested when head coach Jim Calhoun came to the microphone and talked lovingly about his team.
"They took the mantle of responsibility," Calhoun said. "Today they are the best team in the United States."
Husky fans filled Gampel Pavilion two nights in a row to cheer on their championship teams.
Calhoun paused for the cheers. "The trophies," he continued, "are for you. They're back home where they belong."
Indeed, they are.
Storrs, this pleasantly bucolic town of 11,000 that measures roughly nine square miles, is 41.80 degrees north of the equator and 72.25 degrees west of the prime meridian. For the next year, unlikely Storrs -- not Durham, N.C., Lawrence, Kansas nor Knoxville, Tennessee -- will be the center of the college basketball universe.
For the men and women's basketball teams of the University of Connecticut are reigning NCAA national champions. The men throttled Georgia Tech 82-73 in San Antonio on Monday night. After their pep rally, they dispersed to their dorm rooms and, working on little or no sleep, watched the women's game. So did Calhoun from the comfort of his new estate behind the town green in nearby Pomfret.
And on the big screens at Gampel, so did another capacity crowd.
They witnessed history. The women completed the unprecedented double with a 70-61 victory over Tennessee in New Orleans on Tuesday night. It was their third straight championship, equaling the Lady Vols' all-time NCAA record.
No Division I school has ever won the men's and women's basketball crowns in the same season.
After Diana Taurasi, the game's Most Valuable Player, punted the ball high into the stands, Geno Auriemma said it best: "It's mind-boggling."
To put the feat in context, consider that there are 326 Division 1 schools and since 1999, UConn has won 6 of the 12 national titles. For those of you who are math-challenged, that's half of those available. The women, who have won four of the five championships contested since the millennium, are a tidy 204-14 (.936). The men, who won their first in 1999, have gone 162-47 (.775) in those six seasons.
Together in that time, Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun have fashioned a ludicrous collective record of 366-61 (.857).
Tim Tolokan, UConn's associate director of athletics, has seen the unlikely evolution. He covered the Huskies for the Norwich Bulletin for a decade before joining the Connecticut sports information staff in 1980.
"How does it happen?" asked Tolokan. "It happens because [then athletic director] John Toner makes two unbelievable hires. The constant is the coaches. Jim Calhoun is Connecticut men's basketball. Geno Auriemma is Connecticut women's basketball."
Connecticut fielded a nice little Yankee Conference men's team in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. They made the NCAA Tournament 14 times under Hugh Greer, Fred Shabel, Dee Rowe and Dom Perno, but the turning point came in 1979 when Toner used all of his political muscle to land the Huskies in the new conference known as the Big East. Auriemma was hired in 1985 and Calhoun arrived a year later. After tentative beginnings, they developed efficient, high-powered programs that reflected their sometimes volatile personalities.
The two didn't always get along. In 1995, when the women were on their way to the school's first basketball championship, then-president Harry J. Hartley used the phrase "dynamic tension" to describe their relationship.
"It's a theory of management that says competition can be constructive and useful," Hartley explained. "You've got two No. 1 programs, two great coaches who want to be No. 1 in their game. It might help push each one to be the best."
That was a decade ago. When the ball is rolled out next season at Gampel Pavilion, a fifth and sixth national championship banner will be unfurled.
Judging from his behavior in San Antonio, Calhoun, who turns 62 in May, still has some juice. And even though he's losing Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon to the NBA, his roster is still loaded with talent. In the arena of women's basketball, where parity hasn't approached the level field of the men's game, Auriemma, clearly, still has some titles to collect.
Perhaps the evolution of Storrs as basketball's epicenter is no accident. There is, after all, a certain geographic logic to it.
In 1891, Dr. James Naismith, looking for some exercise and diversion for his students at the School for Christian Workers, nailed peach baskets to the railing in the gymnasium. He called his new game basket ball (two words) and in a century's time, it would become a worldwide phenomenon, a universal truth. It all happened in Springfield, Mass., not much more than a full-court heave from Storrs, where the cows used to outnumber the season ticket holders.
The first men's game at Connecticut was played a decade later, in 1901. UConn handled Windham High School 17-12 and finished the season with a perfect 1-0 mark. This is the women's 30th season. The first, in 1974-75, featured a schedule that included Eastern Connecticut, Keene State and Worcester State. The Huskies went a dismal 2-8.
Calhoun and his players made a point of thanking the Connecticut fans after their victory and, to an extent, the fanaticism and fervor that follow the Huskies in this tiny state is an important factor in the success of the two programs. Connecticut, you see, needs the Huskies more than most regions. Tucked in between sports-mad Boston and New York, Connecticut is devoid of professional teams, unless you count the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL and the Sun of the WNBA. In the go-go 1990s, the Whalers defected to North Carolina, then the New England Patriots promised to come, then backed out.
"I hope no one here ever takes it for granted," said Tolokan, who was the master of ceremonies at the rally. "I almost said it when I was up at the podium.We're not one of the anointed programs. This isn't Westwood or Chapel Hill or Ann Arbor.
"We're in Connecticut, so you've got to work harder to establish something. And we've got two guys who work harder than anyone."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.