"That night we were listening to some sports talk show from Hartford," Calhoun's wife, Pat, says. "A caller came on and said, 'UConn just blew it again. I listened to this guy's press conference, and I couldn't understand a word he said.' I give the host credit. He said, 'Yeah, but I guess those kids at Northeastern must have understood him well enough.' "
For Calhoun and Auriemma, the work had begun.
The University was an academic outpost in the rural northeast corner of the state. Storrs was basically the UConn campus, plus a few convenience stores and gas stations on the fringe. There was no McDonald's, no Burger King, no hotel, no mall, no place to buy a suit, no movie theater. The school's agricultural heritage still could be seen in large barns filled with cows, horses, chickens and pigs.
"I remember unpacking our boxes at our first apartment," Auriemma says. "We had all the boxes and the kids, and my wife was pregnant with our son, and it was getting dark, and I remember thinking, What the heck have I done?"
The athletic facilities were minimal. Basketball was played in the all-purpose, 4,660-seat Field House. The track team used the building. The baseball team used the building. A net was strung around the basketball court to keep out errant baseballs and 35-pound weights. Somebody always seemed to be running, jumping or—whack!—taking batting practice. Basketball was not taught in quiet.
Auriemma's office was so small that his desk was pushed against assistant coach Chris Dailey's desk. A second assistant had no desk, only a chair. A third assistant sat on the floor.
The men's office was no better. "I sat next to Dave Leitao, another assistant," says former assistant Howie Dickenman. "It was tight city. You could hear every word the other guy was saying. I'd call a kid, and I'd put a finger in my open ear so I couldn't hear Dave. When I was talking, he'd leave the room. He said he couldn't think."
Every recruit was a challenge, every day an adventure. Problems arose from the un-likeliest sources. "There was this rule that you had to use a state car for all trips," Auriemma says. "So I go to the motor pool, and they give me this light blue Chevette, no radio, with the state seal on the door. I go to Queens to see Christ the King, the Number 1 girls' high school team in the country, and the kids who were playing in the game were driving better cars than me. I remember saying, 'No way. I'm going to find some auto dealer and give him tickets, something. Get a car deal.' "
The trick for both coaches was to find kids who were a little too short, a little too slow for the traditional powerhouses. Calhoun and Auriemma sold UConn by dangling that old athletic carrot: challenge. You want a challenge? Come to Connecticut.
"We actually used the opposition to recruit for us," Calhoun says. "The Big East was having some great years, with great players. We'd say, 'Come with us and play against Alonzo Mourning. Or Derrick Coleman. Or Malik Sealy. Play against Georgetown, Syracuse, St. John's. We'd say, 'Come to a place where you're not going to be the next something. Come to a place where you can be the first. This can be your stage.' "