This past Dec. 19, an event occurred in the world of women’s basketball that was so unlikely, that it would have been impossible to predict.
After 43 years and 1,379 games, Sylvia Hatchell joined the Division I basketball 1,000-win club with North Carolina’s afternoon victory. Then, just five hours later, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma reached the same mark, after 33 years and 1,135 games. That exclusive club had just three members before that day, with one in men’s basketball.
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt (1098-208; 38 seasons) was the first to reach the mark, in February, 2009. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer (1,021-238; 38 seasons) notched 1,000 in February, 2017, and Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski (1,084-332; 42 years) got there this past November.
But though they have all reached the same milestone, the path of each of these women’s coaches to 1,000 is a story of both contrasts and similarities.
The most similar, most-discussed, and most successful on the national stage are the late Summitt, and Auriemma. Both are and were outspoken, though in different ways. The public Summitt was always willing to talk about the women’s game, to promote it to anyone willing to listen, to play any team that needed an opponent. Auriemma has taken on the role of primary game-promoter and builder over the last decade, who is also willing to play anyone, any time. Of course, because both coaches were likely to win those anyone-anywhere games, it was easier to be so open. Both programs were a measuring stick, as playing Tennessee and then UConn was necessary for any program on the rise.
Auriemma and Summit, between them, have just one losing season (Auriemma’s first), 33 final fours, and 19 National Championships. VanDerveer has won it all twice, and Hatchell once. The Tennessee-Connecticut rivalry between 1995 and 2007, during which the programs played 22 times (UConn 13-9), did more to bring the women’s game to new audiences than anything in the sport’s history. Both coaches had moments of public scowling – on court and towards each other – that many remember.
Both coaches spent their entire coaching careers at a single school. They took unheralded (Summitt) or moribund (Auriemma) programs to the top of the game in pretty short order. Tennessee played in the (first) Final Four eight years after Summitt took over, and won the National Championship five years later. Auriemma’s first Final Four was six years into his tenure, with the first National Championship four years after that.
It is no exaggeration to say that Summitt created women’s college basketball, as the beginning of her career bears no resemblance to the sport we know today. In 1974, the 22-year-old Tennessee-Martin graduate was appointed a graduate assistant at Tennessee-Knoxville, but never served in that role. Prior to the start of the season, coach Margaret Hutson, who actually sported an enviable 60-19 record, resigned to pursue her own graduate studies. Summitt was named head coach of the program, even though she was just a year older than several of her players and had no coaching experience. Title IX was just two years old, and Tennessee high school girls still played the half-court six-on-six game.
In Summitt’s first season the Lady Vols went 16-8, followed the next year by a 16-11 record. After that, Tennessee never again won fewer than 20 games in any season. No Summitt-coached team ever had a losing record. Two years into her coaching career, in 1976, she won a silver medal at the Olympics as a player. She coached six more years before women’s basketball became a sanctioned NCAA sport, with a championship tournament.
Summitt’s coaching style is best described as confrontational. She yelled a lot in her early years, and in her biography, “Reach for The Summit,” she admitted to driving players until they would vomit. She was best known, however, for her frightening “icy” stare, displayed towards players, officials and opponents alike. Like all the coaches here, Summitt demanded excellence for the 161 athletes she coached in those 38 seasons. Nearly all of those players respected her, but not all loved her. Yet, she taught them life lessons, and all graduated from the program, excluding transfers.
Her legacy is that she created a coaching ethos that dominated the NCAA scene for many years, in part by building a culture of success passed down from player to player. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Tennessee was the place for top athletes to play, and Summitt and her stable coaching staff were great at recruiting the old-fashioned way, with praise and flattery.
Maya Moore, who became a flashpoint in the end of the Tennessee-Connecticut rivalry, remembered entering Thompson-Bolling Arena to grand music, her name on a jersey in the rafters, and an announcement that she had led Tennessee to the national championship. Moore eventually signed with Connecticut, where Auriemma told her that she could play if she worked hard enough in practice.
Summitt was aware of her status as basketball royalty, and she was willing to use it to the advantage of her team, though rarely for herself. Her successful intimidation of officials was obvious during the glory years, when her teams won eight national titles. But there was an ego there, as well. She rarely, if ever, accepted personal responsibility for failure, and at times, would chastise players publicly immediately after losses. By contrast, the less-revered Auriemma saves most of his player criticism for post-victory comments, and has occasionally admitted to being out-coached.
In reaching 1,000 wins, Summit was reserved, telling the New York Times, “Never ever did I think I would coach this long, never did I envision this program winning 1,000 games. The fact this program was the first to do it is a great source of pride.”
Summitt guided her teams to sixteen Final Fours, including the first one in 1982, where the Lady Vols lost to eventual winner Louisiana Tech in the semifinal. It was Summitt’s eighth season at the helm. Tennessee returned to the Final Four twice more before they won the first of Summitt’s eight national Championships in 1987.
Her career ended prematurely at the end of the 2012 season, a year after she announced that she suffered from early-onset dementia. Auriemma credited her with changing the game.
“She was the one that everyone tried to emulate,” he said. “That was the program everyone tried to be.”
Former UConn star Diana Taurasi summed up Summitt as well as anyone, telling the AP that “If it wasn’t for her, [UConn] probably wouldn’t be playing in Madison Square Garden. Connecticut never would have been Connecticut. She made people take notice of the sport at a time when it probably wasn’t easy. She forced the hand. She was the one.”
Auriemma is the Philadelphia smart-aleck, often sarcastic (he once labelled Tennessee “the Evil Empire”), and with a very porous filter between his thoughts and his statements. He almost never employs meaningless coach-speak, and his tendency actually to answer the question asked has landed him in trouble more than once. That same openness, however, seems to draw a certain kind of player to him.
His reaction to his own 1,000 win mark was typical of his dry humor.
“I look at the wall when I go to practice [where UConn’s All-American players have banners], and I think, ‘Look at that. Look who’s played here. What took you so long to win a thousand?’” he said on a radio show.
To the fans after the game, he choked up as he said, “We gave everything to this, . . . We put our heart and soul into this. And we’ve got so much more back than we ever deserved. So, thank you!”
Auriemma was born in Montella, Italy, and came to the United States in when he was seven years old. He became a citizen only in 1994, well into his coaching career. While Summitt is the Grand Dame of the sport, Auriemma has won more national titles than any women’s college basketball coach, and he is still going strong. His eleventh National Championship in 2016, the last of four straight, surpassed the legendary John Wooden’s UCLA record. Auriemma’s winning percentage of .882 is more than forty points higher than Summitt’s, who is second all-time. His teams boast six perfect seasons. No other team has more than one.
The superlative numbers just go on. The Huskies, under Auriemma, have winning streaks of 111 and 90 games – the two longest in both women’s and men’s basketball history. UConn also holds the third-longest women’s streak at 70 games.
The Huskies have been to ten straight Final Fours (2008-17), and reached five consecutively another time (2000-04). Tennessee has reached four consecutive Final Fours three times. Stanford and Louisiana Tech each made three in a row.
Auriemma’s recruiting is different in that he promises only that if a player practices hard and translates good practices into on-court production, that the athlete will play. If not, they will not. He has never promised a starting position in order to attract a recruit. He is hardest on his best players in practice, and expects them to be the hardest workers. He routinely plays only six or seven players per game, a few athletes have transferred in recent years because of that method.
But Auriemma is also renowned for making nearly all of his star players even better during their four years with him. WNBA coaches regularly say that UConn players are prepared for the rigors of the pro game coming out of school. And the number one recruits keep committing to the Huskies.
His practices are physically and mentally difficult, and players regularly affirm that games are easier than practices. Of course, that’s the point. Few teams are better-conditioned, and opposing coaches have all-too-often marveled at how their teams tired, but UConn did not.
One of Auriemma’s hidden strengths (for which associate head coach Chris Dailey shares credit), is that, like Summitt, he has created a culture of winning that assumes his teams will out-work their opponents, both on the court and in practice. His players perpetuate “the UConn way,” and the success that has followed shows that he is able to connect with several generations of players.
One reason Auriemma is unpopular with some fans is his blunt speech and tactical use of sarcasm at key times in the season to direct pressure from his players to himself. The “Evil Empire” comment about Tennessee and his statement that “Duke has just as many graduates waiting tables as UConn” were a part of that strategy in two different key matchups. But, of course, some also criticize Auriemma and UConn for winning “too much,” a phrase which would never be heard in any other sport than women’s basketball.
The bottom line on Auriemma is that he has the best winning record by every possible measure in the history of college basketball.
VanDerveer is a study in contrast to her better-known peers. She amassed her wins at three schools, Idaho (42-14; 2 years), Ohio State (110-37; 5 years) and Stanford (869-187;32 years). Like Auriemma, she’s coached just one losing season – her first at Stanford. She also quickly developed the Cardinal to sustained excellence from historic mediocrity. VanDerveer’s serious, almost staid court demeanor, her dislike of controversy, her team’s West Coast location, and her genuine public reticence, leave her somewhat less well-known than Auriemma and Summitt. But she should not be.
Her Stanford teams have 12 Final Four appearances, including seven of the last ten, and they have lost in the National Championship twice. In 2008, Stanford lost to Tennessee and Summitt (her eighth and last title). In 2010, they lost to Connecticut and Auriemma (his seventh of eleven). But, hey, who remembers the second-place team?
The Cardinal have made the NCAA tournament every year but the first two of VanDerveer’s tenure. Sure, they have won it all just twice (1990, 1992), and the most recent was twenty-five years ago. But then again, only 15 programs have ever won the tournament at all, and only 6 more than once (UConn, Tennessee, Baylor, Stanford, Louisiana Tech, Southern California). VanDerveer has sustained excellence that includes 22 regular-season Pac-12 titles; 12 conference championships and 29 trips to the NCAA Tournament. Before falling out of the AP top 25 poll in December, Stanford had lived there for 17 seasons.
That dominance may have been depressing to the other conference teams, but without question, it also has been the driving force to elevate other programs to a higher level of competition. The Pac-12 has become, on VanDerveer’s coattails, a true Power-five conference in women’s basketball.
Summitt was a fiery sideline presence, always moving, always shouting out plays, letting the officials know they were horribly wrong. Auriemma was the same way until just recently, when he has been less dramatic as a game coach. But a signature of the Connecticut sideline is Dailey (who has shared all of his wins) holding back Auriemma from what looks like an imminent attack on an official. Hatchell and Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, who is sitting on 993 career wins, are known for their drama on the sidelines as well.
Not so for VanDerveer. Mostly, she sits. No stalking of the sideline. No walking out onto the court, or past the coach’s restraint line. She mostly leaves the plays to her players, who, after all, got into Stanford. This restrained approach does not engender lots of coach-focused highlights on ESPN. Then again, like a soft-spoken person who suddenly shouts, VanDerveer’s rare moments of demonstrative activity probably get more in-game attention from players and officials than the white-noise of other coach’s constant complaining.
“Our team won’t believe this but I am really speechless,” VanDerveer said after reaching the milestone. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful journey for me. . . . This is a very big highlight of many highlights.”
VanDerveer quite simply, is respected. Almost nobody in the game doesn’t like her. Almost nobody has an unkind word to say about her, which is certainly not true of an uncensored extrovert like Auriemma. It may make her seem boring or aloof, and little is known about her personal life (except that she loves to play piano). But in women’s basketball world, pretty much everyone would like some time with VanDerveer.
She found her way into the field by hard work. With minimal coaching experience, but a lot of time studying the coaching style of Bobby Knight when she played at Indiana, she was hired to coach a poor Idaho team in 1978. She quickly lead them to consecutive winning seasons and a berth in the AIAW tournament for the first time. Her success led her to Ohio State, where she again took just two seasons to qualify her team for the first NCAA tournament. Despite a 23-7 record and a tie in the Big Ten conference, Ohio State was left out of the 36-team pool the next year, but made the tournament in both her final years in the Big Ten.
When Stanford recruited her, she had just won the Big Ten four straight years. The Pac-10 conference had not yet been formed, and the Cardinal were not a major program, with a 14-42 record the previous two years. Nonetheless, VanDerveer was enticed by the warmth of the Stanford campus and its academic excellence. She took the plunge, and had the only losing season of her career, in 1986. Two years later she took Stanford to the Sweet Sixteen, and two years after that to the first of two national titles. Stanford has been in the NCAA tournament every year since.
Her teams are precise, good-passing teams that excel at running offense without reliance on fast-break opportunities. Known for her almost studious calm on the sideline, her teams reflect that same calmness and discipline under pressure. Further, unlike any of the other schools represented by these coaches, Stanford claims to require its student-athletes to gain admission before they can receive an athletic scholarship. While this guarantees that her players will be smart, it could limit the pool of possible recruits.
But that has not apparently been much of a hurdle for VanDerveer’s recruiting or success. And part of that success includes a commitment to USA Basketball, where she coached Team USA to a gold medal in the infamous 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Yet, her decision to take a full year off to develop and coach that dominant team probably hurt recruiting for a full season. Although the Cardinal still reached the NCAA tournament that year, the seasons those recruits would have been most active, 1998-2001 were the worst tournament finishes of VanDerveer’s career. The team’s 29 victories during the 1995-96 season are not counted in VanDerveer’s win numbers.
Hatchell, who beat Auriemma to the 1,000-win mark by a few hours, may need an asterisk to her record. Unlike the other 1,000-game winners, 272 of her wins were at the Division II level with Francis Marion University (1975-1986). Should she be considered in this group? If so, should we also consider Barbara Stevens of Bentley College, who reached the 1,000-win plateau last month? She won all but 34 of those games at the Division II level.
Whatever should be the tally, Hatchell’s story fits in here somewhere. Although no coach can win 1,000 games without steel in her spine, Hatchell has always been perceived as somehow different. Her flowing attire, her positive approach, her relative patience with officials – all depict her as a calmer, perhaps less-demanding, coach than her elevated peers. Maybe it’s just the light blue outfits that make her appear to be less intense than she really is. She would tell you differently.
“I’m so competitive,” she said after her milestone win. “Oh, my gosh. I am not a good loser, and I hope I never become one. But I’m not a good loser.”
“Numbers don’t really mean that much to me. I just want to win the next game, and how are we performing? But I still love the game. I was telling the staff before the game, ‘I still get so nervous.’ It’s a good nervous, but I still get so nervous.”
Her approach to recruiting has frequently been to fill her roster with outstanding athletes whose basketball skills may need development, rather than picking off the top of the high school recruiting classes. And it has been successful, in a more subdued way.
Her DI teams have been to just three Final Fours, and the Tar Heels won a single National Championship, in 1994. That game featured a miraculous finish, as Charlotte Smith hit a three-pointer as time expired for a one-point win over Louisiana Tech – a Final Four moment second only to Mississippi State’s 2016 overtime buzzer-beater by Morgan William to defeat UConn in the semifinals. As a side note, North Carolina beat Connecticut in the regional final 24 years ago to reach the Final Four.
The Tar Heels under Hatchell have won eight ACC titles and compiled six 30-win seasons. It is impressive, though fewer than the Siummitt, Auriemma and VanDerveer. Hatchell has done it was grace and humor, rarely taking center stage. She prefers her players to have the spotlight, and the press has largely cooperated.
In fact, Hatchell may be best-known for her year-long successful fight against cancer during the 2013-14 season. She remained head coach while undergoing chemotherapy, and was at least an advisor in practices and game planning. She was not, however, present on the sidelines for most of an entire season. North Carolina’s 27 wins that year are included in her total.
Finally, we have Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, who has not won a national title but currently has 996 career wins, and only the Big Ten Tournament left to play. This year the Scarlet Knights began strong after many down seasons, which brought to mind the days of old when the team regularly went deep into the NCAA Tournament. But they finished ninth in the Big Ten with a 7-9 record. Unless they go deep into the conference tournament and make it to the NCAA Tournament, Stringer will not join the 1,000 club this season.
When she does make it, Stringer will be the oldest in the club at 69, with 45 years of coaching experience. She therefore also has the lowest win percentage (a still formidable .716) of the 1,000-win group. She is also the only woman of color among the ranks The daughter of a coal miner (really), she grew up in the western Pennsylvania coal region, and attended Slippery Rock State University (really) near her childhood home, where she was a four-sport athlete.
Stringer has always emphasized defense over everything else, and her best teams have been physical, pesky, and successful at disrupting the opposition. But she also has too often handcuffed her best players by forcing them to play a clock-burning, deliberate, low-possession style often unsuited to their athleticism and shooting prowess. Her best teams have played with a chip on their shoulders, and a “no prisoners” court attitude.
The loquacious Stinger is famous for her post-game comments, which are either dryly humorous or totally incomprehensible, filled with run-on, stream-of-consciousness sentences that are often hard to quote or decipher. Maybe that is intentional, or maybe it is just her. But her players seem to get it, and Rutgers teams are famous for their relentless and physical play.
Both of Rutgers’ Final Four losses have been to Tennessee, including a 13-point loss in the 2007 National Championship game – the culmination of the lowest-scoring Final Four on record, in which no team scored more than 59 points. North Carolina was Tennessee’s other victim that April.
Rutgers has fallen on hard times, in a relative sense, failing to make the NCAAs in three of the last seven years, and falling in the first or second rounds during each of those four appearances.
1. Win-loss records are as of Dec. 17.
2. Division II coach Barbara Stevens reached 1,000 wins on January 17, 2018. Stevens coached just three seasons in Division I (Massachusetts, 1983-86), securing a 34-49 record.]