On this day 43 years ago I watched Dwight Clay, wearing a mustard-colored uniform with a big green shamrock on front, hit a baseline jump shot with 29 seconds to play that held up for the winning points in Notre Dame’s 71-70 victory over UCLA, halting the Bruins’ 88-game winning streak.
I watched history being made on a 19-inch TV bolted high on the wall at this little clapboard cubicle we called the Taxi Stand, because it was where taxis in our town were dispatched. It also served as a newsstand where one’s old man stopped to buy a Chicago newspaper on his way to the steel mill.
It may have seemed like a strange place to watch one of the greatest games in college basketball history. But our favorite dispatcher, a thick-necked guy named Phil, would put up newspaper clippings mentioning our high school team in the window, and there were girly magazines in back, and sports magazines in front, and cold Country Time lemonade in the brown and yellow can in the pop machine.
Plus, a guy from the next town named Pete Trgovich was a starting guard for UCLA.
Phil the taxicab dispatcher said we should remember what we had just witnessed, because we probably would never witness anything like it again. The closest anybody has come to matching UCLA’s streak since was UNLV, and the Rebels won “only” 45 in a row in 1990 and 1991.
But in 1974, Phil the taxicab dispatcher could not have envisioned women’s basketball becoming an athletic pastime of some significance. And that this brash kid named Geno Auriemma, born in Italy but raised in the Philadelphia suburbs — hence the brashness — would become the women’s coach at faraway Connecticut in 1985, and guide the team there to a UCLA-like 11 national championships. And not one, not two, but three UCLA-like winning streaks.
The first, from 2001 to 2003, consisted of 70 wins.
The second, from 2008 to 2010, consisted of 90 wins.
The third, from 2014 to who knows when, is 92 wins and counting after UConn’s 98-58 victory Tuesday at Tulsa.
UCONN'S Women's team DESERVE more attention. UNREAL 90 & COUNTING! Geno Auriemma's achievements r OFF THE CHARTS!https://t.co/YquWtzEhrx— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) January 14, 2017
This explains why I spent part of my day catching up with Charlie Baron, who for many years managed our PGA Tour stop when it was mostly called the Las Vegas Invitational. When Tiger Woods or some other Big Bertha would pull out, Charlie was the one you called for a comment. And that’s when Charlie Baron would say that he had news for you, that Ben Hogan wasn’t playing, either.
Charlie is from Connecticut, and I seemed to recall that he had been boyhood friends with Geno Auriemma, or something to that effect. It wasn’t exactly boyhood friends. But Charlie said he has known Geno since he sent his basketball playing daughters to Geno’s camp in Storrs when Geno was first starting out.
“They said they didn’t want to go; I said, ‘It’s already paid for, you’re going,’ ” Charlie Baron said of dropping Stephanie and Stacey, his basketball-playing daughters, on Geno Auriemma’s doorstep when one was in eighth grade and the other in sixth. “When I went to pick them up, they didn’t want to leave. That’s the first time I met (Auriemma), and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Stacey went on to play at Bowdoin. Stephanie became a director for the NCAA women’s tournament, at which she often shares the championship stage with Geno Auriemma.
The friendship between Geno and their father was instrumental in UConn flying to Las Vegas to play the Lady Rebels two days after Christmas in 1997. Connecticut won, 80-47.
Charlie Baron spoke of that game in a raspy voice — not because he is 71 now, but because he still is coaching girls basketball, and he was hoarse after shouting for the Marianapolis Preparatory School girls of Thompson, Connecticut, to get back on defense during practice.
“I remember Geno turning over practice to his assistant Chris Dailey because we had a tee time, and we were out the door,” he said.
Charlie Baron said that what you see is what you get with Geno Auriemma, and that sometimes rubs people the wrong way, but that we probably will never witness another dynasty like the one he has built at Connecticut.
I recalled Phil the taxicab dispatcher saying the same thing in 1974 about John Wooden and UCLA while we drank cold Country Time lemonade out of the brown and yellow can.