Commentary

Dailey and Geno: an incredible team

'Longest running odd couple in basketball' has won seven NCAA titles

Originally Published: March 29, 2012
By Graham Hays | espnW

University of Connecticut associate coach Chris Dailey is either one of the longest-tenured assistant coaches in women's college basketball or its most frequently rehired.

It kind of depends on how seriously you choose to take head coach Geno Auriemma when he talks about the person who, among many duties, works with the Huskies' post players.

"With this group that we have right now, and our post players and who they are right now, she's gotten fired at least once every practice, maybe twice every game, and she won't leave," Auriemma quipped a day after he and Dailey advanced to their 13th Final Four together. "So I'm kind of thinking that she really likes these kids. I was trying like hell to get rid of her because I didn't think our post players would ever amount to anything this year."

Suffice to say, we would not be where we are -- I would not be where I am -- without what Chris has done for me personally as a coach and for our program in general.

-- Geno Auriemma on associate head coach Chris Dailey

Come on, who wouldn't want to put up with that for the better part of three decades?

Most recognizable to many fans at this time of year as the tall, slender woman stepping between a raging Auriemma and whichever referee happens to be the target of his equally biting -- if less jovial -- comments on the sideline during games, Dailey is in her 27th season alongside her boss at Connecticut. Among Final Four assistant coaches, only Stanford associate coach Amy Tucker has been at one school for as long. By way of comparison, the six assistants for Baylor and Notre Dame have a combined total of 32 seasons of consecutive service as assistant coaches at those schools.

A standout player at Rutgers in the pre-NCAA days of the AIAW, Dailey subsequently worked as an assistant at Cornell and her alma mater before she joined Auriemma in the hills of Connecticut at what was then a basketball backwater. These days, Dailey is famous enough in her own right in the Nutmeg State that she appears in commercials and on billboards as much as almost any Connecticut resident this side of Auriemma or Connecticut men's coach Jim Calhoun. In those days, she was an anonymous assistant for a program with one winning season to its credit when she and Auriemma arrived.

Different in so many obvious ways, they are alike as basketball perfectionists. She understands where he is coming from, which is more than half the battle with Auriemma.

"Our philosophy of how things should be done is very similar, and that's why we work well together," Dailey said. "How to get it done varies. But I understand him in terms of he has a vision in his head and we will do things over and over and over again until the vision in his head is what he sees on the court. Sometimes that's hours. Some teams, it's minutes. But that's him. Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness. One of our greatest strengths is we'll stay on the same thing over and over and over again until we get it right.

[+] EnlargeChris Dailey
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireChris Dailey is in her 27th season assisting Geno Auriemma at Connecticut. They've been to 13 Final Fours and won seven NCAA titles.

"One of our greatest weaknesses is we stay on the same thing over and over and over again until we get it right. It goes both ways."

During games, Dailey is in some respects an interpreter. Auriemma might snap a few words at a player exiting the game after a mistake. If he's truly ticked off, he'll pause a beat, turn back toward the bench and offer a second, stinging salvo. But then his attention turns back to the game, and it's Dailey whom the player sits next to on the bench for a slightly longer, and less vociferous, critique. But to paint it as merely a good cop-bad cop routine is to sell Dailey well short. She might be skilled at playing peacemaker, but there is a way she looks at you -- through you, really -- with the faintest hint of a grin that can be unnerving in its intensity. Cross her and you get the feeling you might wish for Auriemma's wrath instead.

"She's like our mother hen," fourth-year post player Heather Buck said. "She's our mom away from home. She makes sure we're dressing right, we're acting right, we're going to class, we're taking care of things in class. We'll all complain because she gets on us, but it's out of love. She's making sure we're doing all the right things that we need to do to get to where we want to be. It's like that on the court and off the court. She is, she's really tough on you, but in the end, all she really wants is for you to work hard and give her everything you can.

"She's just like [Auriemma] in that, where they just want everything that you've got in you and everything you've got to give, and they will give back everything they have in return."

Mock dismissals aside, Auriemma said the last time he thought Dailey might leave was several years ago when a job opened that he knew she wanted but ultimately didn't get. Since that time she has rarely been at the forefront of many hiring rumors -- largely, it seems, a reflection of the sense that she isn't looking to move. There was a fresh round of rumors in recent weeks that linked her to the opening at Providence, but she squelched such talk. A fear of complacency comes up repeatedly when she talks about her outlook on coaching, but she finds new challenges in Storrs or on the recruiting trail, where one of the two key figures in winning seven national championships will seek out advice from peers on new ways to do work with players, coaches and even office staff.

She's our mom away from home. She makes sure we're dressing right, we're acting right, we're going to class, we're taking care of things in class. We'll all complain because she gets on us, but it's out of love. She's making sure we're doing all the right things that we need to do to get to where we want to be.

-- UConn post Heather Buck on associate head coach Chris Dailey

"I think I probably think more like, 'What do I need to be better at? Where do I need to improve? What do I need to do a better job of?' Whether it's here or somewhere else, that's my thinking," Dailey said when asked how often she has weighed the pros and cons of staying or going. "My mindset is, how can I be better? Next year's team, what are they going to need more of from me to be successful?"

And so the longest-running odd couple in basketball rolls along toward a fourth decade together on the sideline.

"I know for me personally, as I've gotten older, I'm not as inflexible," Dailey said during the Kingston Regional. "I guess I could say I'm more flexible than I was with things. I see things a little differently."

Unbeknownst to her, minutes earlier in a different room in the University of Rhode Island's Ryan Center, Auriemma had suggested that he grows less and less patient with his players with each passing year. While once he might have explained why he wanted them to do something, he now just wants them to do it and stop asking for explanations. With age, he grew more and more inflexible.

So how did Dailey explain the juxtaposition of her flexibility with his perhaps exaggerated crotchety rigidity?

"He's just miserable all the time," Dailey deadpanned.

From working with the post players to playing mother hen to coordinating the recruiting efforts that keep landing both stars like Maya Moore and incoming freshman Breanna Stewart to selfless role players like Kelly Faris and Kalana Greene, Dailey's imprint on the program is obvious. Perhaps nowhere more so than in allowing Auriemma to be himself for the past 27 seasons.

"She's such a presence in our program that I would venture to say it's probably more significant, more impactful than the majority of head coaches have on their program, wherever they're coaching," Auriemma said, sans sarcasm. "Suffice to say, we would not be where we are -- I would not be where I am -- without what Chris has done for me personally as a coach and for our program in general."

Having lost much of two seasons to knee injuries during her time at Connecticut, fourth-year guard Caroline Doty has both observed the coaches at work -- sitting in street clothes next to Dailey and within easy earshot of Auriemma when she was injured -- and been the subject of their full, withering attention as a starter when healthy.

"They have a special relationship that not many head coach, assistant coaches have," Doty said. "I think it's something special. And I think it definitely results in the success of this program."

No matter how often he tries to fire her.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.