NEW YORK -- UCLA’s 88-game winning streak had just been snapped by Notre Dame in 1974 when Bruins coach John Wooden was asked how long it would be before somebody beat the streak.
“I have no idea how long it will be before somebody else wins that many. I know it takes at least three years,” he replied.
Try nearly 37 years. And the University of Connecticut women’s team can do it tonight.
Coach Geno Auriemma and his players -- just Huskies, never the Lady Huskies -- have been so dominant that some in the sports world have even suggested their overwhelming success is no good for the game.
Auriemma took the debate a step further Sunday after UConn’s 88th straight win, questioning whether there is a gender bias against his team.
“The reason everybody is having a heart attack the last four or five days is a bunch of women are threatening to break a men’s record, and everybody is all up in arms about it,” he said.
There is no dispute, however, that the streak has raised the profile of women’s basketball by daring to compare UConn’s accomplishment to one of the most revered numbers in sports history orchestrated by one of its most hallowed figures.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the time, the era, the competitive balance -- whatever your take on it is, you can put any spin you want on it,” Auriemma said. “You can make it better, the same or less -- it’s just a matter of how you look at it.”
UCLA great Bill Walton, who was instrumental in the Bruins’ run, said his former coach -- who died earlier this year -- was aware of UConn’s streak.
“The women leave better than when they enter,” Walton told The Associated Press last year. “We couldn’t be happier for them and couldn’t be more proud. I encourage them to enjoy it while it lasts.”
While no men’s team has approached UCLA’s record set from 1971-74, Auriemma and UConn once came close. The Huskies won 70 straight in the early 2000s before tripping up against Villanova. That was a record that many thought would never be achieved again.
Until now. UConn, which hasn’t lost since the 2008 NCAA tournament, will pass UCLA with a win over No. 22 Florida State on Tuesday night.
“I like to remind my players all the time, you don’t stumble and bumble into the history book,” Auriemma said. “You’ll have to do it the right way if you want to get in there. It may not come again.”
These two great programs were linked even before Connecticut’s win over Ohio State on Sunday matched UCLA’s mark.
“Did you see all those layups we got today? Some of those backdoor cuts and some of that really cool stuff that we were doing?” Auriemma asked. “Get the tape, go break it down, and find out what UCLA was running 37 years ago and you’ll see the exact same stuff. So really, how much have things changed.”
It’s not just the X’s and O’s that Auriemma has adopted from Wooden. It’s also the pursuit of excellence. The top block of Wooden’s pyramid of success reads: “Competitive Greatness: Perform at your best when your best is required. Your best is required every day.”
In the last decade, which includes three perfect seasons, six NCAA championships, a slew of All-Americans and many sold-out crowds and appearances on national television, Auriemma’s teams rarely seem to let down. UConn hasn’t lost consecutive games in more than 17 years.
“One thing that’s non-negotiable is that the one thing we have in common is we settle for nothing less than the absolute best we give you every single night. They did it and we’re doing it. Everything else to me is meaningless,” Auriemma said.
UConn’s feat has left an impression on coaches across the sport. Even those who have had a somewhat frosty relationship with Auriemma can’t help marveling at his team.
“It should be really applauded for an incredible accomplishment in what they’ve done,” UConn men’s coach Jim Calhoun said Sunday. “Nobody in their sport has done it and I don’t think anybody, by the way, ever will, including them. I don’t think (UConn) can repeat, even. The game’s getting better. It’s just an incredible accomplishment.”
High praise from a Hall of Fame coach, who casts a pretty big shadow himself on the campus in Storrs.
Calhoun highly regards coaches C. Vivian Stringer of Rutgers and Pat Summitt of Tennessee, but said UConn’s winning numbers speak for themselves.
“It’s proving very simply that they’re the greatest women’s program in the history of women’s basketball,” Calhoun said. “The streak is the greatest women’s feat that you can have.”
Summitt, who won’t play UConn anymore in the regular season because of a feud with Auriemma, recently lauded the achievement.
“Obviously, they’ve had tremendous success,” she said. “They know how to win. To break that record is amazing.”