Geno Auriemma and John Wooden

Geno Auriemma and his UConn Huskies should rightly be enormously proud of their accomplishments. But comparing them to John Wooden's is embarrassing.

Geno Auriemma and his UConn Huskies have won a remarkable 88 straight games, matching the mark legendary John Wooden’s UCLA teams set from 1971-74.   He’s angry that he’s getting so little attention:

After win No. 88 in a row was in the books, Geno Auriemma finally let loose: He thinks some people are rooting against his record-setting players because of their gender.

“I just know there wouldn’t be this many people in the room if we were chasing a woman’s record,” the Connecticut coach said Sunday near the end of his postgame news conference. “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.”

Already with no equal in women’s basketball, UConn won its 88th straight game Sunday to match the men’s streak set by coach John Wooden and his UCLA teams from 1971-74. The top-ranked Huskies routed Ohio State (No. 10 ESPN/USA Today, No. 11 AP) 81-50 in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden.

“All the women are happy as hell and they can’t wait to come in here and ask questions. All the guys that loved women’s basketball are all excited, and all the miserable bastards that follow men’s basketball and don’t want us to break the record are all here because they’re pissed,” Auriemma said. “That’s just the way it is.”

[…]

“Because we’re breaking a men’s record, we’ve got a lot of people paying attention,” Auriemma said. “If we were breaking a women’s record, everybody would go, ‘Aren’t those girls nice, let’s give them two paragraphs in USA Today, you know, give them one line on the bottom of ESPN and then let’s send them back where they belong, in the kitchen.'”

If this is some bizarre motivational technique to keep his team focused, fine.  But if he really thinks this, he’s a friggin’ idiot.

Frankly, the fact that anyone is talking about this “record” as if he’s about to “break” it is the outrage.

Auriemma is a great, great basketball coach.   He’d be a great coach if he were to take over a major men’s program.  And his team has set new standards for the women’s game.  He and they should rightly be enormously proud of their accomplishments.

But let’s not pretend that this streak will really break Wooden’s, any more than that Pat Summitt’s career victory total is really comparable to Bob Knight’s or Dean Smith’s, or anymore than Sadahuru Oh’s 868 home runs actually puts him ahead of Barry Bonds* or Hank Aaron.   It’s ain’t the same ballpark, ain’t the same league, and ain’t even the same sport.

Women’s teams compete in their own segregated league.  They don’t compete against the men’s teams.  We therefore can’t legitimately compare accomplishments of the women’s games against the men’s any more than we compare records in the National Football League, Canadian Football League, and Arena Football League.   Or Little League and the Major Leagues.

And, while today’s players on the elite women’s teams are light years better than they were twenty years ago, they’re simply not remotely on the same talent level as their male counterparts.  Oh would have doubtless been a star player in the Major leagues, just as Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki were.  Several players from both the CFL and AFL have gone on to play at Hall of Fame level in the NFL.  Thus far, the number of female players to make an NBA squad stands at zero.  (And don’t tell me it’s discrimination.  If there were a woman player who could plausibly make the bench, an enterprising owner would snap her up for the publicity value.)

Aside from women’s college basketball being less than a minor league, it’s not even internally competitive.  A handful of teams have dominated over the years, with two standing out from the pack.

Since the women’s tournament began in 1982, here is the list of championship games:

    1982 Louisiana Tech 76-62 Cheyney State
    1983 USC 69-67 Louisiana Tech
    1984 USC 72-61 Tennessee
    1985 Old Dominion 70-65 Georgia
    1986 Texas 97-81 USC
    1987 Tennessee 67-44 Louisiana Tech
    1988 Louisiana Tech 56-54 Auburn
    1989 Tennessee 76-70 Auburn
    1990 Stanford 88-81 Auburn
    1991 Tennessee 70-67 (OT) Virginia
    1992 Stanford 78-62 Western Kentucky
    1993 Texas Tech 84-82 Ohio State
    1994 North Carolina 60-59 Louisiana Tech
    1995 Connecticut 70-64 Tennessee
    1996 Tennessee 83-65 Georgia
    1997 Tennessee 68-59 Old Dominion
    1998 Tennessee 93-75 Louisiana Tech
    1999 Purdue 62-45 Duke
    2000 Connecticut 71-52 Tennessee
    2001 Notre Dame 68-66 Purdue
    2002 Connecticut 82-70 Oklahoma
    2003 Connecticut 73-68 Tennessee
    2004 Connecticut 70-61 Tennessee
    2005 Baylor 84-62 Michigan State
    2006 Maryland 78-75 (OT) Duke
    2007 Tennessee 59-46 Rutgers
    2008 Tennessee 64-48 Stanford
    2009 Connecticut 76-54 Louisville
    2010 Connecticut 53-47 Stanford

Pat Summitt’s Tennessee teams have been dominant over this era, winning eight championships, appearing in another five finals games, and a total of 18 Final Four appearances.  They’ve not missed the tournament in its history.

Auriemma started coaching at UConn in 1985 and has arguably surpassed Summitt at this stage.  His teams have won seven championships and 11 Final Four appearances and have not missed the tourney since first making it in 1988-89.

Since 1987, when Tennessee won it’s first title, these two teams have accounted for fifteen of twenty-three championships.   Indeed, they’ve faced each other in the championship game four times.  (And, it’s worth noting, Louisiana Tech accounts for another three championships and five title game appearances.)

And this probably overstates the competitiveness of the women’s game.  A long, single-elimination tournament means that the best teams frequently don’t win.  And the vagaries of brackets means that Tennessee and UConn have likely faced each other in the earlier rounds with some frequency.

The men’s tournament has been going on since 1939.  But, if we just look at the championship games from 1982 forward, winners include:  North Carolina (4), Duke (4), Kansas (2), Connecticut (2), Florida (2), North Carolina State, Georgetown, Villanova, Louisville, Indiana,  Michigan, UNLV, Arkansas, UCLA, Kentucky, Michigan State, Maryland, and Syracuse.  That’s 18 winners over 28 years.  And it took 11 games to get to the first duplicate winner.

In fairness, UCLA absolutely dominated the tourney in the Wooden era, winning 10 titles in a 12 year span from 1964 to 1975.   But that was an indication of his dominance as a recruiter and tactician.  In the entire history  before Wooden’s streak, champions included Kentucky (4), Oklahoma A&M (2), San Francisco (2), Cincinnati (2), Oregon, Indiana, Wisconsin, Stanford, Wyoming, Utah,  Holy Cross,  CCNY, Kansas, Indiana, La Salle, California, Ohio State, and Loyola-Chicago.

Wooden’s streak will almost certainly never be matched on the men’s side.  Not only have rules changes made the game more competitive than ever, with even the “mid-majors” able to recruit blue chip talent, but players now bolt to the NBA after a single year, maybe two.  In Wooden’s day, freshmen weren’t eligible to play but almost everyone stayed in school for four years.    On the women’s side, conversely, players almost all stay for the whole four years and play as freshmen.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Peter says:

    It is significant that women’s college basketball is not internally competitive. For that reason alone I would not consider Auriemma’s achievement to match Wooden’s.

    What is harder to evaluate is the fact that women players are not on the same talent level as the men. While that’s unquestionably true, I cannot help thinking of the fact that Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather are the top boxers today even though neither one would stand much of a chance against a ranked heavyweight. We recognize pound-for-pound champions in boxing and MMA, it might be sensible to do something analogous in basketball – which just might lead the top women players to be considered the equals of many men.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Peter,

    The “best pound for pound” analogy is interesting. I’m not a huge boxing fan — it moved from a major sport in my early youth to a weird niche sport available only on pay per view — but I don’t think we compare records and whatnot across weight classes?

    And, for that matter, most people have no idea who the champions are in the lower weight classes. It’s really only middleweights and above that get any attention.

  3. Trumwill says:

    Leaving aside the talent of the players themselves, women’s basketball is (like college hockey and baseball) less competitive on an institutional level. UConn and North Dakota don’t need to invest nearly as much in women’s basketball and college hockey in order to get a leg up and attract the best recruits. That’s why a lot of universities that can’t compete in the main sports (UConn doesn’t apply here, but other schools do) will throw their support behind relatively unexplored sports. It’s easier to succeed there.

  4. Trumwill says:

    All of which is to say that I agree with James’s comments with an added emphasis on the second part, the lack of internal competitiveness. The fact that the players aren’t as good is not as much of a factor for me.

  5. If anyone is obsessed with gender it sounds like Geno.

  6. Peter says:

    And, for that matter, most people have no idea who the champions are in the lower weight classes. It’s really only middleweights and above that get any attention.

    Not really true anymore. Featherweight (126 pounds) through welterweight (147 pounds) get the bulk of fan attention these days. Light heavyweight (175 pounds) is the only larger division that seems particularly popular, and that’s in large part because of Bernard Hopkins. Few people except the most die-hard boxing fans care about the heavyweights anymore.

  7. M1EK says:

    Yes, the part of James’ comments that begin with: “Aside from women’s college basketball being less than a minor league, it’s not even internally competitive.” is OK. Everything before that is hogwash. If womens’ basketball were equally competitive with mens’; COACHING a womens’ team to this many victories in a row would be precisely as difficult as coaching a mens’ team to that many victories in a row.

    And UConn plays a tough schedule too, by the way.

  8. Ugh says:

    Maybe it’s a basketball thing. Celtics/Lakers have won 33 of 64 championships. Starting in 1980, Lakers have won a third of the championships, and appeared in more than half.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Ugh: The NBA has a number of important differences:

    – Far fewer teams

    – Best of 7 playoffs, which rewards the best team and makes fluke loss next to impossible vice single-elimination tourneys

    – Much more stability, with superstars tending to stay put.

    But, yes, basketball is more likely to have less competitiveness than other sports simply because only 5 players start and 2 or 3 stars can truly dominate.

    @M1EK: Not hogwash. We simply don’t compare stats across leagues. Nobody looks at Don Shula’s wins as against Bobby Cox’ or Phil Jackson’s. Or, if we do compare — say, Brett Favre’s consecutive games streak against Cal Ripken’s — it’s not on the basis of the number of games but the relative difficulty of achieving the feats given the nature of the two sports.

  10. Don L says:

    Stick with politics James, where you are often (but not always) right. Calling Geno an idiot reflect more upon you than he. I smell just touch of macho superiority here.

    What the great Geno story is about is that he takes on quality persons and turns them into quality players – not the in-you-face-angry arrogant players that are destroying male sports everywhere today. Geno turns them into the best players possible -but they also score well as persons and in the classroom. On the other hand we have that men’s hall of fame coach here in CT who fought to put his favorite felons back on the court lest he have a bad season. You should be able to recognize the difference and be praising Geno who has pinned down the discrimination by macho types like you, perfectly.

  11. James Joyner says:

    Don,

    There’s much to praise about Auriemma and his student athletes and, indeed, women’s sports in general. And, yes, there are many ways in which they compare favorably to their male counterparts.

    But it’s just silly to compare the number of wins achieved by women’s teams playing against women’s teams to those by men’s teams playing against men’s teams. There’s simply no other venue where we claim that someone in one completely separate league has “broken a record” set by someone in another league.

    When a player moves from AAA to the Majors, we start his stats from scratch rather than carrying them over. When a player goes from the CFL to the NFL — or, vice versa for that matter — we don’t count the states from the other league.

  12. Don L says:

    A heavy guage shotgun and a large calibre rifle might be compared as to recoil being similar, but no one is saying the shotgun shoots as far or as accurately as the rifle. Comparisons (correlations) are made all the time in science labs with far less similarity.

    I suggest that the acheivements are similar, but not identical. You can’t argue that an apple isn’t fruit just because it isn’t as large as a watermelon and that’s what I’m hearing about the men/women bit.

    And I still remember Billy Jean King and Bobby riggs (insert smiley face here_____)

  13. James Joyner says:

    And I still remember Billy Jean King and Bobby riggs (insert smiley face here_____)

    Indeed, that made-for-television event in which the dominant female player on the planet was pitted against a 55-year-old man some quarter century past his prime?

  14. Charlie R says:

    Terrific article. Gino really blew a chance to get recognition for the players and program. He instead decided to be a blowhard.

  15. rodney dill says:

    You might as well claim they’ve beat the ’72 Miami Dolphins record more than 5 times over.

  16. Don L says:

    A quote about John wooden from Wooden’s grandson who was at the record breaking game.:

    “…he said( John wooden) that in the last ten years that the best basketball played at the collegiate level was played by women.”

    Maybe we’d need to argue with the guy who held the best men’s record ever about comparisons….

    Apologies accepted anytime….

  17. James Joyner says:

    DonL:

    Even Geno admits that it’s absurd to compare the men’s and women’s games in that, of course, the best men would dominate the best women. (See yesterday’s PTI.)

    What Wooden was saying — and I totally concur — is that the elite women’s teams play basketball the way it was meant to be played. They’re much more fundamentally sound and team oriented than comparable male teams. The men are much more physically dominant but they play “me-first” ball. It also doesn’t help that the very best are now “one and done,” meaning they don’t have four years to congeal as a team.

    That doesn’t mean that a random Division II men’s team wouldn’t beat Geno’s UConn team. It’s apples and oranges.