Inside UConn basketball’s flight to Oregon and the ‘interesting’ chat between Geno Auriemma and Dan Hurley

Photo of David Borges

PORTLAND, Ore. — For their 6 1/2-hour flight from Hartford on Tuesday, Dan Hurley and Geno Auriemma sat across the aisle from each other on UConn's 757 chartered plane.

In between watching film of their upcoming opponents at the Phil Knight tournaments, the respective UConn men's and women's basketball coaches engaged in some "interesting conversations," per Auriemma.

"It goes a lot of places," the Hall of Fame coach noted. "It's all interesting, though."

Suffice to say, it went a lot better than the last time the UConn men's and women's teams shared a chartered flight. 

That would have been 27 years ago, when Auriemma was in his 10th season as the women's coach and the men's program was still headed by future Hall-of-Famer Jim Calhoun. The teams flew out together to Kansas City for a doubleheader against the Kansas men's and women's teams on Jan. 28, 1995 at Kemper Arena. 

The No. 1-ranked UConn women topped Kansas 97-87. The No. 2-ranked men's squad got blitzed by 29 points to the ninth-ranked Jayhawks.

If the flight out to Kansas City was already a bit awkward, given the icy relationship between Calhoun and Auriemma, the flight home was downright freezing.

"I was in a bad mood, the kids, because of me, were in a bad mood," Calhoun recalled. "One team celebrated, and the other team was not in a great mood."

In fact, the women's team's celebration was largely muted on the flight home, Auriemma sitting quietly at the back of the plane.

"They won, we lost, and I honestly didn't have a great time on the plane," Calhoun continued. "We had conflicting viewpoints on the world at that particular point. I don't mean the women and men, I just mean how the game turned out and how each team felt about itself."

"It could have been worse," the coach added. "It could have been a five-hour bus trip. I've been through worse things in my life."

In many ways, the relationship between the men's and women's programs couldn't be much better these days. The teams are staying at the same hotel this week, and though their respective schedules may not lead to a lot of interaction over the next few days, they'll do their best. Both teams attended a banquet at Nike's headquarters about a half-hour out of the city on Wednesday night, where Nike founder Phil Knight, whose 85th birthday is the premise of this tournament, was expected to speak.

On Thursday, the women's team will attend the men's 8 p.m. game against Oregon.

There is a great deal of mutual respect between Hurley and Auriemma. Hurley appreciated his conversation with Auriemma on Tuesday's flight, asking most of the questions about "bigger picture things" like program-building and coaching in the current culture.

"For me, it's a chance to talk to like a Coach Calhoun or my dad (Bob), all-time great coaches," Hurley said. "He's a great resource, man. You're stuck on a 6 1/2-hour flight, to be able to steal some knowledge from an all-timer ..."

Auriemma clearly has great respect for Hurley and his staff, with whom he intends to spend some time.

"I know (assistant coaches) Kimani (Young) and Luke (Murray) are cheap," Auriemma quipped, in classic Auriemma fashion, "so I brought the cigars."

He said most of his conversation with Hurley centered on how their jobs were similar in many ways, and the challenges they present in these days of the NCAA transfer portal and Name, Image and Likeness (NIL). 

"We're all dealing with things we've never had to deal with before," Auriemma noted. "We're all trying to figure out how best to deal with it. We covered a lot of topics, believe me. A ton of stuff."

But imparting any coaching advice to Hurley was not one of them.

"He's got a great staff, he's got a helluva team," Auriemma noted. "He loves his team. I don't think he needs any help from me. They're really, really good. I wouldn't be surprised if they win the whole thing."

Told about this, Hurley was flattered.

"There would be more pressure," he noted, "if people thought we stunk and we had no shot."

There is one major difference between the two programs.

"I think he envies our situation, because if I recruit a great, great player, I'm going to have her for four years," Auriemma noted. "If he recruits a great player, like a couple that he has now, he may not have them for four years. He said, 'You're going to get the best of Azzi (Fudd) or Paige (Bueckers), those guys. Their junior or senior year, you're going to get the best they have to offer. Somebody else is gonna have the best of my guys who leave after their sophomore year. We don't get their best. They're just learning how to play. Somebody else down the road is getting their best.'"

Two coaches, two programs with plenty of similarities and some significant differences. But without question, a much better relationship than 27 years ago. @DaveBorges