"Look," says Geno Auriemma, leaning forward in his chair, gripping a pen in each hand. He's just spent a minute scouring his desk for props. The man has a point to make. Auriemma, 56, the Hall of Fame women's basketball coach at the University of Connecticut, is getting increasingly agitated as the Huskies approach a revered milestone, one that sits alongside Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in the sports pantheon: the 88-game winning streak that the UCLA men's basketball team, coached by the late, legendary John Wooden, put together in the early 1970s. So too are fans in sports bars, newsrooms and living rooms, some of whom are hoping UConn chokes before passing UCLA on Dec. 21, against Florida State. They recall those great UCLA teams with Bill Walton, Jamaal Wilkes and wonder, Do we really now have to talk about girls?
Auriemma insists you hear him out. In one hand, you have the men, UCLA and their streak. In the other, you have the UConn women. Auriemma pictures a guy dismissing the UConn women an exercise that requires no leaps of imagination. "So what, this doesn't mean anything now?" asks Auriemma rhetorically, looking at the pen in his left hand. "What, so these guys" his girls "over here should feel s____y because they didn't do this? It gets to the sexism of it. Why is it acceptable?"
Who would have imagined that this well-coiffed an exploding volcano couldn't muss that head of hair cocksure Italian immigrant from blue collar Philadelphia would be the country's highest-profile defender of women's sports? That Geno Auriemma and his Huskies could even share a breath with John Wooden and UCLA? In 1985, when Auriemma arrived at UConn from the University of Virginia, where he was an assistant, women's basketball was a glorified intramural sport. Now the UConn women, winners of seven national championships, travel on a chartered jet and sell out arenas. Their games are broadcast on state public television except the ones shown nationally on ESPN or CBS.
As a man in a woman's world, Auriemma has always carried a chip. Though he swears he's less concerned with how men's coaches view his record, Auriemma knows some don't respect him. Plenty do. "Geno Auriemma is as good a coach as there is in any sport," says Bob Knight, the all-time winningest men's coach in major college basketball, who now works for ESPN. "I don't know how else to phrase it."
From the very beginning of his coaching career, Auriemma has shunned the convention that young women need a gentler hand. Players are players, not genders. "If a woman is a girlie girl, a sissy girl, I can't deal with that," Auriemma says bluntly. He puts his hands up. "I want to say, Throw the pass right here. Is that too hard? Am I asking you to go in the lab and cure cancer? Am I asking you to find a way to save Haiti? No. I'm asking, when a guy puts a hand up, put the ball right there. And if you're a kid, don't you want that expectation of you? Instead of 'Come on, sweetheart. Try to hit them in the hands next time'?"
Topics that are taboo for many men are fair game for Auriemma, including PMS. "It'll be January or something, and I'll say, 'Hey, guys, the last couple of practices haven't been right,'" Auriemma explains. " 'This looks terrible. And if I'm not mistaken, at exactly this time last month, we went through the same nonsense. In case you haven't checked the schedule, the Final Four is this time of the month too. So you'd better figure it out before you get there, you understand?' " This speech usually gets a laugh out of players. "We're like, 'Oh, goodness,' " says former UConn point guard Renee Montgomery. "But he has a knack for getting through. None of us said, 'Hey, you're a guy. You don't know what we're going through.' We just fought through it."
Most players have grown to appreciate Auriemma's intensity and are fiercely loyal. No program is more responsible for the growth of women's basketball over the past 15 years. Still, detractors argue, since the women's talent pool isn't as deep as the men's, don't even dream of comparing UConn's winning streak to UCLA's.
Auriemma asks you to look at the numbers. During UCLA's 88-game streak, the Bruins played 18 opponents ranked in the top 20. UConn has played 26 such teams. Plus, in the early 1970s, men's college basketball wasn't the multibillion-dollar spectacle that it is today. UCLA enjoyed its share of 50-point blowouts. "The scores of the games back then would lead you to believe that maybe there wasn't as much competition as people thought," Auriemma says.
Auriemma won't claim his streak is more impressive, although if UConn goes on to win 100 or more consecutive games, it will be awfully hard for his players to take a backseat to the boys. "You have the male-chauvinist guys going, 'How dare they compare what they're doing to what the men did,' " Auriemma says. "Then you've got the women's side going, 'Well, it should be celebrated, because if the women beat the men's record, it's our record.' Maybe the men feel threatened and the women are insecure. I don't know if one has to be at the expense of the other."
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 13, 2010 issue of TIME.