Cat Zuppani received what sounded like a simple assignment: a basketball coach asked her to install some graphics. But the request didn’t come from any average coach—it came from Geno Auriemma, the legendary leader of the University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team.
Telling the story of the UConn Huskies and Auriemma’s influence on the program is no easy task. Before Auriemma’s arrival in 1985, the program had just one winning season in its entire history. Since then, Auriemma has remade the team into a perennial powerhouse. In Auriemma’s 36 years as head coach, his team has gone undefeated 6 times, advanced to the Final Four 21 times, and won 11 national championships. As UConn’s coach, Auriemma has 1,119 wins and just 144 losses. Additionally, he led the USA Women’s Basketball Team to two Olympic gold medals. Ten former or current UConn players appeared at the Tokyo Olympics as players or coaches. Auriemma’s teams have produced some of the game’s best players, including Sue Bird, Rebecca Lobo, Diana Taurasi, and Breanna Stewart.
That’s the history Zuppani was asked to capture. As assistant athletic director for athletic events and facilities, she manages internal operations for all of UConn’s 24 athletic programs. She also coordinates all facility operations, the department’s master calendar, special projects, and graphic enhancements.
Auriemma and his staff wanted a special graphic installation to inspire current and future players at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center, the team’s $40 million, 78,200-square-foot practice facility. Zuppani knew the graphics would have to complement the trophies and memorabilia that already filled the space. “We set out to create something that would really fit in the existing building to celebrate where this amazing program has been and then carry it on into the future,” she says.
Zuppani was already overseeing the graphic package for Husky Athletic Village and Rizza Performance Center, a $60 million capital project replete with world-class fields and facilities for five sports programs. She is now assigned the same task for the approved $70 million on-campus hockey arena.
In a normal year, Zuppani would sit down with coaches, assistants, and department personnel to collaborate on a creative vision—but 2020 was anything but normal. When the COVID-19 pandemic halted college basketball and forced the university to shut its doors, Zuppani took the project online. She, Auriemma, women’s basketball support staff, and others exchanged ideas over email and reviewed mock-ups on Zoom. Then Zuppani coordinated with their counterparts, specifically Anna LaBonte in communications, to select quotes and pull photos from school archives.
Together, the team created a beautiful installation that lines the Champions Center’s halls. Players and visitors who enter the space and climb the stairs are greeted by an oversized picture of Auriemma flanked by five UConn gold medalists. Next to them are seven acrylic panels that highlight UConn’s contributions to Team USA over the years. Other spaces show off WNBA MVPs, national players of the year, and the Huskies’ championship teams.
The right side of the wall leading to the gymnasium boasts simple, bold text. “49 1,000-point scorers. 111 straight wins.” Overhead banners of players and stats add to the experience, while the left side functions as a timeline, with facts, figures, photos, and quotes that trace Auriemma’s career from 1985 to the present day.
The elaborate project gave Zuppani and her staff the chance to be creative. Photos of national championship teams, printed on fabric and wrapped over a box, are backlit on the timeline wall. “We wanted to find a special way to honor the past and key milestones, such as winning a national championship,” she explains.
Given the program’s continued success, Zuppani was careful to design for the future. The installation’s adaptive design features 3-D letters, numbers, and panels that unscrew or pop out to make frequent updates as easy as possible.
Zuppani, who grew up playing several different sports, believes that strong teams are important and every player has a valuable contribution and opportunity to make. She asked Assistant Director of Athletic Events Zach Heckt to interact with coaches and take on an important support role for the project. He’s now leading a similar project for UConn’s football program.
When the UConn Huskies resumed in-person practices after the COVID shutdown, coaches, players, and staff walked past the installation for the first time. It’s impossible not to feel inspired. “The graphics we made show how the past sets up the success that the current team is trying to carry on. They have the chance to earn an incredible degree, play for a top-level team, and be part of a meaningful legacy,” Zuppani says. “It truly is something special.”
The Huskies are already carrying on that legacy. In March, they won a conference championship and the Big East tournament. Freshman Paige Bueckers was the tournament MVP and the Big East player of the year. UConn made it to its thirteenth consecutive Final Four. The future is looking bright in Connecticut, and Zuppani stands ready to update the national championship number on her wall.