UCONN coach Geno Auriemma tries to run the table with what may be his best team ever.
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They’re driving through Ohio on a recruiting trip when the young assistant coach asks the wise older head coach a question about a play. The assistant is new to the team, though not to basketball. Shea Ralph was a star in high school and college, and is now in her first season as an assistant with the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team.
The pair stops for lunch. Ralph picks up her salad and a mozzarella-and-tomato sandwich for her boss and returns to their table. There she finds the 54-year-old coach, Geno Auriema, furiously diagramming plays on napkins.
“That was the coolest thing,” Ralph says later. “No one has such passion for the game.”
Every second, 24/7.
Here is Coach—the man who was a father figure to her when she played for him in Storrs. Coach—the man who benched her her freshman year because she hadn’t been practicing well. (During halftime, he called her out so fiercely that “the steam was coming out of her nostrils,” he said later.) Coach—the man who shaped her into a basketball All-American and changed her from a kid who thought the world revolved around her (she was a huge star at Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville, N.C.) to a team-first competitor who led the 2000 Huskies to their second national championship. Coach—the man who is now her colleague, since he hired her last summer to replace assistant Tonya Cardoza, now head coach at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Ralph and those who have played for Auriemma are nearly unanimous in their praise for the man who taught them so much about life and the meaning of success both inside and outside the sidelines of the Gampel Pavilion basketball court. For Auriemma, now in his 24th year at UConn, all the aspects of being a student-athlete are inexorably linked.
His drive for his players to succeed as athletes, in the classroom, as role models for young girls and out in the world is rooted in his own experience, growing up in Norristown, Pa., as the son of Italian immigrant parents. Because, as the eldest of three, he was the first to speak English, he became the family’s connection with the outside world—buying groceries, handling the banking, paying bills. The experience makes him tough on those who come to him with complaints. “I tell my players all the time when they have problems, ‘Figure it out,”’ he wrote in his 2006 autobiography, Geno. Then he’ll reassure them that if it really matters, they’ll work out it.
In his younger days he learned to be a team player, reticent to stand out because of his ethnicity and average athletic ability. Even today, as a man in a predominantly women’s profession, he still feels like an outsider, and it’s a feeling that still drives him. His spats with Tennessee Head Coach Pat Summitt and, to a lesser degree, Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer, are legendary. “I am the man trying to break into the old girls’ network,” he has said. “The best way to do that is to beat everybody, including Tennessee.” Now, those opportunities will come only in the postseason, since Summitt, upset with what she felt were unfair recruiting practices at UConn (an NCAA investigation found little or no evidence of that) broke off the regular-season series two years ago.
Oklahoma Head Coach Sherri Coale, one of Auriemma’s friends in the profession, says some women coaches are intimidated and awed by him. This is, in large part, due to his personality and his success. “He has the unique ability to know what his players need and to get the best out of them, even if it’s not necessarily what they want,” she says. In some ways he’s a conundrum, she continues. “He’s gregarious, but he’s not a big social guy who hangs out with the mainstream of 50 or 60 coaches during recruiting. He’ll be by himself, and because of that he’s something of a mystery. He’s not interested in being mysterious—that’s just the way he is.”