UCONN coach Geno Auriemma tries to run the table with what may be his best team ever.
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Because Auriemma caught on to the importance of “team” when he was an athlete, he has made it a top priority for his recruits. But he readily admits that the days of several top high school players deciding to come as a group to the same college to “do something special” are over. This happened in 1998 when the quartet of Sue Bird, Asjha Jones, Tamika Williams and Swin Cash all committed to Connecticut with one thing in mind: bringing a national championship back to Storrs.
“They all wanted to put on the shirt of a great team,” Auriemma says. With the huge addition of Diana Taurasi a year later, Connecticut won the title in 2000, lost to Notre Dame in the 2001 semifinals (the Irish went on to win the title) and then won three straight championships from 2002, when they went 39-0, to 2004. By 2003 and 2004, the quartet had graduated and each was well on her way to a successful WNBA career but the groundwork had been laid. The baton had been passed. The tradition was alive.
It’s a different landscape today.
“I used to think I could mold players, that I could change someone into being what I wanted them to be,” says Auriemma. His constant urging for Rebecca Lobo to be more aggressive, for Svetlana Abrosimova to pass the ball once in a while, for Diana Taurasi to be less cavalier about her talents come to mind. “But the longer I’m in this business, the more I believe that’s no longer true,” he says.
“Today’s kids don’t want to accept the reality that I’m going to change things to make them better on and off the court,” he continues. “They have more choices, and if things don’t go their way once they pick a college, their first instinct is to blame the coaching staff instead of looking inside themselves. They are not accustomed to [criticism] and they don’t handle it well.” But that doesn’t really matter to him. It’s up to the athlete to make adjustments if she’s to stay at UConn.
He wasn’t always that way. As an assistant coach at the University of Virginia, Auriemma was the “good cop” to Head Coach Debbie Ryan’s “bad cop.” He was the staff member who put his arm around players having a tough time and told them, “Aw, she doesn’t really mean it.” That role would be quite a surprise to his players at UConn.
“At Connecticut you become mentally tough and that prepares you for other coaches,” says Abrosimova, the All-American from St. Petersburg, Russia, now with the WNBA Connecticut Sun, who was one of the best players ever to wear a Husky uniform (1997-2001). “I’ve played for seven or eight other coaches and now they all seem like such nice people,” she adds with a smile. “Playing for Connecticut, you don’t care as much about scoring points, but you have to be solid skillwise. Rarely does a Connecticut player average more than 20 points a game. They’re team players.”
This season, Auriemma has a pair of retro players in the tradition of Jamelle Elliott, Sue Bird, Taurasi and Abrosimova—players who absorb his constant riding without taking things too personally. Six-foot sophomore Maya Moore, who was an All-American her freshman year (an almost unheard-of accomplishment), and 5-7 Renee Montgomery, the senior All-America guard with an in-your-face personality, are the types of strong leaders who have characterized Auriemma’s championship teams.
Moore respects the tradition she has committed to and understands what is expected of her. She also “gets” the coach. “My first impression of him,” she says, “was that he was one of those people with presence—one of those people you just wanted to be around. I knew I would learn a lot from him and I’m sure some day I’ll be the brunt of his jokes, but it all comes together with him.” She says she chose UConn over other top programs in the country because she knew Auriemma “would have high expectations of me and the team. I knew in practices it was going to be an area in which I’d grow—he was going to push me. He expects you to be smart; it’s not enough to be athletic.”