Never Better

UCONN coach Geno Auriemma tries to run the table with what may be his best team ever.

 

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Junior 6-foot-3 center Tina Charles has more to prove. Frequently in Auriemma’s doghouse her first two years because he didn’t think she was active enough around the basket, she acknowledges that she “didn’t handle things as well as I should have. I should have seen [the criticism] as an opportunity to improve—I looked at it as him being hard on me instead of trying to make me better.”

As Connecticut set out to claim its sixth national trophy, Charles was supposed to get some help from 6-foot-3 freshman Heather Buck. A two-time Connecticut Player of the Year at Stonington High School, Buck’s season ended before it began when she came down with a case of mononucleosis and was sidelined until next year. Still, she has the demeanor of a UConn player when she speaks of the tradition of Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and the others she grew up idolizing. “In my mind, they were above human,” she says. “They didn’t exist in the normal elementary-middle school continuum.” As she matured, Buck realized that they were not superhuman, but that they were extremely gifted individuals, and at length she committed to UConn. “I wanted to come here, despite doubts that I was good enough,” she says. She does seem mentally tough enough for what lies ahead. “He’s there to make you better,” she says of Auriemma. “You have to take what he’s saying and work it into what you’re doing.”

Not among Buck’s teammates this year is 2008 national High School Player of the Year Elena Delle Donne, who withdrew from UConn in favor of the University of Delaware (and play volleyball), closer to her Wilmington home. The 6-foot-5 star had simply burned out on basketball, she said in late August, two-and-a-half months after she called a friend to come get her in Storrs, where she had been enrolled for summer school.

Auriemma was a gentleman through the whole ordeal, spending time with Delle Donne’s parents and saying she had to do what was right for her. More recently, he speculated whether it might have been a different story if she had put off coming to Storrs until the start of the fall semester. In any case, he’s moved on, as he has when key players lose a season to injury or leave the program after their first year.   

On rare occasions, he’s made a mistake. Some would-be players wouldn’t conform to the fitness and conditioning guidelines (clearly spelled out before they arrive) and refused to lose weight or dogged it in the weight room. A few just didn’t have the mental strength to withstand the coach’s pressure. Often, as was the case with Liz Sherwood five years go, they transfer and do well at another school. These cases are rare. “I have taken a chance or two, whether on a transfer or a kid who I suspected wasn’t a UConn kind of kid, and it always backfired,” he says.

What’s more common in his program are the kids who make it even when they don’t have All-America credentials—players like Elliott (Auriemma’s assistant coach for 12 years), who was overlooked in the recruiting process. Out of shape when she arrived in the fall of 1992, the shy freshman from a tough Washington, D.C., neighborhood overcame her size limitations and today is the standard by which current forwards measure themselves. Auriemma also listened to his instincts and took a chance on Maria Conlon, a star at Seymour High School who spent her first two years out of shape and doubting herself while watching Sue Bird from the bench. Her junior year, Bird was gone and Conlon was the point guard-designate. There was tension between her and Auriemma; she thought he was dismissive and didn’t trust her to run the team—and today he admits he had doubts. Finally, the two had a screaming match in his office and Auriemma ultimately let her know he had faith in her. Conlon emerged as one of the most reliable point guards who’s ever played at UConn. In the 2004 championship game against Tennessee, she didn’t commit a single turnover despite relentless pressure.

Most people who have known Auriemma from the time he arrived in Connecticut in 1985 say he’s pretty much the same person, with the added perspective that comes with age.

Associate Head Coach Chris Dailey, who came to UConn in 1985 as Auriemma’s assistant, probably knows him as well as anybody outside of his family. She says his greatest strength is his ability “to read people and allow them to do more than they ever thought they could.” But, she adds, it’s an attitude that calls for responsibility on the part of the player. “Once they tell him their goal is to be a great player and he says, ‘I know how to get you there,’ they can’t then back off if it gets hard. His biggest fear is not getting the most out of each player. He may look back and wonder if he got as much as he could have.”

UConn Athletic Director Jeff Hathaway says the coach still possesses the same drive and intensity he had when they first met in 1990, the year Hathaway was hired as associate athletic director. “The one thing he values in such an extraordinary way is the continuous relationship he has with his former players,” Hathaway says. “He has a program, not just a team.” Despite the fact that today’s players expect playing time and other rewards immediately, Auriemma sticks to his standards. “No one player has moved that program off center,” Hathaway says. “Over the long haul, one of the consistencies in that program has been its chemistry. The older players have passed down the baton of what is expected to the younger players.”

Sometimes Geno’s wife of 30 years, Kathy, steps in to help him figure out what’s going on in his players’ heads. “I can contribute by picking up on some of the nuances and personalities of the players,” she says. “I’m always the kids’ best advocate. I always have their back.”

Never Better

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