Never Better

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

 

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Naturally, she is closer to some players than others. “Some wrap themselves around my heart from the day they come on campus,” she says. Two who did that were Taurasi and teammate Morgan Valley, whose injury-plagued career never interfered with her enthusiasm and loyalty to the school. “Sometimes Dee and Morgan would show up at the house—when they knew he wasn’t there—because they needed a warm home and a good meal.” If players confide in her, which happens frequently, she guarantees them confidentiality. If they’re going through a rough patch with their coach, “I assure them he’s doing this for a reason and it’s all going to be okay.”

“She adopts the players on our team like they are part of our family,” says Geno. “When I come home and I’m on top of things and doing my job, we don’t go overboard in feeling great about ourselves. But when I am wrong, I know I’m going to hear about it every single day.”

The couple met in 1972 after a mutual friend introduced them in Philadelphia, and they married six years later. He likes to say that she is always right about everything. She calls him “G,” a common nickname for Luigi, which is Auriemma’s real first name.

At Gampel Pavilion, she sits across from the visitors’ bench, near the tunnel that originally led to the women’s locker rooms. “I’ve always sat here,” she says. “It was the fastest exit to change a diaper, and there used to be lower baskets in the tunnel so [son] Michael could  go shoot during a game.”

Auriemma’s success, of course, has brought changes for his family. When he and Kathy first came to Connecticut, they lived in a small cape in a Manchester subdevelopment; now they own a luxury home and a house on the New Jersey shore. Their eldest daughter, Jenna, is a guidance counselor at Holy Cross High School in Waterbury who married a math teacher last summer. Middle child Alysa, like Jenna a UConn graduate, is involved in amateur theater in Manchester. The youngest, Michael, the only Auriemma born in Connecticut, is a freshman at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, playing basketball for head coach Phil Martelli, one of his dad’s mentors and closest friends.

Last June, Auriemma signed a five-year, $8 million contract extension that will keep him in Storrs through the 2012-13 season. The deal makes him among the highest paid coaches in the women’s game and is comparable to what UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun and football coach Randy Edsall are paid. His profession has awarded him its highest honors. In 2006, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and five times he has been named national women’s basketball Coach of the Year. Even so, the doubts linger, a quality that keeps him on edge and drives him to seek a national championship year after year.

“Every game, every practice, every possession, I need to get it right. I need to make it perfect,” he says. “And, of course, I never do.”

These days, however, there are hints of a sense of fulfillment that the younger man lacked. For one thing, he seems a little more comfortable when, for whatever reason, he comes up short. “I am accountable for everything I’ve done,” he says. “Thirty times a year, it’s out there for everyone to see—whether we win or lose, how our players act, we’re always on display. I can’t take credit for a 39-0 season and then say it’s not my fault when we’re 25-8.”

Like any person well into middle age, Auriemma becomes philosophical as he looks back on his life and his own limitations. “You think of all the possibilities out there beyond basketball and you like to think you could do whatever you set your mind to, but ultimately it comes back to ‘This is what I am.’ 

“The real challenge is to try to slow the world down,” he continues. “Now that my kids are older, I have some time to think about the world and yet I feel incredibly pissed off because I’m powerless to do anything about it,” he said last fall at the height of the presidential campaign and the economic crisis. “Unless you’re in D.C. or New York—unless you’re in the game—you have no idea about what’s going on out there.”

Auriemma’s in the game, but it’s still a game bounded by the 94-by-50-foot dimensions of a basketball court. For the foreseeable future, he’ll continue to make the world a better place by turning out talented, tough-minded individuals who will count their years at Connecticut among the defining periods in their lives.

Never Better

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