UCONN coach Geno Auriemma tries to run the table with what may be his best team ever.
Deborah Cannon - Associated Press
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."
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."
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."
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.Geno Auriemma