Commentary

Still need more, Geno? Go coach men

Could be that's the only thing that will satisfy his apparent need for validation

Originally Published: December 22, 2010
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

After years of hearing Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma hold forth on variations of the themes he brought up Sunday in his impolitic, buzz-killing news conference, the natural thought is that there's an answer for all the angst Auriemma still lugs around. If just setting a record that is arguably the greatest achievement in women's sports history isn't enough -- not for Auriemma, not for all those "miserable bastards" he spoke of who still irk him -- why not go to the next frontier?

Coach men already.

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesIf what Geno Auriemma has proved in the women's game isn't enough, maybe he should move on.

Auriemma was talking about making that leap as recently as this past spring's women's Final Four, then backed away. But why not go chase the last validation he seems to be seeking?

He should harp on that endorsement Bob Knight threw his way this week -- "He'd be the first guy I'd call if I were hiring for a men's or women's program," Knight said -- and say: Sure, I'd be interested in taking over a men's college program just as soon as I tie Tennessee coach Pat Summitt's record of eight NCAA women's titles, then break it next year.

Then he could go beat up on Tom Izzo and John Calipari, Rick Pitino and the rest and recast his success -- and women's basketball -- in a whole new light. That would really be something that no one in women's basketball has ever done before, unlike complaining about how unfairly underappreciated women's basketball remains. (The Title IX baby in me wants to tell Auriemma, "Congratulations, you've finally crossed the Mars-Venus line, pal. Welcome to how women have felt in all walks of life for years.")

By the time UConn won its record 89th straight game Tuesday, topping the 1971-74 UCLA men's streak of 88 straight wins, Auriemma seemed to know he could've picked a better time to bellyache than smack in the middle of a three-day span that saw UConn draw more than 32,000 fans for two games and spawn fawning headlines and congratulations from coast to coast. Not to mention that he earned himself a call from President Barack Obama. Using your team's big moment to suggest that people who don't like women's basketball must be sexist jerks rather than just benignly indifferent to the game, as he did Sunday, wasn't artful.

"Everybody that had an opinion has weighed in," Auriemma said Tuesday. "I can't tell you all of the names I've been called in the last couple days."

Geno Auriemma
AP Photo/Bob ChildHe pushes a lot of buttons and picks a lot of fights that other coaches don't.

When Auriemma's mouth gets him in fixes like this, his default is, "C'mon! I'm just a wiseass from Philly!" as if that should inoculate him from censure. And he does get a lot of latitude because, in addition to his results with UConn, he's an equal-opportunity strafer. Also, he truly is one of the wittier, more acerbic figures in sports.

After being handed a telephone during his postgame remarks Tuesday without any announcement that Obama was the caller on the other end, Auriemma was gracious, repeatedly saying thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr. President. By the time he handed the phone back to a staffer, the crowd in his packed news conference had fallen respectfully quiet, and he cracked without missing a beat, "That was the new president of the University of Connecticut."

Everyone burst out laughing.

Auriemma can be entertaining, all right. But he is also proud of being a provocateur, and he has picked some genuine battles along the way -- some of them as questionable and self-serving as Sunday's remarks.

Auriemma seemed to be spoiling for this most recent tiff for weeks. He had told a few reporters who went to talk to him about The Streak that he would open up about what he really thought when the time was right. So it seemed highly calculated and not some genuine rush of unscripted emotion when he chose Sunday's record-tying win -- at Madison Square Garden, in New York City, the media capital of the world -- to be the day he unloaded. But his topics weren't all new.

In other years, Auriemma has complained that male coaches -- including him -- are discriminated against in women's college basketball. Even the mere appropriation of the word "discrimination" struck a raw nerve among female colleagues, or those who know the stats and say the numbers of women and minorities working in college athletics aren't nearly high enough.

Pat Summitt
AP Photo/Garry JonesThe bad blood between Pat Summitt and Geno is unlike any other coaching rivalry.

He's been frank before, too, about how it personally rankles him that men's coaches and male peers -- even his own friends -- give only lip service to how much they respect what he has done in the women's game when he knows they're really thinking it's "only" the women's game. But by last season's Final Four, 56-year-old Auriemma insisted to The New York Times that he was over those insecurities.

Auriemma is hardly the first coach or high achiever who can be ultracompetitive or self-referential, contradictory or complicated. But he has never been spanked as much as he should have for how he has treated Tennessee's Summitt.

If you think about it, there really is no corollary to it in any other sport.

Even before Summitt canceled the regular-season Tennessee-UConn series because of her belief that Auriemma acted improperly in their head-to-head competition to recruit current UConn star Maya Moore -- a fact that Auriemma, not Summitt, made public because he claimed Summitt didn't have the "guts" to do so -- Auriemma liked to lob shots at Summitt. He recently told Time magazine she has a "bug up her butt" like "a lot of women, a lot of people get."

Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and other class-act coaching icons never had to put up with this kind of public sniping from their peers.

Summitt is in their league in accomplishments and in class. She was the John Wooden of women's basketball before Auriemma was. She has won eight national titles; she's the all-time winningest coach in men's or women's college basketball history; and she preceded Auriemma into the Hall of Fame by six years. Long before Auriemma arrived, Summitt and University of Texas coach Jody Conradt were proving that sellout crowds would turn out for women's basketball. And now Summitt has to put up with some yapping Philly wise guy who admits, "I know some people say, 'What an ass this guy is. I am sick of listening to him'"?

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesOn the way to win No. 89 in a row Tuesday night, Geno found something to celebrate.

No. She really doesn't.

"I do have a sense of humor; it's just not the same sense of humor as some other people," Summitt said way back at the '03 Final Four, not long after Auriemma called her program the "Evil Empire." Summitt conceded there is something about her Southern upbringing that doesn't allow her to respond in kind to Auriemma's barbs even if she wants to. Smiling, she added back then that if she ever talked about anyone the way Auriemma talks about her, her demanding father, Richard, probably would've taken her "out back behind the tobacco shed" and hit her with a switch.

UConn was 36-1 at the time. Top-ranked. And about to run Auriemma's national-championship-game record against Summitt to 3-0. It would be another four years before Summitt finally canceled their head-to-head series and UConn's program eclipsed Tennessee's. In '03 and in '08 -- like now -- Auriemma had so much going for him, yet he couldn't, and still can't, help himself. He still needs to run his mouth when he doesn't have to.

His greatness is unquestioned. His judgment? Fair game.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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