Commentary

Times change, but Auriemma hasn't

Auriemma becomes 11th coach in D-I history, and eighth active, to amass 700 wins

Originally Published: November 27, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- Satchel Paige once cautioned against looking back, lest it confirm something is gaining on you. The career of Geno Auriemma, a character with both the personality and athletic feats to hold his own in a sentence with Paige, offers a rebuttal.

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma
David Butler II/US PresswireUConn coach Geno Auriemma, with 700 wins and 122 losses, has a winning percentage of .851.

Sometimes they aren't gaining on you. Sometimes they aren't even close.

With Friday's 91-46 win against Hofstra, Connecticut's 47th in a row, Auriemma became the 11th coach in Division I history to amass 700 career victories. If it feels like just yesterday that he wrapped up No. 500 (April 6, 2003, against Texas) or No. 600 (Dec. 31, 2006, against Sacred Heart), it's because, at least in coaching time, it was.

Huskies senior Kaili McLaren talked after Friday's game about being around for both of the last two century marks, an answer that helped tee up Auriemma for a trademark jab at Kalana Greene's expense, wherein he offered the suggestion that she was old enough to have been there for No. 500 and might hang around for No. 800 if nobody told her she had to leave.

The truth is the milestones come so fast and furious these days at Connecticut that it is easy to lose track of exactly who was around for which one. No active coach has a better winning percentage than Auriemma, who has lost just 122 times in 25 seasons. He puts up new records at the same rate skyscrapers spring from the ground in Shanghai. If you believe the architect of it all, the easiest memory solution is simply to stop counting.

"I try not to spend a lot of time thinking about that, that sort of thing," Auriemma said of the mark. "I guess that's what keeps me going in the direction I want to go."

But however many wins Auriemma has when he walks away from the bench, two numbers that haven't changed in more than two decades will forever define his reign: 92 and 162.

Connecticut's all-time wins and losses, respectively, before Auriemma arrived in 1985.

Whatever you think of Auriemma's public persona, whether you find it charmingly unabashed or infuriatingly grating, he has accomplished two things that are difficult enough to manage individually but which when paired together, separate good coaches from the handful of history's great coaches. He built a program in the basketball wilderness in Storrs -- where they'd had just one winning season in the program's 11-year history before he took over -- and won with players other programs didn't want. And when that success eventually laid the foundations of a dynasty and drew attention beyond even the world of women's basketball, he took players that other programs coveted and made them better.

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma
Brian Pohorylo/Icon SMIGeno Auriemma has guided UConn to six NCAA titles, including three perfect seasons.

He took overachievers and coached them to play like superstars. Then he took superstars and coached them to play like overachievers. And he did so without reinventing himself.

"Back then [in the early years], our emphasis was in trying to get players that nobody else wanted, and can we coach them up a little bit to try to win games," Auriemma said. "Now I get players that everybody wants, and I try to coach them up a little bit to be even better. So my approach hasn't necessarily changed -- I think I see the big picture more than I did back then. Back then, I think I saw drill after drill after drill after drill. We were the king of drills. And now I think I see the bigger picture."

There are more than a few active coaches who live on accomplishments achieved when the game was an entirely different entity. They thrived at a time when two or three good athletes might set a team apart as championship material and strategy mattered less than simply running and rebounding until opponents dropped. That Auriemma's teams still sometimes disguise the intricate precision of their execution in the cloak of athletic dominance is testament to his recruiting prowess, to be sure -- they have Diana or Maya, and you don't. But it's also ample proof of how far ahead of the curve he remains.

The sport has changed, but it hasn't changed what happens at Connecticut.

"I think the game has changed in the sense that the athletes playing the game are so much better," Auriemma said. "The athletic ability of the players is so much better. The number of good players on the floor each time is so much greater. The number of teams that aspire to have good teams is way more than it was back then. In 1985-1986, when I started coaching here, there may have been two teams in America, three teams in America that were funding their programs to the point where, like, 'OK, we can win a national championship.'"

As the women's game evolves, dominance should wane. UCLA's dynasty in men's basketball faded because John Wooden left; it also faded because a lot of other programs started taking the sport more seriously. In Storrs, dominance just seems to keep growing.

And there's only one constant that keeps it going.

By his own admission, Auriemma isn't going to catch Pat Summitt as the all-times wins leader in college basketball. Even if Summitt stopped today -- and early results suggest she has a team that ought to tack at least another 30 wins onto her total -- Auriemma would be at least eight or nine seasons of sustained excellence away from catching her. Maybe that bothers him more than he's willing to let on; maybe it matters exactly as little as he says. The truth is that, like Summitt's, Auriemma's legacy isn't tied to the final tally.

The celebration on the court after Friday's game and the questions afterward spoke to our fascination with round numbers -- the bigger the better. But No. 700 is no better measure of a coach than No. 699 or No. 701. The real measure is 92-162.

"I don't intend to stay in it long enough just to break that record; I have no interest in that," Auriemma said. "I'll coach here as long as I like the players that I'm coaching, which I do, as long as I'm having fun with the players that I'm coaching, and I'll coach here as long as I think we can win national championships. And then if that doesn't exist anymore, I'm not going to coach here anymore. I think about leaving a lot. Every year you think about, you know, 'I wonder what else you're going to do with your life?'

"And then you realize, what's better than this? Nothing, so you keep doing it."

And you don't look back because, frankly, nobody is gaining on you.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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