Commentary

Coaches are kindred spirits

Geno Auriemma, John Wooden emphasize unselfish, disciplined mindset in hoops, life

Originally Published: December 16, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Regardless of what happens Sunday at Madison Square Garden, UCLA's record of 88 consecutive wins will remain the standard for the sport in which it was set, men's collegiate basketball. It's something that -- considering the reality of early entry into the NBA draft and many other factors -- seems highly unlikely to ever be broken.

What Connecticut's women's team seems on the verge of doing -- although opponent Ohio State still has something to say about it -- runs parallel to the Bruins' path that ended in 1974 with the establishment of UCLA's "magic" number, something that provides a historical measuring stick for high-level consistency.

If the Huskies subsequently pass it -- they face Ohio State on Sunday (ESPNU, 2 p.m. ET) at Madison Square Garden and host Florida State on Tuesday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) at Hartford's XL Center -- then they will have their own landmark figure (whenever it's finally determined) as a high bar set for collegiate sports excellence.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden
Icon SMIJohn Wooden won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years while at UCLA, but never opened one bottle of champagne.

But UConn's streak as it approaches 88 also provides the opportunity at another comparison to something -- or, actually, someone -- iconic: the Huskies' Geno Auriemma with UCLA's John Wooden.

It's impossible to know just how Wooden and his UCLA dynasty, which at one point won seven NCAA titles in a row -- would have been regarded had it happened in the communication technology age in which we now live.

We could guess: The evaluations would not be nearly so reverential in real time as they are in retrospect. There would be debates on whether UCLA's dominance was destructive to the game's overall popularity. And the electronically powered rumor/scandal mill of today would have been working nonstop back then about just how UCLA kept landing superstar after superstar. There would have been some grist for it.

Alas, it all happened when it did, and so must be viewed in those parameters as best as possible. But the rear-view mirror shrinks what actually was some tedium in seeing the Bruins pile up victories and championships, while magnifying -- not unjustly -- the legends who were part of it.

None more so than the Wizard of Westwood, a basketball coach who became the standard bearer not only for his sport but the whole concept of "sport" -- of competition really always being about more than just the final digits on a scoreboard.

Because Wooden, who passed away this summer at age 99, became deified during his lifetime, it's not particularly fair for anyone to be measured against that standard. And it's certainly not something Auriemma would ever ask for, let alone expect. To the contrary, he actually relishes telling the tale of how Wooden forgot they had once met, describing it as a reminder to not ever get too full of yourself.

Auriemma is a prideful person who is also -- his critics might not believe this, but it's true -- disdainful of self-absorption and conceit. If people are looking for similar threads in the stories of Wooden's and Auriemma's successes, that's a good place to start.

Because underpinning the idea of playing team-oriented, unselfish, disciplined basketball -- defining characteristics of both coaches' teams -- is the belief that those principles have to guide one's life, not just sports.

Auriemma and Wooden were born 44 years apart in different countries. Wooden, an Indiana native, started his college basketball career at Purdue the same year the Great Depression began, and finished it seven years before the first NCAA tournament for men.

Auriemma was born in Italy and came with his family to Pennsylvania when he was 7. That was the early 1960s, a prosperous time for the average American. Yet Auriemma's unchanging immigrant mindset -- that you never expect anything without toiling for it and that it could all slip away if you lose diligence -- was very much in line with the thought process of those born in Wooden's era.

Wooden's birth came a decade before American women were constitutionally given the right to vote, and his UCLA coaching career ended in 1975, right at the start of modern-day women's collegiate athletics.

But displayed in everything from his lifelong devotion to his wife, Nell, to the encouragement he gave women's basketball, Wooden's respect for women put him ahead of his time.

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma
Jeff Curry/US PresswireHis critics might not buy it, but UConn coach Geno Auriemma is disdainful of self-absorption and conceipt -- things John Wooden wouldn't stand for, either.

Ann Meyers Drysdale, UCLA's most legendary female basketball player, talks about how Wooden's interest in the Bruins' women's program when she began competing there in 1975 did positively impact how her team was perceived. She, like so many involved with UCLA sports, referred to Wooden as "Papa."

Auriemma has been a father figure to his players and a crucial personality in women's sports. His basketball acumen and knack for motivation most definitely could have led him to success in the men's game. But that just wasn't the road he took. He saw opportunity in the women's game in part because he always thought big, focusing on possibilities and not perceived limitations.

In this way, he might have had some inherent advantage over not only his contemporaries in women's basketball coaching, but also the pioneers who predated him. Even if he didn't necessarily see the future exactly as it has turned out for his extremely popular UConn program, he saw more clearly than others the way to get there.

As Wooden considered his wife as his rock and most trusted source of guidance, Auriemma speaks of his wife, Kathy, the same way. And from a colleague standpoint, Auriemma's right hand for his entire head coaching career has been a woman, associate head coach Chris Dailey.

Wooden was known for simple phrases that, coming from him, seemed sublimely profound. Things like, "Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do," and "Never mistake activity for achievement," and "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."

All thoughts that sprung from his conceptual "Pyramid of Success," a diagram that could be applied to any collective endeavor in which cooperation and teamwork were paramount.

Auriemma is a whole different kind of quote machine. His standup comedy and incisive, cut-to-the-heart-of-things observations long have entertained and informed reporters and UConn followers, while sometimes irritating opposing coaches and fans.

Wooden was straightforward and impeccably "square," in his remarks; Auriemma is often sarcastic. At times, he's also wickedly funny and profane. Auriemma doesn't always translate as well to print, since that version of his remarks sometimes doesn't correctly reveal the wry tone in which they were delivered.

But the similarity is that each coach's style is wholly genuine and reflects the values of what he teaches. Whether Auriemma's version makes you laugh more or gets on your nerves likely comes down to whether you're rooting for or against his team.

If Auriemma's most famous quote ends up being "We got Diana -- and you don't," some might consider that arrogant. But others might see it as the essence of Auriemma's love for his players. That remark was a joyful celebration of one of the best women's players ever -- UConn's Diana Taurasi -- not just for her immense talent but her ability to find ways to win games.

It was his homage to players being the ultimate deciding factor in how games turn out, and what, ultimately, college sports is about: college students.

Auriemma has never said, "UConn's got me -- and you don't." He doesn't think that way. Neither did Wooden.

Yet in both cases, the unchanging and constant factor in two remarkable winning streaks and the programs that participated in them was the maestro in charge.

If UConn is victorious Sunday, it will be extending the Division I women's winning streak that the program continues to build upon as it seeks a third consecutive NCAA title, and eighth overall. The UCLA men's team record of 88 wins in a row, like a beacon on a lonely road that very, very few ever will travel, stands in welcoming.

John Wooden, were he still with us, would be the first to extend a handshake of congratulations to Geno Auriemma if his team matches 88. Wooden would know there was far more than that number that made them kindred spirits.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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