- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
- 0 Shares
STORRS, Conn. -- The former Bishop Kenrick point guard is stretched out almost a full 180 degrees, hands behind his head, leaning back in a muted blue leather chair. Behind him, the 1999 national championship trophy and the 2002 national coach of the year award gleam in all their gold glory.
For an hour or so, Geno Auriemma is the picture of calm and cool.
"Yeah," he says, rolling his eyes, "but it's only Tuesday."
Auriemma turns 49 on Saturday but he has already produced a lifetime of coaching achievements. In 18 seasons at Connecticut, he has won 497 games and lost only 99. His teams have won three national championships. He is a four-time national coach of the year. The Huskies have won 30 or more games in nine of the past 10 seasons; the lone exception, 1998-99, was a 29-5 season.
Connecticut finds itself today where it usually does this time of year, the No. 1 overall seed in the women's NCAA Tournament, with a sporty 31-1 record. The Huskies meet Boston University in a first-round game on Sunday. When UConn lost to Villanova 52-48 in the Big East championship game on March 12, it ended a 70-game winning streak -- the longest in NCAA Division I women's college basketball history.
On the surface, anyway, it is business as usual. But for those who know the game, it has been an extraordinary year, even by Connecticut standards. The degree of difficulty facing Auriemma and his team -- a squad with zero seniors on the roster and whose best players are two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior -- has prompted friends and former players to insist that this is his finest coaching effort.
So, what about it?
"Oh, I don't know," said Auriemma, frowning in thought. "That's a hard question to answer. I think over the years, the amount of coaching you do and the quality of the coaching doesn't necessarily correlate to the success you have. Is it better to take bad players and make them good, or to take great players and win every game? Well, then you were supposed to win anyway.
"Me, personally, I don't feel good about the job I did this year. If I get any coach-of-the-year awards, I'll be somewhat embarrassed. I think I was an ogre. I think, unrelenting. Impatient. I refused to accept that they were young."
Last season, UConn went a ludicrous 39-0 and won the national title. Seniors Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams were drafted first, second, fourth and sixth in the WNBA Draft -- perhaps the most breathtaking numbers in a sea of scintillating statistics.
On Tuesday, it was like old times in Gampel Pavilion. Bird and Cash were careening up and down the court, joined by Rita Williams, another former player in the WNBA. Last year's team averaged 87 points per game and produced an average winning margin of more than 35 points. The four seniors averaged 53.4 points per game.
Stepping into that void was junior Diana Taurasi, who averaged 14.5 points per game last year, followed by sophomores Jessica Moore (5.4) and Ashley Battle (5.4). Between them, Moore and Battle started all of a combined four games as freshmen.
While this season's freshmen -- Ann Strother, Barbara Turner, Willnett Crockett and Nicole Wolff -- drew comparisons to the superb senior class they followed, Bird, Cash, Jones and Williams never felt the pressure their freshmen season because it was deflected onto All-Americans Svetlana Abrosimova and Shea Ralph. When Wolff, the McDonald's high school player of the year, was sidelined for the season with not one but two foot fractures, the Huskies' margin for error diminished appreciably.
This year, Connecticut was 29-0 going into the Big East Tournament.
"So D (Taurasi) was the (Big East) player of the year and Ann Strother made the third team," Auriemma said. "That means we had only two of the best 15 players in the league. So how did we go undefeated?"
That is the question.
"He's done a masterful job," said Rebecca Lobo, the linchpin of the school's first championship in 1994-95. "I was looking forward to this season because I thought there would be some close games. I'm just as shocked as anyone."
Lew Perkins, UConn's longtime athletic director, insists that, all things considered, this was Auriemma's best effort.
"In my opinion, he's the best coach in women's basketball," Perkins said Wednesday from Spokane, Wash., where the men's team meets Utah on Thursday. "Every year, he consistently puts us in this position. People in the past have always said he has the great players and he should win. Well, we have one great player this year and a bunch of good ones -- and guess what, he's still winning."
Villanova head coach Harry Perretta, the man whose team ended UConn's win streak and one of Auriemma's closest friends, said Auriemma was forced to change the way he coaches.
"Last year his philosophy was to keep them focused," Perretta said. "They were so good, that was his main job. This year he had to teach a lot of young kids and develop them. I didn't know if the young players could develop fast enough. But he found a way to blend them in and teach them and not disrupt the team. I'd say it was his best effort."
Ohio State head coach Jim Foster, another Auriemma crony, isn't so sure.
"It's such a relative judgment," Foster said. "Remember, two of the teams he's coached finished undefeated. And while you may look at last year's team that lost four of the first six picks in WNBA draft, is there a chance that there are still four or five first-round draft choices on that roster now? Yes, it's possible.
"In the rush to label things, I think you risk minimizing the accomplishments of the other teams, of not enjoying what you have right in front of you. This team he has right now is really something special."
Building a foundation
Back in September, UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey was browsing in the lingerie department of a local department store when she was approached by a fan.
"I mean, I'm looking at underwear," said Dailey, who has been with Auriemma for all 18 seasons. "This man, a fan, comes right over and says, 'This year we'll see if you and Geno can really coach.' That was before the season started. Now it's March and everyone's saying it was expected."
In truth, Dailey and Auriemma are victims of their own ability to build basketball teams. The loss to Villanova devastated the state's rabid fans, but merely confirmed what the coaches already knew: The Huskies weren't as good as most people thought. Believe it or not, there are more holes in this team than any in UConn's last nine seasons. Victories over Tennessee (in overtime) and then-No. 1 Duke by a seemingly comfortable margin of 12 points concealed some fundamental flaws.
Dailey freely admits that mistakes she and Auriemma made led to the current situation. Originally, there was a Class of 2003 player on the roster, Kennitra Johnson. But when she left the team after her sophomore year for personal reasons, UConn's leadership candidates were narrowed down solely to Taurasi. In the future, Dailey said, there will be no one-member recruiting classes.
Auriemma wasn't exactly sure how to approach this young group. In fact, when the team began practicing in the fall, Taurasi and Dailey both thought he wasn't hard enough on them. When he torqued up his approach, he wondered if he went too far. They are, as Dailey pointed out, "a group of kids that need you to be demanding."
While Auriemma stops short of making any qualitative assessments, he does say that, in terms of quantity, the coaches have coached more than ever before.
"We taught more in preseason, especially," Auriemma said. "Over and over again. We were forced to be more precise in our explanations, more specific. Basically, it was the absence of concentration from day to day, week to week, month to month. That's what separates your immature teams from veteran teams.
"You tell them, and -- boom! -- they execute it. Then, two days later, running the same thing, three out of five guys go to different spots."
Jamelle Elliott, who was a starting forward on UConn's first championship team, is in her sixth season as an assistant coach at her alma mater. She credit's Auriemma's brutal practices -- sometimes the Huskies starters employ their half-court defense against seven or eight offensive players, some of them men.
"Sometimes," Elliott said, "the games are a relief. The bottom line is we just threw them into the fire. So, sure, they got burned a few times. Our freshmen, to our surprise, gelled well at the beginning of the season. They had to be on the floor -- they had no choice. They had to at least act like they knew what was going on."
The learning curve, according to Dailey, is usually constant: Freshmen just don't get it, sophomores understand what is required but can't deliver on a consistent basis. By the time players are juniors, they're usually on board. Even last year's dream Class of 2002 took awhile to assimilate Auriemma's system. They were sophomores in late December 1999, practicing before a game at Oklahoma, when the breakthrough occurred.
"We were doing a defensive drill, the help-and-recover drill," Dailey said. "I remember vividly saying to Tamika (Williams), 'You got it!' It took more than a year, but they got it."
Was there a "eureka!" moment this year?
Dailey offers a mock scowl. "Uh, no," she said. "There hasn't been a they've-got-it moment. We haven't had it -- not yet."
The anti-eureka moment? The first half against Notre Dame on Feb. 23. Teresa Borton, a 6-foot-3 sophomore center for the Irish, torched the Huskies for 17 points in the first half on 6-for-7 shooting -- even though Dailey had reviewed the strategy before the game. In the second half, after a tongue-lashing in the locker room, the Huskies tightened up and Borton scored only four points.
"Playing for Geno you don't 'get' him until your junior year," Lobo said. "He called me the worst post player in America, but until your junior year you don't understand that he's trying to motivate you. I think instead of coaching so hard, he's had to step back and work a little harder to connect with these kids."
Even in the best of circumstances, Auriemma is pathologically pessimistic. Sure he struts around like a peacock, impeccably tailored and coiffed, but he is terminally convinced -- sometimes to the point of nausea -- that his team cannot, will not win. Painfully aware of his players' shortcomings, Auriemma has twisted slowly in the wind as they have zigzagged to 31 victories in 32 games.
Geno's best year?
There's no doubt in my mind that this has been Geno Auriemma's best coaching performance. This season, the UConn coach has had to teach a lot more than in recent years. That wasn't the case during last season's NCAA title run, when four talented, experienced players already knew Auriemma's system and "all he had to do" was coach.
This season, Auriemma has taken a handful of freshmen, and several players who didn't see much playing time in big games last season, and made them understand his offense and defense, how to play in certain situations and what to do to win. That is often very hard to teach to young players.
What's more impressive is the fact that Auriemma was smart enough to start the process last season. Auriemma made sure players such as Ashley Battle and Maria Conlon were paying attention and making progress. He knew the time would come when Bird and Cash and Jones and Williams were no longer on the roster. And although no one expected UConn to win its first 31 games of the season, we should have known the Huskies would do just fine because Auriemma had made sure they weren't going into 2002-03 totally blind.
Auriemma is an extremely gifted coach, and over the years he and his staff have gotten a lot better. It's especially evident in how much better he handles his players now. Diana Taurasi is a good example. Auriemma knew he would have to reign her in at times, but that it would work best if he gave her a little freedom.
Auriemma has not only improved on how he teaches, but in what he teaches as well.
Is he having fun yet?
"I've been miserable all year," Auriemma said. "Suffering is a good thing, right. If you ain't suffering, you ain't happy. I was brought up that way. Being Italian and Catholic, that's too much guilt to overcome."
This is vintage Auriemma, self-loathing wrapped in a devastating one-liner. But ask Auriemma to define "fun" and he comes back with a serious (and curious) answer.
"The more effort you put into it, the more you give of yourself, the more difficult it was," Auriemma said, "looking back, the more fun it was."
Instilling a belief
A few days ago, with his team gathered around him on the floor at Gampel Pavilion, Auriemma said, "If you guys make the Final Four, history will look back and say that was one of the greatest efforts ever in the NCAA Tournament."
And while this is typically overstated, it is not a completely absurd thought.
Clearly, there is talent on this team -- Taurasi and Strother were both consensus national high school players of the year -- but at the elite level of women's collegiate basketball there is no substitute for experience. For context, consider the vaunted Class of 2002. Even with Abrosimova and Ralph in the lineup, the Huskies lost to Iowa State in the regional semifinals.
"I remember calling them into my office," Auriemma recalled, "and going, 'So, you've been telling the whole world what hot (stuff) you are, here's your chance to make history.' And they were awful, because it dawned on them that talking about it is one thing, doing it is something else."
In the final analysis, what Auriemma has given this young team is belief. And isn't that what coaching really is?
"It's not all Xs and Os," said Perkins, the athletic director. "Our kids believe they're the best and should be the best. We weren't picked No. 1 as Duke was at the beginning of the season, but we went down and beat them. Going into the tournament we're No. 1.
"When you lose what we lost, you have to give him credit for convincing them that they can play with anybody."
As Meghan Pattyson, who was a player on UConn's first Final Four team in 1991, said, "That's why the kids come here. They expect to get to the Final Four. For this team, though, the margin for error is smaller than it has been. So many things have to happen for them."
Before the season began, Perretta told Auriemma he was going to have to calm down. Patience, the Villanova coach told him, was the virtue that would allow him to survive the season. To a degree, Auriemma followed his advice.
"He knew I was right," Perretta said. "And he was a little calmer this year. He told me that."
Foster, too, has seen the change.
"I think for the team to have lost a game last year, so many things would have had to take place at same time, to derail that team would have taken something incredible," the Ohio State coach said. "Maybe he only had to coach, in terms of Xs and Os, maybe four, five times last year. Emotionally keeping the team harmonious and challenging them.
"But this is a team where you've got to show up every day to coach. And now you come into a season where you wake up every day having to tweak something, having to use a part of your brain you haven't in quite awhile. My guess is when this season's over, he would have enjoyed this more."
The other day, after another in a series of missteps in practice, Auriemma turned to Dailey and said, "Is this what other coaches have been dealing with for the last nine years?"
Yes, she told him.
"We've been spoiled," Dailey said. "It's been a long time since we've been in this position.
"I don't worry about the pressure we put on players and the pressure they put on themselves. But I don't want them to feel it's the end of the world if they don't win the championship. I want them to enjoy the process. I mean it was two years since we lost. We lose in the Big East final to Villanova ... they hadn't beaten us in 10 years and we had won nine straight Big East titles. And yet you almost feel like you should leave."
Ultimately, the pressure falls on Auriemma. This year, he acknowledged, he's feeling it more than ever.
"What scares me," Auriemma said, "is that I might have set the bar so high even I can't reach it. I've created a situation where whatever they do, it's not enough."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.