Spotlight shines again on Geno, Huskies
ST. LOUIS -- Five years ago in New Orleans, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma had that James Cameron "I'm king of the world!" moment. Diana Taurasi, his player alter-ego, had just led the Huskies to their third consecutive NCAA title.
It was UConn's fifth national championship overall, and it came at the expense of archrival Tennessee in the final for the second straight year.
Then well, how do you follow "Titanic?" It's not as if the Huskies' ship sank after "We Got Diana" graduated. It just didn't sail as far as Auriemma wanted it to. He always wants to cross the finish line first.
In 2005, UConn lost to Stanford in the Sweet 16. The next year came a stinging defeat in Bridgeport, Conn., to Duke in the Elite Eight.
LSU knocked out the Huskies in the 2007 Elite Eight. Then last year, it was Stanford again, this time in the national semifinals.
During that time, two programs won NCAA titles for the first time (Baylor and Maryland), and Tennessee won the other two. Coach Pat Summitt didn't say, "We got Candace Parker, and you don't," but it would have been true. Parker pulled the Orange Crush through in its tight moments during two runs to the title, just as Taurasi had in 2003 and 2004 for UConn.
The 2007-08 season meant another coronation for Tennessee and the first time since 1994 that Auriemma's program didn't meet Summitt's. That's because in the summer for 2007, Summitt had canceled the series without giving any official explanation. It wasn't as if there were a dearth of motives, including a recruiting battle gone sour over prized prospect Maya Moore.
The reason Auriemma suggested for the series ending -- which was basically, "She hates my guts" -- seems a bit harsh but certainly not far off the mark, either. And whether Summitt's feelings are really that extreme, there are fans of the game who don't care much for the guy who described himself Monday, on the eve of the national championship game, as, "Neurotic and Italian and Catholic."
He was describing the "reasons" he tends to look for the sky falling on the clearest blue day. Why, even now when he's closing in on a title (and Tennessee lost in the first round) he has to have some laments.
One way to look at his team's matchup with Louisville is that the Huskies have given the Cardinals absolutely no daylight. In two previous meetings this season, UConn won by 28 and 39 points.
But the way Auriemma looks at it is, "It's way too much familiarity between both teams. A lot more than you'd like to have at this time of year."
Yes, he can sound like the glass-half-empty guy if you only read his words on paper. Just as he can seem like the arrogant guy, the smart-aleck guy, the "How dare he say that!" guy. Again, if you only read the words, rather than hear them. If you don't know about the inflection, the facial expression, the tone, the context.
If you want to make out Auriemma as the bad guy, you can do it. But it's a really big mistake.
"I believe I'm a little more cautious about a lot of things," he says, describing how he's different now than back in 1995, when he won his first national championship. "I'm not as free-spirited as I was back then. I can't just go about doing what I want to do when I want to do it. You always gotta worry about what you say, how you say it and how it's going to be interpreted."
He's a genuine person. What people don't always see is how much wisdom he tries to instill in us, how much he does see the bigger picture. People may see him as just this really successful, all-about-basketball kind of guy. But even if I'd never picked up a basketball, if I'd just hung around him for four years, I'd learn things.” -- Maya Moore on UConn coach Geno Auriemma
It's quite funny to hear him say this, because Auriemma as "cautious" is still bolder and more forthright than just about anybody else at wide-open throttle.
Auriemma is a born entertainer, but he was not meant to be taken in small-clip sound bites. If you only heard or saw, "So, yeah, they are a bunch of pansies," in regard to folks from the West Coast, you totally would misinterpret what Auriemma was actually saying Saturday.
In four paragraphs, he tackled some of the stereotypes that all of us know even the most well-meaning people succumb to. When someone asked about Stanford being "soft," Auriemma wasn't afraid to cut right through the euphemisms.
He could have so very easily ducked or dodged it, pretended he didn't know that the unspoken question was pretty specifically about whether Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen really were all that "tough" because they are white.
Alarm bells! Look out! Controversy! Don't say anything! Too scary! Doesn't pay to be frank! Your words will get twisted! It will get blown out of proportion! Just throw out a few clichés! Don't go there!
Yet Auriemma does go there, and some people seem to dislike him for that, especially. Rather than applaud his courage and candor, they resent those traits. They shake their heads and say, "Geno thinks he can get away with anything!"
Which is a shame, because they're very often missing great insight.
"White kids are often looked upon as being soft," he said. "So Stanford's got a tremendous amount of really good players who because they don't look like Tina Charles or Maya Moore, the perception out there is going to be, 'Well, they must be soft.' I think that's a bunch of bull.
"People [in] the sports world like to make judgments on people by how they look. And it's grossly unfair. I had somebody say, 'Well, you know, Stanford's really disciplined.' As if to say we're not."
Right there, Auriemma tackled the issue and wrestled it to the ground. Players who make it to the Final Four are all tough and smart and disciplined -- no matter what they "look" like.
And the remark about West Coast folks? That was said in trademark Auriemma sarcasm.
Those kinds of comments are things he generally prefaces with, "I know this will get me in trouble." But he doesn't allow himself to back away from honesty any more than he would allow one of his players to only box out when she felt like it.
Ask any player from any of his teams over 24 seasons in Storrs, and the words, "Coach tells it like it is," would probably come from all of them.
The same blunt truthfulness that might frustrate them as freshmen -- Renee Montgomery said former assistant Tonya Cardoza had to run interference for her as a rookie because Auriemma could get so irritated -- is the very thing the Huskies come to rely on heavily as they mature.
And Moore says it's not even about benefitting just from the obvious track record Auriemma has for developing players' skills.
"He's a genuine person," Moore said. "What people don't always see is how much wisdom he tries to instill in us, how much he does see the bigger picture. People may see him as just this really successful, all-about-basketball kind of guy. But even if I'd never picked up a basketball, if I'd just hung around him for four years, I'd learn things.
"He relates a lot of what we do to life. When we go off to do other things besides basketball, there's no doubt that because of what we've learned here, we're going to be successful at it. He values character, and I think he's happy this year, because we're the type of team that everybody genuinely values character, too."
Auriemma is on the verge of another perfect season, with one big obstacle left. Let's not discount Louisville. Auriemma isn't. But if UConn wins, getting the trophy would take him back to the pinnacle, just as he was in 1995, 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2004. That is, the pinnacle as it's typically judged.
But what Moore says tells you that, national championship or not, Auriemma's always at the top of his profession.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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