Auriemma a great fit for Team USA
UConn coach long due the honor and won't be bothered by pressure to win
They love him! Yeah, yeah, yeah! They love him! Yeah, yeah, yeah! They love him. Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah!
In Connecticut, they do indeed feel that way about coach Geno Auriemma, who we now know will guide the 2012 U.S. women's Olympic hoops team in the land of the Beatles. Look out, tabloid press, Geno's going for gold in the London Games.
Auriemma's appointment as national team coach is a joyous second stanza for UConn fans, who just celebrated the school's sixth NCAA women's hoops championship. Auriemma is their X's and O's genius, teacher/tactician extraordinaire, wiseacre nonpareil.
It is true that a store owner in East Hartford once put up a sign in his window that read, "Geno is God."
It is not true that God finally agreed to comment after relentless pursuit from reporters who cover the Huskies, saying, "Tell the sign guy to leave me out of this. I tend to have extremely high approval ratings in the South, and I'd like to keep it that way."
Although Huskies fans might believe that actually could be true -- and not just because the highly competitive UConn media could get anyone's phone number, but because they think Geno is not as appreciated elsewhere as he is in the Northeast, and that even the "real" God is well aware of that.
Especially not in that giant area below the Mason-Dixon Line, where Southern schools such as Delta State, Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, Texas, Tennessee and Texas Tech had won collegiate national championships before, as they say with some acidity, UConn "invented" women's basketball in 1995.
But in 2012, the bridges between North and South and East and West and Midwest (and any other slice of our American pie) will be connected. Even the Rocky Toppers will be pulling for Auriemma, who called his national team appointment "overwhelming."
And when he says he never thought he'd have this opportunity, it's not hyperbole. USA Basketball has gone through different stages in regard to how it has selected coaches for the national team.
Dating back to the first appearance of women's basketball in the Summer Games -- 1976 -- the first five Olympic coaches were part of the who's who in the sport's inner circle.
Billie Moore, then leading a powerful UCLA squad, was the first Olympic coach. She was followed by LSU's Sue Gunter (who had the misfortune of being coach for the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games), Tennessee's Pat Summitt, NC State's Kay Yow and then-Rutgers coach Theresa Grentz.
Grentz's team took bronze in the 1992 Barcelona Games, which surprised and alarmed USA Basketball. Consecutive gold medals in the previous two Olympics had given the United States a little too much confidence.
The impression was Team USA had gotten so far ahead of the rest of the world -- thanks largely to the American college game that had blossomed between 1976 and '92 -- that all the United States had to do was show up and win.
So a different game plan was executed for 1996, as the United States funded a traveling team and full-time head coach that toured for 10 months leading up to the Olympics.
It worked to great success -- the Americans dominated the Atlanta Games -- but the cost to Stanford's Tara VanDerveer was more than any future college coach would ever be asked to pay. It seemed big at the time, but in retrospect, it seems even bigger.
She missed out on an entire season coaching a team that was a strong contender for the national championship, a team that had some of Stanford's most famed players, including Kate Starbird and Jamila Wideman.
Imagine Summitt giving up a year of coaching Chamique Holdsclaw or Candace Parker. Or Auriemma walking away from a season with Diana Taurasi or Maya Moore.
Starting with the 1996 Summer Games, U.S. women's basketball has won four consecutive Olympic gold medals. Anything less than gold is a major, major disappointment. Which is one of many reasons why Auriemma is perfectly suited for this role. He's used to the pressure of always being expected to win it all. ... it's hard to imagine anyone could legitimately argue he wasn't long due this honor.
Well, Auriemma won't have to do that. The emergence of the WNBA took away the opportunity to have Team USA do any kind of long-term tour before the Olympics, but the overall benefits of the league certainly outweigh that. (Although it will always be a concern to United States coaches that their players don't practice as a team as much as other countries before the Summer Games.)
After going with "unattached" coaches in Nell Fortner (2000) and Anne Donovan (2008) and a WNBA coach in Van Chancellor (2004), USA Basketball returns to an active college coach for this job.
But Auriemma will not have to step away from UConn. He just won't take any time off. Because this is not just for the Olympics, of course. Auriemma also will guide the national team in the FIBA World Championship in 2010, and that's very important, too. The winner there gets an automatic invitation to the 2012 Olympics, and that's not to be taken for granted.
The U.S. team lost to Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 world championship and so had to gain entrance into the Beijing Games via a qualifying tournament. Not to mention it just plain stung for the United State to lose any international competition.
Starting with the 1996 Summer Games, U.S. women's basketball has won four consecutive Olympic gold medals. Anything less than gold is a major, major disappointment.
Which is one of many reasons why Auriemma is perfectly suited for this role. He's used to the pressure of always being expected to win it all. When you consider a 36-2 season in 2007-08 wasn't "enough" because it ended in the national semifinals, that tells you all you need to know about what Auriemma has become accustomed to dealing with.
All joking aside about Auriemma's popularity gap in the South, it's hard to imagine anyone could legitimately argue he wasn't long due this honor. A member of the Naismith and women's basketball halls of fame, the only remaining blank on his résumé was Olympic head coach. It would have been an inexplicable injustice had he never gotten that opportunity.
He was an assistant to Fortner for the 2000 Olympics, so he has already experienced what the Summer Games are like on the sideline. He also had three previous USA Basketball assignments before that.
And this is the right time in his life to juggle all the responsibilities he'll have for the next three years in leading his college program and the national team. He and wife Kathy's three children are all adults now. And at age 55, he still has the energy and enthusiasm to do this.
With a capable staff at UConn, led by associate head coach Chris Dailey, Auriemma has a stellar support system. Plus, it seems very likely that he'll have at least a few former Huskies on the national team to help the process.
Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi were on the 2008 Olympic squad, and it's very likely that if both are healthy they will be on the 2010 FIBA World Championship team. Projecting to the 2012 Olympics, Bird will be nearing 32 (her birthday is in October) and Taurasi will be 30. Both should still be in their primes, but Bird, in particular, might be pushed then by younger players. Perhaps even by Renee Montgomery, who just finished her senior season at UConn.
By late July 2012, when the London Games begin, both Moore and Tina Charles will be 23 -- although Charles is a season ahead of Moore in school. Both could be first-time Olympians in 2012.
One player we know Auriemma won't be coaching then is USA Basketball legend Lisa Leslie, who is retiring after this WNBA season. It's notable that the only loss by the national team in the past dozen years was that semifinal defeat at the 2006 worlds -- the tournament Leslie didn't compete in because she was dealing with family issues.
Making sure the Leslie void is filled will be a primary concern for Auriemma. He does benefit from center Sylvia Fowles' strong showing as an Olympic rookie in the Beijing Games, where she was Team USA's leading scorer and rebounder.
But there likely will be other Olympic veterans besides Leslie to replace. Tina Thompson (who'll be 37 by late July 2012), Katie Smith (who'll be 38), DeLisha Milton-Jones (who'll be 37) and even Tamika Catchings (who'll turn 33 just before the Olympics begin) are all 2008 Olympians who because of age or accumulation of injuries might not make it to the London Games.
The head coach does not pick the team, but he will have input, of course, into who makes the roster. And there, you can be assured, Auriemma is not going to show unwarranted UConn favoritism. Once he's in USA Basketball mode, college allegiance is out the window. It's about putting together the best team for the United States.
That said, the excellence of the UConn program almost guarantees some Huskies will be wearing red, white and blue.
And so will Auriemma, at the head of the ship. Hoping he'll achieve something in 2012 celebrated not just by his adoring fans in Husky Nation, but by the whole nation.
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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