It’s always an event when Geno Auriemma holds court. There’s always a wide range of topics covered and there’s always a refreshing mix of emotion, sincerity and sarcasm sprinkled in. Geno was again in rare form this afternoon at Gampel Pavilion.
The occasion was that he was officially presented with the Naismith National Coach of the Year Award. It was the fifth time Geno has been honored by the Atlanta Tip-Off Club. The award was not broken like the AP trophy he recently received in the mail. And it did not say “Men’s Coach of the Year’’ like the trophy from the USBWA did.
Geno talked for 90 minutes. He talked about such topics as what winning national awards mean to him; what inspires him at this point in his career; his future; how UConn will be once he leaves; next season; the team meeting he held following the flight home from Tampa April 7; and whether or not he believed that this would be the off-season that members of his coaching staff would finally land head coaching positions.
Below are the comments Geno provided:
WINNING THE NAISMITH AWARD FOR THE FIFTH TIME
“Somebody asked me one time does it get to be old hat,’’ Auriemma said. “I don’t think that having someone, whether it’s an individual or whether it’s a group, recognize you for what you do and how you do it ever gets to be old hat. I don’t think it ever gets old. It’s not why you coach. You don’t coach because you hope you get another plaque with your name on it. But it’s something I think the players and the coaching staff and everyone else associated with Connecticut basketball can take a great deal of pride in. It’s always a little bit humbling too.’’
“It’s funny,’’ Auriemma said. “Sometimes you win these awards because you win the most games. I can remember in particular at least once or twice that I’ve won this award when I did think we had the best players, the best team. You still have to coach them, don’t get me wrong. You still have to do everything right. But you know you’re getting rewarded because you have the best record and you have the best team. But that’s generally because you have the best players. What’s different about this year is that we as a coaching staff did have to come up with different ways to get things done. When Kalana and Mel were injured and with Brittany not being able to play on a regular basis it was pretty challenging for our coaching staff. It was a struggle every day to try to keep it together and to try to figure out different ways to hide it from everybody else. No matter how tough and how willing and how courageous our guys were throughout the whole run, you knew deep down inside that if it ever got to the point where they could expose you for what you really are that it was going to be hard. Because usually when you get to the Final Four you’re able to have Plan A, B and C. And we knew going in we had Plan A and it better work. And most times we were able to make it work. And I think that’s probably why we’re here today is that we were able to find a way to make it work.’’
WHAT INSPIRES HIM
“I can’t say that there’s any one thing in particular that you wake up every day and say, `I’m driven to do this’ because I think when you do that you’re invariably going to get in your own way and put the emphasis on the wrong things,’’ Auriemma said. “I think there was something that happened my very first year in coaching here at Connecticut. I remember being on a bus ride and we had just lost to somebody and it was a really tough loss. And I remember the look on the kids’ faces and they so desperately wanted to have a winning season that year and not finish eighth or ninth in the league. And I remember saying to myself if I could ever get these kids to feel like they’ve won, that they’ve been successful this year in whatever it is they set out to do that would be a tremendous experience for me and for them. And I don’t know that much has changed. I think whether it’s five more years, 10 more years … I don’t know. I want to be able to sit in the locker room and know that the season ended when it was supposed to end and that we did everything we could to extend it. But I know that’s not possible because unless it ends with winning the last game you always look back and wonder what you could’ve done differently. But this really doesn’t affect my life that much as much as you appreciate it. Another national championship trophy wouldn’t affect my life that much. But I do think that 10 more players who leave here thinking that this was the ultimate experience … winning a national championship at the University of Connecticut and knowing that you had a hand in that. I think when I can no longer feel like I can do that then I think it’s time for me to stop coaching.’’
END OF HIS CAREER
“You’re getting to an age now where you’re past the point where you used to think old people die,’’ Auriemma said. “Now you get to an age where people your age (die). And we all know a good friend who passed away recently (Manchester Journal Inquirer columnist Randy Smith). So you do start thinking about when’s the end of this chapter in your life. And, for me, I know it’s going to come. I don’t know when, though. I don’t know if it’s five years or 10 years. But I know it’s coming and I know it’s coming soon. And I think what scares you is what are you going to do when it ends when that’s all you’ve done your whole life. That’s pretty powerful. You try not to think about but, but you get reminded that it’s coming. We had Bobby Knight’s wife come to practice here during the NCAA tournament when he was doing an ESPN thing. And we talked a lot about what do you do when you stop coaching. And I had sent a note to him when he set the win record. And I said, `I don’t think I’ll ever catch you because by the time I’m your age I hope I’m doing something constructive with my life.’ And he wrote me back saying, `You know what? You don’t realize how happy you’ll be when you’re doing what I’m doing right now.’ So there is life after coaching. I just don’t know what that is.’’
FUTURE OF PROGRAM POST-GENO
“I don’t think you can be at one place as long as I’ve been here and think that when you leave it’s going to go with you,’’ Auriemma said. “I think if you’re someplace five years and nothing existed before you got there and you created something and then you leave I think there’s a good chance that that may be the case. But when you’ve been here as long as I’ve been here you would like to think that this is bigger than you. North Carolina basketball is still North Carolina basketball because they’ve been good for so long. Now, have we been good for that long? No. But I’d like to think that there is something in place here that as long as the people that are responsible for it want it to be that way then I think it would be pretty hard to not have it that way after I’m gone. Some schools are just that. How they became that way you can say probably due to certain individuals. But once they become that way and they’re like that for an extended period of time … It can happen. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen it happen. But I’d like to think that if the right things were done here when I’m not here anymore and I’m not coaching here it’s not going to go anywhere.’’
“I don’t want to be someplace watching games and watching ESPN,’’ Auriemma said. “Well, I won’t watch ESPN anymore when I’m not here. No matter how much they’re paying me to work there I won’t watch it. I don’t ever want the University of Connecticut to ever not be the best women’s basketball program in the country because I would like to think that when I’m not here somebody that I had some connection with is coaching here. I would like to think. But even if I’m not I don’t want anybody coaching here, I don’t want anybody in charge here that isn’t aspiring to do that. But, hopefully that’s down the road.’’
“There’s not even any point playing the season next year,’’ Auriemma said. “It’s already been determined. It’s already done. We’ve got our hotels picked out (at the Final Four in St. Louis). We know where we’re having our dinner the night before the championship game. I think today we’re going to the state capitol to work on when the parade is. So I think it’s already a done deal. I think when we’re on our fourth straight national championship and haven’t lost a game in the next four years I think if the Naismith people come up and give me a Coach of the Year award I think by that time I’ll probably say, `It’s old hat. It’s already been determined.’ Although my son told me when he found out I was getting this today, `That’s going to be the last one you get for a long time.’ I said, `Why?’ He goes, `You shouldn’t lose a game for the next three years.’ And these are people that like you who are saying that. These are family members saying that. Pretty scary, isn’t it.’’
HOW HAS THE COACHING STAFF DECOMPRESSED AFTER THE SEASON
“We were on the plane on the way back from Tampa Monday and I told the coaches to tell the players that there was going to be a team meeting at Gampel when we got back,’’ Auriemma said. “`Just get your stuff up to where you belong and get back down to Gampel and I’ll see you guys there.’ And we met for about two hours … coaches and players. We went over in those two hours exactly what we need to accomplish between now and next April in St. Louis. I didn’t think there was any better time to get that message across then the day after our last game. So we did. So we really haven’t had any time as a coaching staff since then to really kind of sit down together and look and say, `OK.’ There hasn’t been any come down from the emotions. It just hasn’t happened yet. And then it was recruiting. Now we’re working with guys on the court. And it probably won’t be until after graduation that there will actually be a certain `let’s sit down and talk about what happened and what the plan is for us as coaches.’ But we got some things across that Monday, and it was good. Because when we told them we were having a team meeting they thought we were handing out like watches from the Big East championship, rings for winning the regular season. I think what they got was less than watches and rings.’’
WHAT DID HE TELL PLAYERS DURING THE SEASON-ENDING MEETING
“You’re really in a tough spot,’’ Auriemma said. “When a season like this one ends you’re in a tough, tough spot because there isn’t anybody in America when those two kids got hurt would think that we’re going to win the national championship. And there wasn’t anybody I don’t think that could foresee what happened after those two kids got hurt until all of sudden we’re … Which is kind of ironic in its own self, that you’re the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship when one team has everybody back from a team that’s been to every Final Four the last 10 years it seems like. And one team won the national championship and is back with everybody. And you almost start to feel like, `What’s the right way to approach this with this group?’ How could you be the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship when you’re missing two guys that you probably know in your heart you can’t win it without them. That you could do everything up to this point, but you can’t win it without them unless you’re able to hide it one more weekend. But at the same time why shouldn’t you be the overwhelming favorite. So I don’t know which approach you’re supposed to take with the team. And I don’t think they do either. Like how do you feel about the season? Like tremendously proud of ourselves or, `man, how could we have not won that?’ And then how do you feel both.’ I don’t know. So I just chose to ignore it completely and just say, `Look, we just passed up an opportunity to win a national championship. And here’s why and here’s what we’re going to do about it.’’’
WHAT HE INITALLY SAW IN PLAYERS DURING THE MEETING
“I don’t think they understood what it was that we lost,’’ Auriemma said. “That’s the first thing that struck me. When they woke up Monday morning, I don’t think they had any idea what it was that was just lost. Because, see, so much of it was `Let’s get our seniors to the Final Four.’ Whoopee. Like, that in and of itself is a noble goal, but that’s not … if you’re a sophomore, or you’re a junior or you’re a freshman, you get up the next morning and you got your seniors to the Final Four. `OK, uhhhh, now what? How come there’s another game tomorrow?’ So you start to understand that as much fun as that is and as rewarding as that is, that’s not the point of going to the Final Four. The point of going to the Final Four is to win the national championship. So it wasn’t until they got back home and it was pointed out to them that they completely understood what the point of going to the Final Four is. And it’s not their fault. They just didn’t know. But there’s a big correlation between why Sue, Swin and those guys went 39-0 the year after they lost in St. Louis. When we left St. Louis (in 2001), those guys knew exactly what they left behind. You didn’t have to explain it to them. When they woke up the next morning, they knew exactly what was going on. And how they felt about it was reflected in the next 12 months. I wanted to get in there (with this team)… My bedside manner is that when that wound is open that’s the best time to pour some gasoline in there and light a match.’’
EXPECT MEMBERS OF THE COACHING STAFF TO LEAVE
“I’m always amazed at who gets jobs in this country,’’ Auriemma said. “I think the world as we know it right now is pretty simple. If you’re a minority candidate you can be involved in any job in America, and you’re probably going to be in the final two. There’s not an athletic director in America that won’t tell you, `Hey, look, I’m looking for a women’s basketball coach and if I can hire a minority woman that will be like dying and going to heaven.’ So it really doesn’t matter anymore whether you’re a good coach, bad coach, lots of experience, no experience, 21 or 41. It doesn’t matter if you fit the politically correct view of what everyone thinks their coach should look like and what they can get accomplished on their campus by `ooh, look what I did’ then you’ve got a chance to get any job in America. So fortunately or unfortunately for us my guys are like, `Well, I don’t want just any job, Coach. I want like a really good job and I don’t want to just live anywhere. I want to live in this particular area.’ And unfortunately for my guys, the job that they could’ve gotten, should’ve gotten, should be involved in the AD there always wants a head coach. And when they want a head coach there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing. No matter how good of a coach you’re going to be, it doesn’t matter how good of a coach you already are, when an athletic director says I want someone who’s been a head coach there’s nothing you can do about it. So I would think that most of the jobs that my coaches would look at would be jobs where they’re really good but they’re going to have to beat out an existing head coach. I would say right now chances are no, my guys aren’t going anywhere right now. But that could change. And it’s not because they don’t want to. Well, I think Chris doesn’t want to. She tries to sabotage my program every day to try to get my job. And she’s got half the people in Connecticut convinced that she’s the head coach anyway. But the other two guys – Tonya and Jamelle – I think are more ready than they’ve ever been and really want to. But it’s hard to give this up. Like if you a coach here and you have this it’s pretty hard to leave unless you have this burning desire to have to be a head coach to just leave and go some place.’’
DO THE YOUNG COACHES HAVE THE BURNING DESIRE TO BE A HEAD COACH
“When I left the University of Virginia, yeah, I did,’’ Auriemma said. “I was going to be a head coach come hell or high water and I didn’t care where. But when you’re making $20,000 a year you can feel like that. And when somebody offers you $30,000 you’ll go anywhere and take any job, which is what I did. But it’s not like that now. Now you go out and there’s 16,000 people at the Civic Center. You charter every game. Coach Auriemma lets you do whatever you want. A kid on our team has a problem with their game … Tonya, can you help me with this? Somebody asked me the other day. `Coach, what do you do to develop your players on the perimeter?’ I said, `I’ll have to think about that. I need a lifeline. Call Tonya.’ When you get to coach and do what you’ve always wanted to do, and you get the freedom and the kind of experience that we give our guys here it’s hard to walk away from it and just go anywhere. But at the same time you’re not going to get a Big 10 job or an ACC job because they’re all looking for head coaches. So they’re kind of in a quandary.’’
Geno said that people at Boston College have told him that they are looking for a head coach to replace Cathy Inglese.
“There’s some head coaches in the Big East that don’t make what my assistants make,’’ Auriemma said. “And that’s not why you would take the job. Jamelle and I have talked about this a lot. She said I would not take a job for the money. But what happens is – and this had happened to her already – where she’s offered a job, goes down there and what she’s getting paid is OK and she’ll do it. But then what they’re willing to pay her assistants she can’t hire anybody to live there. So now you’re stuck. `Yeah, I got a head job and I’m a head coach. But now I can’t hire anybody any good because they can’t afford to live here on what they’re going to get paid.’ So that’s a tough situation for those kids to be in. They deserve a great job, but that guy or that woman AD has got to be willing to take a chance. And if somebody took a chance on Tonya and Jamelle they wouldn’t be taking a chance. Not like some of the chances that people are taking out there today.’’