Geno Auriemma never believed his tenure at UConn would last this long. A bad recruiting class or two early on and it might not have reached 24 seasons and counting. Tomorrow at Georgetown, he will coach in his 800th game and will be searching for his 678th victory in what has become a Hall of Fame career.
Geno said this was never the plan when he was hired in 1985. He remembered the factory his father once worked and he knew that he didn’t want to follow that path. Coaching seemed to be a fine option to explore.
“Where my father worked? Anything but that,’’ Geno said. “So this looks like a pretty good alternative. When you get into coaching, you don’t know what’s ahead of you. You don’t know what the outcome’s going to be. You could get bad players 5, 6 years in a row when you’re starting out, and the next thing you know that’s the only coaching job you get. So when I started here if it didn’t go the way it went, that could’ve been my one and only shot at being a head coach. In order to be able to coach 800 games that’s … Well, look up on the wall. It’s 12 First Team All-Americans, five national Players of the Year… and you get to coach 800 games.’’
Many things have changed over the years for Geno, including his pregame rituals. Early on he had to have the same amount of change in his pocket for every game. If he had a crumpled up dollar bill in his pocket he had to have that too. Whatever the amount in change and currency it had to match to keep the mojo going.
He said when he was on his health kick he and Meghan (Pattyson) Culmo had to run a 3.2-mile loop around campus. But since 1995 it has remained the same. And again, it is something tied to Culmo, who was then a Huskies’ assistant coach.
“I remember sitting in the locker room one day,’’ Geno said. “And I was like this (his head down, rubbing his temples) saying `I don’t know if I can do this any more. This is unbelievable.’ I think at the time we were undefeated and I thought, `Man, if we lose a game I’m going to feel (horrible) because these kids don’t deserve to lose. They’ve done all this, this and that, and I’m going to feel terrible if I can’t help them through this thing.’ So Meghan comes over (massaging his shoulders) saying, `Oh, man, it’ll be alright. Relax. Everything will be fine. Just relax.’ So she’s grabbing me on my shoulders saying, `Relax, It’ll be fine.’ We win. It’s the worst thing that could’ve happened because now before every game, somebody’s got to be Bundini Brown (Muhammad Ali’s assistant trainer/cornerman). `You’re the best champ. You’re the best there is. Everything will be alright. Don’t worry.’ Every game.’’
Culmo was ultimately replaced by Jamelle Elliott, who continues to serve as Geno’s Bundini Brown today. Why has Jamelle occupied that role for so long? Geno said he doesn’t want to ruin a winning hand.
The Huskies are a combined 485-41 with five national championships and eight trips to the Final Four since the start of the 1994-95 season.
“The newest guy on the coaching staff is responsible, except Jack (Eisenmann),’’ Geno said. “I have no interest in Jack doing it. No interest in Jack giving me two minutes. So for the last I don’t know however long she’s been here, Jamelle’s the official Bundini Brown. `You’re the best there is champ. Come on.’ And I’ve got to say, `Who’s going to play good tonight? Come on, tell me.’ `I think Tina’s going to play good.’ `No she’s not. She sucked at practice.’ `OK, I think Renee’s going to play good.’ `Nah, she’s got a bad look on her face.’ So she’s just in charge of convincing me that everything’s going to be alright.’’
Renee Montgomery, Maya Moore and Tina Charles are among 20 midseason candidates for the Wooden Award, which is given annually to the top player in the country. The Huskies are the only team with three players on the list, and the Big East leads all conferences with six selections.
Here’s the rest of the list: Jayne Appel (Stanford), Chante Black (Duke), DeWanna Bonner (Auburn), Jessica Breland (UNC), Kristi Cirone (Illinois St.), Alysha Clark (Middle Tennessee St.), Rachele Fitz (Marist), Jantel Lavender (Ohio State), Shalee Lehning (Kansas State), Angel McCoughtry (Louisville), Courtney Paris (Oklahoma), Epiphanny Prince (Rutgers), Andrea Riley (Oklahoma State), Kristi Toliver (Maryland), Ashley Walker (California), Monica Wright (Virginia) and Shavonte Zellous (Pittsburgh).