Geno Auriemma has won seven national championships at Connecticut, three in a row during one stretch and four at the end of undefeated seasons, including the last two.
He owns four coach of the year awards and the highest winning percentage among his Division I peers. Following a 65-64 win over Baylor on Tuesday night, his team remained on course to break college basketball's record of 88 straight wins.
But no matter what the numbers say, Auriemma will never get his due. That's because he coaches women.
Auriemma spends as much time worrying about that as he does about whether the Huskies' dominance is good for the game, a notion he dismissed just ahead of last year's NCAA tournament by saying, "You don't have to watch us. I'm OK with that."
He was not much more expansive the last time the subject of coaching a men's team was broached. Asked during a radio interview in April whether he'd ever inquired about a job, Auriemma's terse response was "never." He said the last time anyone called him about an opening "was about four years ago."
When asked to name the program, Auriemma replied "That's not important," and when pressed, he characterized it as a "high major ... trust me, it was a team that could make it to the Final Four."
He said further that he didn't expect UConn to talk to him about its men's team when Jim Calhoun finally calls it a career and either way, he wasn't even interested. End of story.
Yet there must be a few dozen men's programs where Auriemma would be an instant upgrade. What makes him a prime candidate, even more than his past success, is how everyone who ever played for him has no trouble staying focused on the present.
The Huskies have been almost unbeatable for most of the past decade not just because they're better individually than the people they're matched up against, or even because they're more disciplined as a unit. It's that they're hungrier, night in and night out, than every team they play. Auriemma is 10-1 as the top dog in games pitting No. 1 against No. 2, and an almost-as-impressive 3-1 as the underdog.
"The main thing that keeps us playing hard isn't any record," All-America senior Maya Moore, who scored 30 points against Baylor in UConn's 80th straight win, explained recently. "It's keeping that man satisfied.
"He doesn't just care about whether we win," she added. "He cares about how we play."
That distinction will likely get lost in the latest win, in part because Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey unwisely burned her last timeout with 8.1 seconds left, effectively handicapping her team's chances of getting off a good final shot.
Close as the final score was, a glance at the stats show the Huskies were not just more poised but motivated. They made 14 of 15 free throws compared to 12 of 28 for Baylor, and had nine fewer turnovers. They also won the rebounding battle, 40-35, and had more steals, 14-7.
The one thing UConn struggled all night to solve was Baylor's sophomore center, Brittney Griner, who's going to present problems for opponents for as long as she stays in the women's game. Tina Charles drew the assignment in the NCAAs last season, but she's gone on to the WNBA — part of a dozen-strong contingent UConn has sent to the pros in the last five years.
Auriemma is loaded with freshmen this season, and he tried matching Stefanie Dolson against Griner at the start of the game without much success. When Dolson picked up two fouls, he turned to another freshman, Samarie Walker, who was giving up 7 inches to Griner.
"I've never even seen a 6-8 female person before," Walker said afterward. "Stepping up there next to her, I was like, 'Oh my goodness, she really is big.'
"But once I got out there, I just played her like she was the same height," she added. "I didn't think she's 6-8, I'm 6-1."
That worked until Griner reclaimed the post midway through the second half, scoring 11 points to fuel a 27-4 run that put Baylor back in the game after trailing by 15.
"When we got up 15, we looked like, and acted like, and carried ourselves like, 'Yeah, we're UConn, this is what we do to people every night,'" Auriemma said. "Then they realized, 'Well, you didn't exactly do this to anybody. You just happened to be on the same team as the guys who did it.'
"And I'm not sure," Auriemma added, "they thought they could do it."
Yet he'd played a hunch precisely for that reason. He gave freshman Bria Hartley a start at point guard, along with a chance to follow in the footsteps of Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, who happened to be looking on from the stands. Hartley didn't disappoint, scoring eight points in the final 4 minutes, and Moore took over from there.
"If I could have written the scenario," Auriemma said, "I don't think I could have written it any better."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org
- Tina Charles
- college basketball
- Maya Moore
- she s gone
- Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey
- Jim Calhoun
- Geno Auriemma