Geno Auriemma’s parents, father Donato and mother Marsiella, held a number of jobs over the years after arriving in Greater Philadelphia from Italy in the 1940 1/4 u2032s.
They worked at the same candy factory in Norristown, Pa., earning maybe a combined $10 a day. Donato later got into piecework, creating cinder building blocks — back-breaking work. Marsiella took a job making throw rugs, surrounded by deafening machines and with damaging material running through her hands — one step up from sweatshop conditions, basically.
“But the part that really had an effect on me — and maybe it’s just DNA, I don’t know — is there was a stretch that my mother worked on an assembly line,” Auriemma said. “These components would come down the aisle, and everyone had a responsibility to put a particular piece together and pass it down.
“I remember her telling me when I was a little older: ‘When the guy walked in my first day, he was describing everyone’s responsibility, and me and this woman next to me had the same responsibility. I didn’t understand a word he said. But I just watched what the other woman was doing as he was describing it. When they asked if I knew what to do, I just nodded my head. And — you know what? — I never got one wrong.’”
Why did this story leave such an impression on Auriemma as a young adult?
Because it was confirmation that the right approach, no matter how daunting or uncomfortable the situation, actually makes perfection possible. That’s been his blessing in many ways, his curse in others.
“To me it was pay attention, dummy, and don’t get anything wrong,” Auriemma said. “What I’m saying is, as a coach, I felt like I have to win every game. Just like my mother had to get everything right. I have to win every game.”
Auriemma has lost 142 games in his 35 seasons at UConn. He’s also won 1,091. Assuming the 2020-21 season stays intact for a while, Auriemma will pass Pat Summitt as the sport’s all-time leader in victories in December or January. Summitt, who died in 2016, was 1,098-208 in 38 seasons at Tennessee.
Auriemma, 66, has won a record 11 national championships. He has won two Olympic Gold medals as coach of the U.S. national team. He resurrected a lost program upon arrival in Storrs in 1985, has helped lift women’s basketball to new heights since. He has six undefeated seasons, a 111-game winning streak, a 90-game winning streak. He has successfully recruited more top high school players than any coach in America, and has developed some of the best players in WNBA history.
The list of accomplishments is long.
The list of failures is long, too — in Auriemma’s mind, anyway.
And that’s what irks him today, what will drive him through tomorrow. Not so much the list of any opportunities squandered as coach at UConn — his teams have lost nine times in the Final Four, for instance — but the list established before his mother’s message became a lightbulb moment that probably changed basketball.
We can all experience perfection from time to time in life. None of us can sustain it throughout. Some of us are hellbent on chasing it forever — for ourselves, maybe, or for others after a closer look at the past.
“When I got this job, it wasn’t necessarily that I want to be the best coach that ever lived, that I want to become great,” Auriemma said. “It wasn’t that. It almost became I know exactly what I didn’t do. So that’s one reason why all the really good players who come out of high school turn out the way they do when they leave here. Because I always look at them and go, ‘There’s no humanly possible way that you are leaving here without me making you do all the extra stuff that I didn’t have the ability to do, that I didn’t have the persistence or the toughness to want to do.’ That’s how I coach now. I’m all over my guys to do the stuff they don’t want to do.”
Those close to Auriemma think he’s all about the little things, understandably so. But he believes the opposite. He says he’s more of a big-picture person. He’s both, really. It keeps spinning, this wheel of reward and torture. Following the spokes is quite fascinating.
Auriemma is among the greatest basketball coaches in history. Just as many times in this space, I’ve called him one of our state’s great thinkers.
On his mind in a recent conversation: He got A’s and B’s in grade school, but he rarely studied. He would have gotten straight A’s if he had. He did fine in college, too, aced classes he loved while studying political science at West Chester University. But why didn’t he put extra time into classes he didn’t enjoy or find easy? Moreover, why did he choose to attend West Chester in the first place? Why hadn’t he set higher goals, maybe LaSalle or St. Joseph’s? As a boy, Auriemma didn’t know a single person who had attended college, and his parents never learned to read or write. Still, why was simply going to any college good enough?
These are the things that eat away at him.
These are the things that were unimportant to him.
“But if you cut it open, I bet it was important,” he said. “I just didn’t want to admit it, because it would have taken a lot more effort by me. My regrets and my shortcomings, I think are a big reason why I’ve been successful as a coach. In everything I did [growing up], I did it to just get good enough. I never really put the time and effort and what it would have required to become great.”
We don’t often see the flames of what burns.
Auriemma is polished, easygoing in most settings, seemingly unfazed by the swirling pressure that surrounds the center of a basketball world of his own creation. He speaks patiently, clearly. He’s humorous in light moments, insightful in times of complication or duress. He breaks down basketball in ways the most experienced players, or most casual onlookers, can appreciate. He talks about the world in a way that challenges people to think deeply without creating a divide. He knows how to treat people. He carries himself in a way that suggests he processes every personal and professional emotion with such comfort.
That’s how it looks. Is that how it feels?
“I have more anxiety and more insecurities and more doubts than — as much as, maybe — anybody,” he said.
What’s all the charisma? The confidence?
“I just had this conversation the other day with someone,” Auriemma said. “We were talking about the idea that when you are a leader … we all are expected to be above reproach. Because you’re a leader. That must mean you have all the answers, which we don’t, which I don’t. You must never fall victim to insecurity and doubt. You must never be overwhelmed. You must always have a handle on this, right? You can see through the fog, right? You can always find that hidden gem that’s out there, right? You’re never at a loss for words, right? Emotionally, you’re always on top of things, right? Because you have to be. Because you’re a leader. Because people are counting on you. Because people are depending on you. Well, guess what? None of that is true. And during these last seven or eight months, I bet I’ve gone through every single solitary thing that [most] everyone else has gone through.”
Back on March 4, a Courant column ran under the headline, “This feels like the most complicated year of Geno Auriemma’s UConn career.”
He was involved with UConn’s transition to the Big East. The preseason denial of Evina Westbrook’s eligibility was a time-consuming frustration. The Huskies climbed to a No. 1 ranking, applying expectations the team was not necessarily built for. He missed a game after surgery related to diverticulitis. There was even a legal dispute about parking with neighboring businesses of his Manchester restaurant.
In January, UConn’s 98-game home winning streak ended with a loss to Baylor. Tennessee came to Hartford, a game with more emotional gravity than he anticipated. Assistant coach Jasmine Lister abruptly left the team for personal reasons. The U.S. National Team, featuring so many of his former players, came to the XL Center for an exhibition. Many of those players, and Auriemma, choked back tears because a day earlier, on Jan. 26, Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were killed in a helicopter crash.
On Feb. 24, Auriemma spoke to a crowd of about 20,000 at the Staples Center, and an international TV audience, during a celebration of life to honor Kobe and Gianna — close friends to Auriemma, personally, and to his program.
UConn lost to Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina but was playing its best basketball in March. The season was cut short March 12. COVID-19 had arrived. The months that followed in a pandemic included important discussions about racial injustice in the world. Auriemma’s team was among the first to proactively address the issue. His players were passionate, vocal. They remained so through this disturbing chapter in American history, up to and through an election showing how polarized this nation is.
“A hundred years from now people will be writing about the pandemic and the election and how it’s possible that two seismic occurrences could happen at the exact same time,” Auriemma said. “But if I had to use one word to describe 2020, the word would be that it was an awakening. I do think we were in a slumber. We just kind of accepted things as they were. We just moved along and didn’t pay attention to each other that much. We were hunkered down and doing our own thing and everybody is chasing their own dream, their own expectation. And I think 2020 woke not everybody, don’t get me wrong, but for me it was an awakening, as it was for an awful lot of people.”
This has been a year of death, division, vitriol. And isolation. Auriemma hasn’t seen much of his mother. She is 89 and still living in the Philadelphia area.
Donato Auriemma, who died in 1997, never truly embraced American culture. He simply felt it was important to join his brothers here. He found jobs and worked and brought home a paycheck. He played his role.
Marsiella, also initially reluctant, came to view the move as opportunity, understanding that life in Italy was never going to improve. She became a naturalized American citizen in 1976. Geno carried a green card until doing the same in 1994. He says his personality is more similar to his mother’s than this father’s.
“There was more of a wanting to understand what was going on around her,” Auriemma said. “There was more of, I want to be part of this and I want to try to do my part. And there was this overwhelming sense of responsibility that she took upon herself. My personality is, I’ll give it a shot. What the hell do I have to lose? I’ll try anything. I’m not worried about failure. I don’t want to fail. But I’m not one of these guys that’s afraid to take risks because they might fail.”
This year has put all of our imperfections, even our failures, under a microscope.
“[People] were forced to see things that they did not want see before,” Auriemma said. “They were forced to deal with things that they did not want to deal with before. We always knew that people in America were inherently selfish. But it didn’t come until this year just how incredibly selfish we are. As Pat Riley said back in the day: The disease of me. This particular year gave everyone a chance to prove it more so than ever before.
“People in 2020 were forced to make a lot of decisions about who they are, where they’re going, what does the big picture look like? Do I choose to look at my situation or do I choose to look at our situation? Do I want to live in a world of selfies, where it’s about me, or do I want to live in a world where it’s a panorama of all of us?”
See how he asked us to think instead of telling us what to think? Auriemma doesn’t have all the right answers but he does search for them, always, like he seeks perfection, always. The most successful guy in Connecticut sports is incredibly hard on himself and those who play for him, knowing he can’t recapture any lost potential of his past but understanding the opportunity for players in self-discovery.
Being a basketball coach is about more than basketball. Particularly now.
“You know who’s going to lead the way to get us back to our center?” Auriemma said. “Young people.”
Auriemma is charged with developing at least 12 of them a year.
“The words that I use all the time with them is, this is what adults have done to you,” Auriemma said. “This is where they’ve placed you. And now you have an opportunity to take all that goodness that’s in the world and make it the foundation of who we are, as opposed to being labeled. Right now everything comes with a label. It’s almost like we’ve turned the whole world — our world, anyway — into a sports metaphor. You’re a 3-point shooter. You’re a relief pitcher. No, actually, you’re a middle reliever. No, you’re a closer. So everybody has a label. ‘Oh, you mean I can’t do anything but that?’ Nope.”
The age of specialization, among other things.
“And when you specialize that means you are saying that people are special,” Auriemma said. “We’re all special. Then, who’s average? Don’t there have to be average people in the world? And don’t there have to be above-average people? And don’t there have to be below-average people? We’re all special in the eyes of God. But we’re not all special, living on this earth, in what we do and what we can accomplish. So now someone who walks into any situation whatsoever, just by being there, they are special. Well then, what do you label Einstein if everyone else is special? What’s his label?”
He laughed. A loud belly laugh to recognize the ridiculous. Auriemma understands the little things. Which makes him understand the big picture.
His mission, it seems, is to make sure his players have an equal appreciation for both.
“My mind can’t comprehend that I’ve been here more than half my life,” he said. “These questions of, can I still do this, am I still effective, do I still communicate well with kids, can I still teach the game, do I still have the temperament for it? All these things that go through your mind more often than they did when you were 50, and to look back and to think you’ve been able to do it this well for this long, it’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming.”
It doesn’t often look that way.
“Maybe I just hide it better,” he said. “Maybe I’m just able to play through it.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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