Recharged UConn coach Geno Auriemma opens up after a month of grief and sickness, talks about finding a new perspective

Geno Auriemma was a curious kid growing up. The UConn women’s head coach is now an 11-time national champion and Hall of Famer, but back then he used to work alongside older Italian men, helping the stonemasons and bricklayers and carpenters as they went about their days. And he always had questions for them.

“I would want to know something and they would just look at me and shake their head,” Auriemma recalled before the Huskies practice on Saturday. “And I would keep asking, ‘Well, why is it like that? Why? Why? Why?’ I always wanted to know why. ‘Why?’ And their answer was pretty simple. In Italian, ‘Perché è così.’ Because it is. That’s the only explanation.”

It took Auriemma until recently to truly understand the meaning of the Italian phrase. He’s been through a lot over the last month or so. He lost his mother, Marsiella, who died at age 91 on Dec. 8. Then he started feeling physically sick. He would end up missing four games from Dec. 21 to Jan. 5, leaving associate head coach Chris Dailey to lead the Huskies in his absence.

After taking the time away he needed to grieve and heal and recharge, Auriemma returned to the sidelines in a win at St. John’s Wednesday. Now back and feeling better than he has in a long time, he’ll be coaching the Huskies on Sunday against Georgetown with a new perspective.

“It was good because it cleared my mind of a lot of things and it made me realize how simple it is to do this if you just keep it in perspective and keep it simple,” Auriemma said. “Nothing is as hard and nothing is as complicated as we make it. There’s a very simple answer to most things. You just got to be willing to accept that you don’t have any control over it, that you can’t dictate how it’s going to go. And once you realize that, I think it’s kind of liberating. … Once you relinquish control of it, you do feel a sense of calm and peace.

“You don’t understand, I’ve coached for 35, 40 years thinking that if we don’t win the national championship I’m going to get fired, that’s not a healthy way to live. So you have to come to a realization ... in reality, none of that’s true. But these are things that you carry around with you. So I think this has given me an opportunity to just go, it is what it is.”

Auriemma thought he was prepared to face the death of his mother when he went to back to Pennsylvania to say goodbye in early December, or at least he talked himself into thinking that he was.

“You think you can handle whatever’s coming next and the next couple of days when you know it’s eminent,” Auriemma said. “You’re there for three days and you’re up 24 hours a day. And you try to get everything done that you need to get done, say everything you need to say and and try to put a final bow on it. But it’s like the delayed effect that happens. The initial rationalization, like of course this is the way things are supposed to happen, this is how it works.

“But then after the fact. … It probably isn’t until you get home — and I’m sure everybody that’s been through this, it’s everybody actually at some point in their lives — you can’t lay down and close your eyes. You can’t sit there and do anything without that image popping into your head. You can’t get it out of your head, no matter what you try to do.”

Auriemma tried to keep busy, but the minute there was a quiet moment in the day he found himself once again thinking of his mother. He couldn’t sleep at night, up at 3 a.m. trying to do crossword puzzles to tire his mind. Catching a flu-like illness that was going around the team made things even harder. It was all hitting him at once, and he could tell it was affecting the way he was coaching the Huskies.

“You try to fill it by going to work, doing things and you’re not really present. You’re not in the moment,” Auriemma said. “So you’re not really doing anything to help the people on your team because your mind isn’t there, you’re not present. So then you’re mad, you’re really mad at yourself because you can’t compartmentalize the two things. And then the team’s practicing and it’s not going good, then you take it out on them, when really they have nothing to do with it. It’s all because you personally don’t feel comfortable in your skin right now.

“And it just escalates, and that was the sign that you have to walk away. And with the cold and with everything else going on, I just realized what people say it’s all about, you just need time. You just need time. You just need time away. You just need time to get yourself whole, get yourself together so you can be good for the people you have to be good for.”

So Auriemma decided not to coach UConn in games against Florida State and Seton Hall on Dec. 18 and 21. Dailey took over as acting head coach, leading the Huskies to victories in both games. Then the team had some time off for the holiday break and Auriemma came back to lead the team to wins against Creighton and Marquette on Dec. 28 and 31. But he wasn’t fully ready, he hadn’t taken enough time.

“It was supposed to be a couple of weeks and I turned it into five days,” Auriemma said. “And needless to say, It backfired.”

Auriemma traveled with UConn to Indianapolis for a game against Butler on Jan. 3. He went through shootaround with the team, but then started feeling unwell again. The program announced half an hour before tip-off that he wouldn’t be coaching that night. Then on Thursday, before a game against Xavier, the Huskies announced that Auriemma would be taking some time away from the team to focus on his health.

“You’re physically tired, then mentally you get tired with all the other stuff going on,” Auriemma said. “And when you can just walk away from that for a little bit and you know that you have a staff that has all that under control 100%, it really does free your mind up completely. That you can actually, for a couple of days, just sit back and take a deep breath and not feel like you have to hurry up and get to somewhere to do something, to fix something, to handle something. It’s not like I have to be managing the team from the road. I don’t have to be at home and managing the team while they’re playing or practicing or whatever. I don’t have to do any of that. I have enough confidence and I have a good enough staff.”

Auriemma wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the DePaul game, originally scheduled for last Sunday but ended up being postponed due to the amount on injured Huskies. Looking back now, he’s glad the game wasn’t played. He wouldn’t have been ready to return. And then Tuesday he got on UConn’s bus and surprised the players en route to New York to face St. John’s.

“In retrospect, that ended up being really a godsend,” Auriemma said. “Weird how it happened, but that ended up being a godsend because I wouldn’t have I coached that game. But that gave me Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and then St. John’s on Wednesday, so I had a lot of time to just focus on what I gotta do to get myself ready. And it worked, I feel better than I’ve felt in the last month.”

What to know

Site: XL Center

Time: 4 p.m.

Series: UConn, 49-6

Last meeting: No. 7 UConn 84, Georgetown 38 on March 3, 2022 in Big East tournament

TV: SNY; Allen Bestwick, Meghan Culmo and Maria Marino

Streaming: SNY app

Radio: UConn Sports Network on 97.9 ESPN