Geno Auriemma on his ninth title, his legacy and what's next for UConn
Notre Dame women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw described the experience of playing UConn as similar to playing the Miami Heat. "I thought they were just missing LeBron (James)," said McGraw, after UConn defeated Notre Dame 79-58 in the first-ever NCAA basketball championship game between two unbeaten teams — men or women. The win was the ninth national title for UConn and coach Geno Auriemma, placing Auriemma one championship ahead of former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for the most alltime among Division I women's basketball coaches. SI caught up with the 60-year-old Auriemma three days after title No. 9.
SI.com: You were particularly emotional after this year's championship. Why?
Auriemma: I can't put my finger on it. The buildup all season long was how we were destined to get there but we had dealt with that before. Then there was the notion that we would play Notre Dame because everything was set up that way given how well they played all year. When it finally did come, I guess I just understood how hard it is for this to actually take place, for the outcome that you wanted given how many things can go wrong. Maybe it was the two seniors [Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley] and how special they were. Or maybe I'm just getting old. I have no idea.
SI.com: What kind of mementos do you keep from the nine titles?
Auriemma: They always give you a ring but I've never worn one. They also give you watches, and I don't know where they are. I don't have any basketball stuff at the house, but at my office I have pictures of every national championship team. That's what we bring back. We have whatever the iconic picture was from that year: Rebecca [Lobo] running around the court [in 1995] with her arms up. Shea Ralph on the ground [in 2000] pumping her first after she took a charge, Diana [Taurasi] doing something [in 2004]. I just usually bring home bags under my eyes and I'm hung over [laughs].
SI.com: What goals are left for you professionally?
Auriemma: I don't know, I really don't. I don't live in that world of goal-setting. I have never been goal-setter. Maybe that's why I did not get a lot of As in school. I just take a look at what is front of me and I try to do that.
SI.com: How often do you and UConn men's coach Kevin Ollie talk?
Auriemma: We play golf, talk a lot, and spend time together. Obviously I am much older than he is and I've been coaching a long time and he is much newer at it. So there is a lot that we get from each other. I like to ask about how things are done in the NBA and he likes to ask about how you handle being in the NCAA tournament. To me, it is a normal relationship at a great school that is trying to win a national championship. I love the guy. I think he is genuine, he's honest, hardworking, enthusiastic, passionate. I enjoy his company.
SI.com: The last six months have seen Michael Sam and Derrick Gordon come out while in college. How would your program react if one of your players wanted to come out and play as a publicly gay player?
Auriemma: My reaction to Jason Collins or anything after that is, Who cares? What's the big deal? This is 2014. Every single player in the NBA, major league baseball, pro football, men's and women's college basketball and football, you name it, every single player knows someone who is gay. We live in a world now that should be above and beyond that. Now if an individual feels compelled to bring that out publicly for whatever personal reason that they want to do that, then fine. Me? I think it is your personal property and you do with it what you want. I treat it the same as I treat religion. I don't care what your religion is. I don't care where you pray. That is none of my business. That's yours. And if you want to deal with it privately, God bless you. If you want to deal with it publicly, I don't have any say on that.
SI.com: You know you will be the No. 1 preseason ranked team again, right?
Auriemma: We're losing two All-Americans, man.
SI.com: That's true, but you will be No. 1 and you know it.
Auriemma: Can't we be the underdog once in awhile?
SI.com: No, it's Connecticut. You know the deal. So what do you tell your team when they start seeing the hype again?
Auriemma: We as coaches always talk out of both sides of our mouth. So to you and any other media that asks I am going to say, 'You have to be kidding me? We just lost two All-Americans, two of the best players ever to play at Connecticut and you are telling me we are not going to miss a beat? You guys are out of your minds.' Then I walk into our locker room and say, 'Yo, guys, we are going to be preseason No. 1 and anyone who does not vote us preseason No. 1, we are going to kick their ass because this is Connecticut and we better be preseason No 1." You play both angles depending on what audiences you are trying to get to. But I think if you come to Connecticut, that is always the expectation level.
SI.com: Who is the one men's player you wished you could have coached and why?
Auriemma: The one player I wish I could coach and who I wanted to be like growing up was Walt Frazier with the Knicks. He embodied everything as a kid I wanted to be. He was one of the best offensive players in the NBA. He was one of the best defensive players in the NBA. He was a winner. He had a life off the floor that is the kind of life in your dreams where you go, 'Damn, I wish I could be Clyde.'
SI.com: Did you ever meet him?
Auriemma: I did meet him one time. I got my picture taken with him and I told him that. He just smiled. I think he probably hears that a lot.
SI.com: Your program is on the line. Which UConn player takes the shot if you need a three-pointer to win?
Auriemma: Probably the one that made the most in her career when she was here -- Diana Taurasi.
SI.com: Same question, but its now a 15-footer to win?
Auriemma: Sue Bird.
SI.com: Same question but the game is now tied and you need a free throw?
Auriemma: I'd probably go Maya Moore.
SI.com: Same question but now you are up by one and the other team is coming down the court. Who defends for you against their best player?
Auriemma: If we had to stop that guy from scoring, it probably would be Kelly Farris. If we wanted someone to steal the ball before it got there, it would probably be Nykesha Sales.
SI.com: Muffet McGraw said some strong words about you during the Final Four. How important is it for you to have a conversation with her during this offseason to clear anything up. Are you compelled to contact her?
Auriemma: I don't think so. If it happens, great. If it doesn't, I am not going to actively go out and do anything. Whatever perceptions there are that are out there, you are not going to change those. If they [Notre Dame] feel there was a misunderstanding and I overreacted, or if our administration is trying to schedule a game with them and they are saying we are ducking them, that will not change. If they think we disrespected them in some way or another, they will not all of a sudden change their mind.
SI.com: Are there some coaches afraid to push women as hard as you do, as Pat Summitt did, as Muffet McGraw does?
Auriemma: Believe me this has nothing to do with the gender of the person coaching; I know both guys who coach women basketball and I know women who coach women's basketball that treat them like women. And that's being disrespectful to them instead of just treating them like as elite athletes who you demand reach a certain level. The analogy that I use is if you took your son or daughter to the best swimming coach in the world and said, 'I want my kid to swim in the Olympics.' So the guy grabs your son and said, 'Come here, boy, and throws him in the water and says this is what I want. Then he comes to your daughter and says, 'Come here, sweetheart, we are going to be doing it a little bit different here and just try your best.' That's disrespectful. I think that is what happens a lot. But you can say that about any sport. There are a lot of guys coaching men's basketball who are not getting the most out of their players. It's getting harder to demand kids to do certain things but it is even more necessary than it ever have been And it is an uphill battle. You have to fight it every single day. Not every kid wants to do it.
SI.com: Does winning a championship make your offseason easier?
Auriemma: It sounds stupid but I'm almost embarrassed to go out if we have not won a championship because you have everything at Connecticut to win it. You have a great fan base, we are able to recruit the best players in the country, I have the best coaching staff, and the president of the school buys into it. We have everything we need to win a national championship. So when you don't win a championship you feel like, 'Man, at some point they are going to figure out how much money I am getting paid and they are going to stop paying me.' Because you feel like that is the expectation level every year. I'm going to be coaching at the world championship and we are supposed to win a gold medal. The pressure never ends,
SI.com: What kind of obligation do you feel toward playing an entertaining style of basketball?
Auriemma: I would say since 1995 more so than the first 10 years, and it probably has to do with the fact that once we started selling out. From 1994 to 2004, we sold out every single game in Gampel Pavilion and the XL Center, and we had and still have the highest price tickets in the country in women's basketball. We have the only deal in women's basketball that pays us a $1 million dollars to show our games. So I feel there is a tremendous obligation on our part to play a game that people are going to want to watch on television and come to the game to watch. It has to be entertaining, pleasing and showcasing our skills. I don't want to put a team out there that walks the ball up the court and shoots 35 percent and then expect people to pay $25 to watch. You don't go to a Bruce Springsteen concert and he gets half the songs wrong.
SI.com: Will we ever see a women's player jump after her freshman or sophomore year to play pro?
Auriemma: I don't see why not if the money is ever good enough. There have been kids that have gone to Europe and skipped their last year. I can see that happening if you get a kid that does not really want to be in college.
SI.com: What rule changes would you like to see in the game?
Auriemma: We are moving in the right direction. I think anything that makes the game more fluid is good. Anything that allows more freedom on the floor to showcase your skills is good. We are in the entertainment industry and I think people who come to our games want to be entertained. So the less you allow fouling and people mugging each other, the better the game will look. I would also like to see some changes made in the way young kids are taught the game. I'd like to take a more European approach, teaching kids more about the essentials and the fundamentals as opposed to, let's go play games. I'd like to see the clock stop and you can call timeout and they advance the ball like to do in the NBA.
SI.com: How are you different at 60 than you were at 50?
Auriemma: I think my experience with the national team has really given me much better perspective on how little control you have over the emotions of your team. You can affect their emotions obviously but the pros taught me, 'Coach, just put us in the right situation and leave the rest up to us. We are the ones that have to win that game.' Now I take that approach with my [UConn] team. I will put them in a position to be successful and give them all the tools they need to be successful but in the end, I really have no control over whether they are able to carry that out or not. I can't control it. Years ago I used to think I can control the outcome of these games and how each one of my players played. I would get incredibly upset and frustrated and angry when I felt like I could not get it done that way and it affected my ability to coach. Now I have a completely different outlook on it. It's calmed me down and made me a much better coach.
SI.com: This is probably hard for you to answer because you have to step away from yourself. You have won nine titles. Should the person who owns the most championships as a coach be considered the best coach of all time.
Auriemma: I think it is difficult to truly answer that. I was having a discussion recently with someone about how do you truly measure the best player in history. In baseball, which had the biggest impact from the steroid era, it's pure numbers. Nobody talks about how many championship Pete Rose or Cy Young won. It's how many games did you win, how many home runs did you hit, how many RBIs did you have, how many Gold Gloves do you own. Yet in basketball and football, you are judged on championships. Nobody knows how many touchdown passes Joe Montana threw. They just know how many Super Bowls he won. Nobody knows how many points or rebounds Bill Russell, they just know he won 11 titles. Basketball is defined by championships and I think when you are a player, you impact that championship. If you are a player and have X number of titles, that is directly attributed to you and your teammates. So when you are a coach that is a difficult one to answer because every coach thinks they are the best coach. Every coach who coaches great players thinks their players are the best ever. So those are questions best left answered by someone else.
SI.com: What is the most memorable thing a President has said to you at the White House and who said it?
Auriemma: They are all different and had uniquely different personalities and approaches to meeting teams. But one short discussion that I had privately with President Obama was talking about similarities in trying to get things done on Capitol Hill and trying to win basketball games. There is a similarity there in that it seems like there is one team against another. He said the only difference is you know what the rules of basketball are. He said the difference here is the rules keep changing every week or sometimes during the middle of the game. I said, "Mr. President, I'm not sure I would be able to coach a game like that."
SI.com: How much does Breanna Stewart remind you of Diana Taurasi in terms of her ability to take over big games?
Auriemma: I think if Stewy becomes a much better ballhandler, like she can catch the ball and really go anywhere she wants with it, I think there will be no guarding her ever on any level. Right now she is more of a catch-and-shoot player. What makes Diana dangerous is she gets the ball and goes where she wants. If Stewy adds that to her game, it's over. There is no guarding her no matter what.
SI.com: How do you feel about the notion of student-athletes joining a labor union?
Auriemma: I think it is kind of funny. I was in a union. I worked in a steel mill and I am actually in a union here at the university -- the American Association of University Professors. I think unions are good, and I think unions are bad. I grew up in a family where my father was in a union his whole life and I have seen the good they can do, and I have also seen how terrible they are, how they breed mediocrity and how they stifle growth. But they are meant to protect people and help people persecuted or taken advantage of by their employer. So I understand the pluses and minuses of it. There is part of me that would like to see the players be paid as employees. That's fine. I don't have a problem with that. But when you are an employee of an organization, then that means when you don't do the job you are fired. You come here on a scholarship, and you can't lose your scholarship generally. I have never seen a kid lose a scholarship just because they were not very good. You have to do something that will cause you to lose your scholarship. Not being a very good player is generally not the reason. So if I recruit you out of high school and I think you can get a double-double and you average four points and two rebounds and you are my employee, then I am going to fire you. So if you are willing to take the money as an employee, then you have to be willing to be fired if you are not any good.
SI.com: What opposing player was the most challenging to guard?
Auriemma: The first name that comes to mind is the one player on an opposing team that I admired more so than anyone -- and that I felt I would really want to coach that kid in college -- was Tamika Catchings. You had to defend this kid. When she was on defense she was going to beat you. When she was on offense she was going to beat you. What she was great at was that she was going to figure out a way to beat your ass.
SI.com: Realistically, how long can you continue to coach?
Auriemma: I don't think longterm. I don't have a 10-year plan or five-year plan. I have said that if I could coach Stefanie Dolson or Bria Hartley or Breanna Stewart or those types of kids -- the group that I have now for the most part -- if I was guaranteed that I would those kind of kids, then I could coach indefinitely.