Aditi Kinkhabwala
Friday April 4th, 2008

Whatever happens at the women's Final Four in Tampa, Pat Summitt can't escape it: Last year at this time, the Tennessee coach was trying to be like Geno.

She grabbed a mic at the rally celebrating her seventh national title. She thanked Tennessee president John Peterson, a one-time UConn provost, for wearing the same orange socks all through the tourney. Then the grande dame of women's basketball, the woman with more wins, more titles and more farm-bred charm than anyone in the game, looked at Peterson and roared, "The best decision he ever made was to get out of Connecticut!"

Oil and water. Surreptitious finger-pointer and straight-up needler. Summitt and Geno Auriemma are a game apiece from the conflagration the NCAA Selection Committee -- and ESPN -- gleefully rubbed its hands over three weeks ago. Summitt, as Diana Taurasi once said, "is old school." Auriemma, also Taurasi's words, "is arrogant."

She's supposed to be tired of his shtick, he couldn't care less. Writers will pen personality clash pieces and players will laugh off queries on conflict. But deep in her heart, Summitt will know, in her shining moment, she channeled him. Because there's nothing better for women's basketball than Geno Auriemma.

"You have to have somebody who keeps things going," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said with a shake of her head and a little half-smile.

Even before Summitt ended the annual series she'd staged with Auriemma this past summer, it was Stringer -- and Rutgers fans and players -- who'd been bearing the brunt of Auriemma's jabs. He went out to Marquette last year and randomly announced New Jerseyans "are born miserable." Three weeks later, on the eve of UConn's regular-season finale at Rutgers, he did it again, saying Scarlet Knights fans are "ignorant," and that "they have trouble putting sentences together."

Rutgers fans showed up in "born miserable" shirts for the game and when he threw a veiled diss at Rutgers fans after a game at LSU this year, Stringer laughed out loud. "If it was just the same old, same old," she said, "I don't think people would pay as much attention."

And so, the goading, the gamesmanship, the guarantees to grab headlines in a game that doesn't get nearly enough are all fabulous. The media laps it up, and the true genius of it all is that it's real. Just ask Auriemma's longtime assistant -- and New Jersey native -- Chris Dailey.

"He only says what he believes to be true," Dailey explained.

This is Geno. He was five when his parents decided to leave Italy, and in a town just outside Philly, he became the first Auriemma to learn English. He ran around in homemade clothes and it didn't take long to see the key to fitting in was being quick with a wisecrack. It would take a lot longer to lose something that's as much a part of him as his right arm.

Jamelle Elliott played on Auriemma's 1995 team that went 35-0 and has been a Huskies assistant for the last 11 years. The only thing that's changed about Auriemma's chatter in all that time, she said, is: "Now he lets it come out. Back then, we'd just won our first national championship and he probably didn't think he'd earned the right to say whatever to the public."

Well, he's certainly earned it now. After five national championships and a spot in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, his players continue to get better. And hey, as much is being made of Summitt just tiring of the smartass act, even if Geno himself wagged this summer, "I think (Summitt) should just come out and say she's not playing us because she hates my guts," this isn't the only corner guessing Summitt doesn't actually want to play him for tactical reasons. Why give a truly brilliant X-and-O tactician a first look at her team when meeting in the money rounds is virtually a lock?

In 2003, Geno got the soundbite of the tourney, when he called Tennessee "the evil empire" and he lined up a second soundbite for ESPN to loop when he said longtime buddy and Villanova coach Harry Perretta, who had shared his motion offense with Summitt, "left me for an older woman."

Good money says neither bothered Summitt more than the title game win Geno got -- the third of four he's taken over her Lady Vols.

Sure Auriemma runs his mouth. He can be cocky and a pain in the butt and even Dailey admits to sometimes saying, "Did you really have to?" But sophomore Tina Charles says her coach summoning the circus means, "the pressure's off us and on him."

And at least the circus is there.

So this weekend in Tampa, whatever happens, don't be surprised if Pat Summitt pulls out a wisecrack or two. She knows it works.

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