Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 29. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.Last February, back when UConn was absolutely trampling the rest of the field in women's college basketball on the way to becoming undefeated national champions for the second straight season, I wrote a column that suggested that the Huskies' dominance was detrimental to their sport. I did not recommend that the UConn women get off the court and into the kitchen, although you might have thought as much, judging from the accusations of sexism that came my way.
Somehow what I wrote was misconstrued as a slam against the Huskies, as though they were to blame for being so far ahead of the pack. On the contrary, I recognize greatness when I see it, and I recognize the architect of that greatness, which is why UConn coach Geno Auriemma is my Sportsman of the Year. It's not just that Auriemma never lost, it's that motivating his players to challenge themselves from within when there is no challenge coming from without.
It would have been easy for the Huskies to let their intensity wane while they were crushing all comers, but they rarely, if ever, did. Their defensive pressure never lost its bite. If they missed an open jumper with a 30-point lead, they seemed as irritated with themselves as if it were a tie game with 10 seconds to go. They Huskies didn't always play perfectly -- though they came awfully close -- but they invariably played as if they were all scrapping for the last open spot on the roster. UConn's real opponent was its own high standards, and that was because of the way Auriemma kept the fire lit under them.
Granted, there was motivation in trying to break the NCAA women's record of 70 consecutive wins, which they did (it's now 78 and counting), but make no mistake, that goal was secondary. "The main thing that keeps us playing hard isn't any record," senior All-America forward Maya Moore said during the season, "it's keeping that man satisfied. He doesn't just care about whether we win, he cares about how we play."
Sportsmanship isn't always about helping the opponent up or keeping the score manageable. A great sportsman can be relentless in his pursuit of perfection, as Auriemma is, and in that way he lifts his competitors, he dares them to match him. "You know, there's no law that says I can't be out-recruited, or that somebody can't be better than me at Xs and Os, or motivate players better than I can," he says. "There's probably somebody out there right now who's made it their goal to outwork the UConn Huskies, to catch us and pass us."
For the sake of the women's game, I hope he's right.
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