Geno Auriemma + Diana Taurasi = Love, Italian Style A pair of paisans at UConn share a passion for hoops that makes a perfect match of cocky coach and fearless player

November 24, 2003

On one of those rare occasions when he was alone, unbothered, in
his office, the coach sat listening to Pavarotti. Interrupted
then, he reluctantly turned off the music. "Love songs," he said
wistfully to the interloper. "All the best love songs come from
Naples."

This is one of those, of a sort.

East of Naples, in the mountains, in the province of Avellino,
sit two small villages. One of them is so small, in fact, that it
is almost impossible to find, hidden as it is in the

Calore valley, surrounded by vineyards, watched over by its
patron saint, San Marciano. It is called Taurasi.

Forty years ago a five-year-old named Mario Taurasi left the
hamlet of his name. His parents took him to Argentina, where he
grew up, and then, in 1980, he took his wife to California. Their
daughter, Diana Lurena, was born shortly thereafter, and a few
years later, in the fourth grade, she took up basketball. It was
immediately apparent that the kid had a facility for the game.

About 30 miles from Taurasi, due east of Vesuvius, up in the
Picentini range, is the town of Montella. At the highest point in
the village is the Holy Saviour, sister church to one of the same
name in Norristown, Pa., a working-class suburb of Philadelphia.
One day in November 1961 Marsiella Auriemma and her three
children left Montella for Norristown, where Marsiella's husband,
Donato, was already settled, laboring in a candy factory for 15
to 20 bucks a week. Their oldest child, Luigi, who was called
Geno, was seven. The ride from his village to the port in Naples
was the first time he had ever been in a car. He had never had so
much as a coin in his pocket. He could not speak a word of
English.

In Norristown, at the parochial school, St. Francis, the nun who
taught second grade explained to Geno, through an interpreter,
the way things worked there. At the end of the school year, she
said, the boys who passed went on to third grade. Those who
didn't stayed back in second. There would be no remedial help, no
English-as-a-second-language class. Pick it up on your own.

In June little Geno went up to third grade. It was obvious right
off that, in any language, the kid had a way with words.

Four Octobers ago, Diana Taurasi was a senior at Don Lugo High in
Chino, Calif. She had become the best girls' basketball player in
the country, and she was boarding a flight from Los Angeles to
Hartford to visit the campus of the University of Connecticut,
where Geno Auriemma was the coach of the second most eminent
women's basketball program in the country. Tennessee was still
first, but Auriemma had the Lady Vols in his sights. He had grown
up slick and ambitious, driven as much to chase down the big time
as to outrun the nebulous fears that dogged him. "I don't
know--all the obvious ones," he says. "I'm the oldest, immigrant
family, couldn't speak English. I'm Italian, Catholic--hey,
that's enough guilt. What more do you need? I felt inferior. I
grew up scared of everybody."

No one would ever imagine this, of course. To the women coaches
who despise him and to their teams' furious fans who see him on
the court, Geno--just Geno--is an arrogant little dandy. Worse,
he's one good-looking guy. The azure eyes, the perfect head of
swept-back curly hair: Finally, we know what became of Frankie
Avalon after Beach Blanket Bingo. Worse: the cock-of-the-walk
gait. "Geno's natural walk is a strut," says Rebecca Lobo, the
star of his first championship team, in 1995. Sometimes he even
snaps his fingers when he struts, daddy-o style. But then, it's
enough that Geno just stands there at the side of the court,
hands on his hips, as if he is simply not going to put up with
these stupid broads anymore. Then there's the stylish tie that's
always undone--perfectly undone, as if he has a valet just to
perfectly undo his stylish ties. Come on, this cocksure, suave
little s.o.b. is running scared?

"The worst fear of all is fear of failure," Geno says. "The year
Jen Rizzotti was a sophomore, she was a chem-bio major, and she
had to get a four-oh. Had to. I asked her one day what drove her.
I hate to lose, she said. Well, then, I told her, you're my point
guard, so we'll get to the final eight, maybe the Final Four, but
we'll never win till you replace that I hate to lose with I wanna
win. And eventually Jen did, and then we won." He pauses. "But
me, I'm still motivated by fear of failure."

Because you've got no coach who can change that in you?

"Yeah. That's right."

That day in October four years ago, Geno waited at Bradley
International Airport for Diana's plane to come. She'd had the
luxury of living in a universe far different from the one he had
lived in. Four decades had passed since little Geno had walked
off the boat. If there was any anti-Italian prejudice in the
California Diana had grown up in, she wouldn't have allowed
herself to notice. Geno was hardly surprised. His own three
kids--two girls and a boy--don't have a clue about the insecurity
he suffered, the sneering prejudice. Dago. Greaseball. All around
us now, after all, are Italian clothes, Italian food, Italian
wine. Charming Italian men, gorgeous Italian women. The world has
come to love all things Italian. Ciao. Va bene. One of Geno's
favorite players, Meg Pattyson (class of '92), came to him.
"You'll never guess," she said. "I'm in love with a guinea." He
hugged her. "It's about time you got smart," he said. Forza
Italia!

Anyway, coaches had never seen anyone like Diana Taurasi. She
never doubted herself, never expressed any trepidation. The first
time Geno saw her she was at an all-star camp, only a sophomore
but clearly the best player there. He never coveted a player so
much in his life. All this and a paisan, too. But would a
Southern California girl go cross-country, Backeast, to a campus
at a crossroads named Storrs in the middle of some farmland in
northeastern Connecticut?

Not only that, but there was also Diana's mother to contend with.
The last thing Lili Taurasi wanted was for her baby to move 3,000
miles away. Geno was well aware what a formidable obstacle Lili
posed. "You know," he says, "that stereotype about the tough
Italian father who slams his fist down and everything runs his
way is wrong. Italians have real strong mother figures."

Except that Geno on the recruiting beat is a formidable presence.
Not for nothing does Auriemma mean golden gem. Jamelle Elliott,
one of his assistants, remembers when she was a high school
prospect in 1992 and saw him coming to recruit her, strutting
through her tough neighborhood in Washington, D.C. "Geno was the
only white guy--the only one--I'd ever seen come down my street,
and he just walked in as if he'd been there 10 times before."

Diana says, "I know this will irritate a lot of coaches, so I
never said it then, but I wanted to play for a man. Anyway, Geno
was different from all the other coaches. He'd tell me things
that were real. And 99 percent of it was true."

Auriemma helps clarify this. "You know what I do better than most
anyone?" he asks. "I deal with women. And the way I do it is to
tell them exactly what I think. I don't think they're used to
that from men."

When he was recruiting Diana, one of the most sought-after high
school player in the history of women's basketball, he told her
that basically she was full of it. "No matter what she said to
me, I didn't believe it," Geno says. "I said to her, 'Look, I've
already lived your life. I didn't have the talent, but I lived
it, growing up. Your parents have no idea, do they?' See, I
conned my parents. Report card? They never saw mine, because they
didn't know a kid brought report cards home. My mother never set
a foot in school. I said, 'Diana, it's not my parents' fault they
didn't know. They just didn't have a frame of reference for what
it's like to grow up in America. The same with your parents. So I
know who you are, and I know that's exactly why you're going to
come to Connecticut because I know you know you've missed the
kind of structure and discipline you can get there.'"

Diana didn't let on, but she thought, I want to play with the
best. I want to be a lot better, and who can help me? Coach
Auriemma is the only one who has the nerve to challenge me.

Another time Geno told her, "You know, Diana, you have a good
chance to be the best player there ever was." She replied only,
"I just wanna win." Geno liked that, so he let it go.

Still, there was Mrs. Taurasi. She got off the plane in Hartford
with Diana, already mad that her daughter was visiting this crazy
place, Backeast. And she wasn't going to cut it any slack. "At
one point," says Chris Dailey, Geno's associate head coach, "Lili
said she didn't like Connecticut because it didn't have enough
traffic. I said, 'Lili, you gotta be the first person in history
to complain because a place doesn't have enough traffic.'"

Lili told Geno, "I don't like Connecticut. It's too dark."

Geno said, "Lili, for God's sake, it's 10:30 at night. When it's
10:30 in California, it's dark there, too."

Well, Lili did soften a little because Marsiella Auriemma, now a
widow, was there, and the two ladies could talk in a mixture of
Italian and English. And Kathy Auriemma's eggplant parmigiana was
a big hit. And when Geno pulled out a bottle of wine he'd found
with the Taurasi label, straight from the vineyards in the Calore
valley, that trumped any move any Anglo coach had made. But in
the end Geno just told her, "Look, Lili, if Diana goes to UCLA,
you'll be happy at first, but if she isn't happy, then you won't
be. If she goes here, maybe you won't be happy at first, but when
you find out how happy she is, you'll be happy for a long time."
And then, in that way he deals with women, he put it head-on:
"You know, Lili, we're recruiting Diana. We're not recruiting
you."

Probably Lili already knew the jig was up. "She had to have
known," Diana says.

After all, going across the country didn't intimidate the kid.
When she was 11 her father, discouraged and homesick, packed up
the family and returned to Argentina. The Taurasis lived there
for a year, but it didn't work out, and they came back. Because
Diana won't admit that anything fazes her, she says moving around
didn't bother her. Argentina, Storrs--she could handle it.

When she enrolled at UConn, Geno told her again that she could be
the best player ever. This time he asked her directly, "You want
that?" Diana took a moment, then said, "Yeah, I do."

Geno says, "Once she said that, it was like a license for me to
do anything I wanted to with D."

He just calls her D. Among themselves, though, the other UConn
coaches call her Little Geno.

Diana Taurasi is not just hard to read. She actually looks very
much like that other famous inscrutable Italian lady, Mona Lisa.
Diana is friendly, outgoing and full of laughs, but underneath
she doesn't let on, doesn't give in. In fact she still maintains
that she had no trouble adjusting to Backeast. Her coaches
thought otherwise. "She fought conforming to what the Connecticut
ideal is," Dailey says. "She wanted it--after all, that's why she
came here--but she was struggling with it."

Geno says, "I called her Eddie Haskell. Everything was, No
problem. Everything was a lark. D will say, 'I don't care what
anyone thinks of me.' That's her style. That's what she says, and
that's her stren'th"--he says strength Philly-style, without the
g--"but sometimes your greatest stren'th is your greatest
weakness, and I knew there were times when D was dying inside."

Her freshman year the Huskies had the whole 2000 championship
starting lineup back, but late in the season two All-Americas,
Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova, went out with injuries. "D
just decides that she's going to take on both of their roles,"
Geno says. "Now remember, she's a freshman. She hadn't even
started at the beginning of the season. But she does it." Geno
ran isolation plays, clearing out for Diana. She was the Most
Outstanding Player of the NCAA East Regional.

Then, against Notre Dame, in the semis of the Final Four,
disaster struck. The other Huskies were hot, but Diana was
ice-cold. The freshman kept getting open, though, kept taking
good shots ... and kept missing. Notre Dame came back from 15
down in the second half to win going away. Diana made only one
basket; she missed 14 shots, and when she fouled out, for once
even Ms. Mona Lisa couldn't hold back the tears. Geno tried to
console her. "Hey, man, relax," he said, grabbing her as she fled
down the bench. "We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you."

Amazingly, the terrible performance didn't haunt Diana. She'll
even joke about it to bolster a teammate who has a bad game.
"Hey, that's nothing," she'll say. "I shot 1 for 15 in the Final
Four."

Bonnie Henrickson, the coach at Virginia Tech, says, "In many
respects the most important game Diana ever played was that one
against Notre Dame. That would have crippled a lot of players.
With Diana, it elevated her."

"See," Geno explains, "in her mind it never happened. D lives in
the moment more than anybody I've ever seen. The past is gone,
and there is no future. It is only right now."

Anyway, after that came the wonder year. Taurasi's sophomore
season UConn went 39-0; it really wasn't fair. Her four fellow
starters, all seniors, would be among the first six players taken
in the WNBA draft. The Huskies were on another planet. The latest
lead anybody held on them all season was with 26 minutes to go.
John Wooden said UConn was playing prettier basketball than any
of the men's teams were playing. In the backcourt with Sue Bird,
the college player of the year, Diana averaged 14.5 points. It
could have been twice that. In a lopsided game she wouldn't
shoot; she said she got a bigger bang from an assist than a
basket.

What everybody says, one way or another, is that she sees. D sees
things on the court that God hasn't arranged for other people to
pick out.

In its own way, though, last season may have been more amazing
than the golden gem the year before. The team was made up of
Diana, some holdover subs, two redshirts and some callow frosh.
The coaches were figuring six, eight, maybe even 10 losses. The
first day of practice was a debacle. Afterward, though, Diana
blithely bubbled, "This is going to be the ugliest undefeated
team in history."

Diana had to do two things that were in utter conflict: carry the
team yet build up the confidence of the other players so she
wouldn't have to carry them. Jamelle Elliott says, "Geno kept
preparing Diana for the double and triple team. 'You can't get
frustrated, D. You gotta keep moving. You gotta make everybody
else better.'" The Huskies started out winning. Then they kept
winning. They beat Tennessee in Hartford, and a month later they
took on No. 1 Duke in Durham. It was the first time Cameron
Indoor Stadium had ever sold out for a girls' game. The Crazies
came to cheer Alana Beard and the Blue Devils, confident of
beating up Geno's kids and Diana. Coming into the game, Geno fed
the Dookies red meat, ragging on their private-school elitism.
"There are just as many Duke graduates working as waitresses as
UConn graduates," he declared. "Of course, I'm sure Duke
graduates work at better restaurants." The crowd hooted at him,
pretty much ignoring the visiting players.

Diana loved it, Br'er Rabbit in the briar patch. "Duke was such a
kick, man," she exults. "All the stuff those guys were
screaming...." It perfectly illustrated what Auriemma tells his
top recruits: "You're an artist, right? You need a stage. And if
you think you're a great performer, you need the biggest stage.
You wanna be on the stage in St. Louis--" He pauses, considering
the possibility that someday there will be a player in St. Louis
he covets. "I got nothing against St. Louis, you understand, but
you wanna be on the stage in St. Louis or on Broadway?"

Certainly UConn is the Great White Way of women's basketball.
"Everybody brings their A game against us," Diana says, licking
her chops. All the home games are SRO. And many on the road, like
Duke, bang out too. And in Durham, as the crowd screamed at Geno,
Diana led the Huskies to a huge upset, 77-65. Her teammates were
getting better, but they had to because Diana was injured and in
pain. She had a bad back, a bum ankle and a foot problem called
plantar fasciitis, which, in English, means your heels feel like
they're on fire. Her coaches figured she was operating at only
two thirds of her potential, but behind those searching almond
eyes she wouldn't reveal anything. Sometimes Geno would force her
to sit out practice on threat of being kept out of a game.

Geno has had so many All-Americas, but sometimes he would simply
watch Diana in awe. "I love going to practice every day," he
says. "I love watching the kids get better. I tell you what's
worth everything: when one of your players says, 'I could never
have been this good without you.'" But Diana was beyond that. It
wasn't so much that he was coaching her as that she was
channeling him. "I'll say, 'D, I've got this vision in my head'
about, say, coming over the top, and right away she'll just say,
'Uh-huh.' She just sees it before I can say it. Not only that,
but she takes it from where I saw it and goes to another level."
Geno shakes his head. "Next year I'm gonna say the same thing to
some normal kid, and she's not gonna say 'Uh-huh,' and then I'll
know, I finally gotta forget about D."

For all she could do, though, Diana's injuries never really
healed last year, and the Huskies finally fell apart--once, in
the last few minutes of the Big East championship game. After 70
straight victories they lost to Villanova, but Geno convinced
them that it was a blessing in disguise. Sure enough, Diana then
led them to another national title. The year before, the Huskies
had been a juggernaut. This squad was different. It was not a
one-woman team, you understand, but rather one woman's team. At
the buzzer of the NCAA championship game, Diana flew into
Dailey's arms. "I get it, CD!" she screamed. "I finally get it!"

It was all stren'th now; there was no weakness left, Backeast.

Playing on teams was what confirmed young Geno as an American.
Being a part of something, sharing the camaraderie. Team is
sacred to him. He was actually best at baseball, but basketball
"seduced" him, he says. Baseball was too much of an individual
game for him; football had too many players. "But basketball," he
says, almost in reverie. "Basketball. If just one fifth of the
guys don't do their job, your possibility of winning goes down
drastically."

He fit in on the team. "You see, that made me bigger than I
was--and not just because I was only five-seven. I was satisfied
passing the ball to guys who were open, helping out on defense.
The team was what I lived for. I wasn't going to get the Diana
Taurasi [glory]. I needed the team."

Geno knows it sounds crazy, but there is still a part of him that
regrets that the military draft ended just in time to spare him
from Vietnam. He would have loved being with the guys in basic
training and in battle. "Look, I didn't want to get shot or
anything, but...." But, you see, combat must be the ultimate
game, platoon the ultimate team.

The UConn women don't wear their names on their uniforms. The
coach has a long, semicomical explanation that he gives fans when
they ask about it. But then he sighs and draws his finger across
his chest and says, "The short answer is, It's all about what's
across here." UCONN. One year, by mistake, the uniform company
shipped the jerseys out with the players' names on them. The team
voted to send them back. Geno says, "I tell 'em when I recruit
'em, look, after a big game you're gonna have to go into that
media room, and you might be looking at 20 TV cameras, and if you
win, here's what you say: 'I couldn't have done it without my
teammates.' And if we lose, you say, 'I blew it.'"

Walt Frazier was Geno's favorite player. This figures. Frazier
had this dichotomy to him. Off the court he was all show, the
Beau Brummel, cool, hip, today. Clyde. But on the court he was
Walt, the consummate playmaker, solid, controlled, classic. As a
coach, for much the same reasons, Geno is very much an heir to Al
McGuire. McGuire had the glib patter, the showman's persona. But
on the court he was the opposite: conservative and controlling.
Geno is much more adaptive in his strategy than McGuire was, but
he has the same split personality. He's the snappy barker out
front, but once he gets you into the tent, he's quite
traditional, jammed up with values and do-right. On a team trip
to Europe a few years ago the Huskies hardly ate any of the
strange food prepared for them at a stop in Belgium. Geno marched
them all into the kitchen and made them apologize to the cooks.

"I remember a few days after we won [the NCAAs], and I was
sitting in his office when this fan came in," says Lobo. "She was
gushing, asking us to sign all kinds of things, and when she left
I made a snide remark. Geno snapped, 'Don't act like that,
Rebecca. Don't ever be one of those players who don't
appreciate.'"

He discovered his aptitude for coaching the way other people find
out they can play the piano the first time they sit down at one.
He had figured maybe he would be a history teacher. It was easier
than what his old man did, working in a factory, and besides,
Geno noticed that teachers drove nice cars and got the summer
off. Then one day when he was 21, working his way through West
Chester State, he got a part-time job coaching ninth-grade girls.
It was an epiphany. "The first time I did this," he says, "I
knew. It's still the only thing I've found that I'm any good at."

Coaching basketball?

"Yeah." He pauses. "No, I don't know if that's it. What I can do
is, I can see what they can't see." It's a gift. His wife is
almost scared by how intuitive he can be. "I always wanted to be
one of those guys who could make you do something," Geno
explains, which, in a nutshell, is what good coaching is.

He coached both girls and boys, but newly married to Kathy, he
also tended bar, stocked shelves, taught gym and worked
construction to pay the bills. When Phil Martelli, who is now the
coach at St. Joseph's, turned down a chance to be the women's
assistant at Virginia because he wanted to stick with men, he
suggested Geno for the job. Geno demurred, afraid to venture into
the world outside of Philly; the Big Five was his immigrant's
glass ceiling. Martelli urged him to at least take a look.
Instantly, in the baronial luster of Charlottesville, Geno was
bug-eyed--"Me, a little boy from Norristown, at Mr. Jefferson's
university," he says.

Debbie Ryan, who is still the coach at UVA, hired him for $13,000
a year. It might've helped that Ryan's a Natale on her mother's
side. "Yeah," she says, laughing, "but it was evident right away
how aggressive and bright Geno was. And he was well grounded
because he'd carried the load for his family from a very young
age. He has a wonderful working-class mentality, and he never
forgets where he came from." Ryan laughs again. "And if you
forget, Geno'll remind you."

Suddenly Geno, the hang-out team guy, had entered this parallel
universe where skirts ruled. He had never been a ladies' man,
either. Probably that's good. His high school coach had told him
that a boy could be a student, a player and a lover--but only two
out of the three. Geno had stuck with what he knew best. Now he
was not only an assistant in a women's program, but Kathy had
given him one daughter and was expecting another soon. Every day
his life was like those red-light neon signs that blink, GIRLS!
GIRLS! GIRLS!

Only a few male coaches who are wired right can make the
adjustment and play second fiddle to the fairer sex. It is also
true, though, that whereas male coaches never hire female
assistants for men's teams, some women coaches have a special,
practical reason for bringing a male on board to coach women. "I
always want a man on my staff," Ryan says, "because a lot of
players can use a male role model since they don't have one at
home." The UConn staff is like a nuclear family, with Geno the
daddy; Chris Dailey, his right-hand woman from the start, as the
mommy; and two younger assistants, Tonya Cardoza and Jamelle
Elliott, as the big sisters. "I told you how my mother was strong
and self-sufficient," Auriemma says. "My thinking was that every
woman must be like my mother, so ever since, I've tried to
surround myself with strong, self-sufficient women."

Curiously, nobody attributes Geno's success to any variation on
the theme of being good with women. Rather, the women he has
worked with and coached conclude that he gets through to women
because he gets through to people. I wanted to be one of those
guys who could make you do something. It was just happenstance
that he ended up coaching women, and although sometimes he
thought the women's side was a dead end, when the head-coaching
job opened up at UConn he applied. The Huskies were perennial
losers. The women's basketball office was one small room with
black rotary phones. The team had to share a locker room with
men's soccer. During basketball practice the track team ran
around the outside of the court, while, close by, weightlifters
hoisted in time to their music. Geno thought he could use the job
as a stepping-stone to a really classy program.

Pat Meiser-McKnett, who's now the athletic director at Hartford,
was chair of the UConn search committee that year, 1985. Geno was
only 31, and he'd never been a head coach anywhere, and he was a
man, but he blew them away. "Geno was absolutely captivating,"
Meiser-McKnett says, "but there was also such subtlety,
friendliness and warmth." In other words Auriemma showed his
soft, feminine side. The players told Meiser-McKnett that they
didn't give a hoot what chromosomes their new coach had. They'd
just like maybe to win for a change. UConn signed Geno for
$28,229 at a Dunkin' Donuts.

He got in under the wire. Nowadays a man would have no shot at a
high-profile women's college basketball job. The sport is too
visible for such an athletically incorrect move. Geno is the last
dinosaur.

Of course, the antimale process is probably being speeded up
because of Geno himself. "I'm quite sure that women don't like me
as the face of women's basketball," he says, cat-with-canary,
knowing very well that the declaration will ensure that women
will like him even less. "A kid like D, a program like ours--it
transcends the sport. It's bigger than the game. We've gotten too
good for our own good." It's instructive that even though the
Huskies won another championship last year as a long shot, the
(mostly female) coaches' association voted Gail Goestenkors of
Duke, who coached the beaten favorite, coach of the year.

In 1989, back at the beginning, Geno had led the Huskies to a Big
East championship and into the NCAAs in only four years, but he
didn't get a single other coaching inquiry. Why was that? He
cocks an eye, checking to see who just fell off the turnip truck.

Because you're a man? "Yeah." But then, as a gentleman of
intuition who does not fear telling the truth, Geno amplified
that. "Also, I guess I rub some people the wrong way."

The classic example of the difference between how males and
females respond to coaching is, If a coach tells a women's team
that some players aren't doing the job, every player will duck
her head and think the coach is singling her out. If a coach
tells a men's team the same thing, every guy will think, At least
he doesn't mean me. "If my players think I like 'em, then I can
say and do whatever I want," Geno says. "You've got to be careful
how you phrase it, how you approach it. The difference with women
is, they can't see that when you criticize something they did,
you're not down on them personally."

Nevertheless, he can be a fierce taskmaster. He has always been
especially hard on his best players, Diana most prominently
included. The only All-America he eased up on was Nykesha Sales,
whom the other coaches facetiously called Precious for getting
off so lightly. But even Sales once spent a whole week so mad at
Geno that she wouldn't talk to him. Lobo can remember the whole
team getting so angry at Geno that Jen Rizzotti would call
everybody together and say, "'Screw him. Let's just do this for
ourselves.' Which, of course, was exactly what Geno wanted."

Lobo's mother had cancer her junior year. "Geno never let up on
her, though," Rizzotti says. "Never. He'd call her 'the dumbest
smart player I ever saw.' He was brutal."

"But the thing is, Geno couldn't do enough for me off the court,"
Lobo says. "He was always there when I needed him."

It is this dichotomy that befuddles so many of Geno's female
competitors in the game. Why do his players--always "my
guys"--put up with this smug, curly-haired little Philly smoothie
who can be so sarcastic and rude and man-mouthed? What's the
matter with these girls? Meg Pattyson, who played for him and
then served as one of his assistants, tries to explain: "He's the
kind of man I could tell, 'I got my period, I got cramps, I'm all
bloated.' Or, 'My boyfriend's acting like a jerk.' You could talk
to Geno about anything. How many men can you do that with?"

In '91 Pattyson was a stalwart on the first UConn team to get to
the Final Four. The team was slow, but it had some shooters, so
Geno just had them jack up threes. That was pretty revolutionary
stuff in women's basketball at the time. With only a few seconds
left, against Clemson, Pattyson botched a pass, and the Lady
Tigers scored. Geno screamed for a timeout. It was the first time
a Huskies game had ever been televised, and with the camera right
in his face he yelled, "Meg, what the f---are you doing?" You
didn't have to be much of a lip-reader to get it.

Pattyson went back out and made a spectacular shot to ice the
Huskies' trip to the Final Four. Afterward, at the victory party,
her father approached Geno. "Did you say to my daughter on TV
what I thought you did?" he asked sternly.

With an angelic smile, Geno said, "I certainly did. I said,
'Meghan, dear, didn't your father teach you to come meet the
ball?'" That got a big laugh out of Mr. Pattyson.

And that's the kind of crap Geno gets away with that drives so
many of the women in women's basketball crazy. Arrogant is the
word that's bandied about the most. And, just for spite: little.
Geno topped out at 5'10". He's not only a man coaching women's
basketball, but in a big man's game, he's a short-legged runt.

In 1998, near the end of Sales's senior season, she ruptured her
Achilles tendon. She had scored 2,176 points, one short of the
UConn career record. The next game was against Villanova, which
is coached by Harry Perretta, another dinosaur. Geno and Harry
cooked up a scheme: Let Sales score a basket at the start of the
game, then a Villanova player would get a matching freebie, and
Sales would go out of the game with the record.

When Geno told the team what was going to happen, Dailey says,
"it was the first time since Nykesha's injury that the kids felt
good." But when Geno and Harry pulled it off, there was a
firestorm. The purists in the media went berserk. Where was the
respect for the Sanctity of the Game? The genteel Guardians of
Pure Sport who inhabit sports radio were especially put out.
Thomas Boswell was in high dudgeon. The New York Times was
aghast. ABC World News Tonight got on the hot story.

"You know, when it happened there were maybe 4,000 people in the
stands at Villanova, and they all thought it was terrific," Geno
says. "They gave Nykesha a standing ovation. It wasn't until the
next day, when they read the newspapers and listened to the
radio, that they found out that they were really all a------s."

"But you see," says Elliott, "he just thought it was right and
didn't care what anybody else thought."

So much of Geno is still a reflection of his high school coach,
Buddy Gardler. "I listened to him," Geno says. "My son comes home
from practice and says, 'Hey, you know what my coach told me?'
You think my son ever listens to me, even if I say the same
thing? But kids listen to high school coaches." Geno sighs. "What
I've tried to do, ever since I started this, since I was 21 years
old, was to practice two hours a day as well as I can and learn
something new about my players, so then I can go home and sleep
well."

But, of course, he doesn't look the part of Old Pop Coach, taking
the boys out for hot chocolate and cookies. What people see is
slick. Or they hear that he's a sarcastic martinet in practice.
Or they hear his wise-ass digs. For his "guys," though, that's
just the guy in him. Cardoza says, "Arrogant? Cocky? He's not
that kind of a person. Every player on the team likes him, and
every player he ever had likes him." Come on--every? "Every.
Because they all figure out that he has their best interests at
heart."

"We all just liked him so much," Rizzotti says. She's a head
coach herself now, at Hartford, where, she says, she bases "only
everything" she does on the way Geno ran his show. "People
outside don't know what a good sense of humor he has. You know,
some coaches, you make fun of them behind their backs. We'd make
fun of Geno to his face."

Also, most of them figure out that Geno really likes women. If
you're in men's sports, who are you with all the time? You're
with men, that's who. So there's just not much preparation for
being with women--a whole lot of women. It can be a revelation.
"Girls are much more concerned about the social scene," Geno
says. "A boy interested in making the NBA, what does he care
about anything in school but basketball? But girls need to know
what pajamas everybody's wearing. Of course, girls tend to be
more conscientious. Tend to be. But here's the main thing:
Growing up, girls don't have as many jerks hanging around them as
boys do."

You mean that's because boys hang around with other boys?

"Exactly. When you think about it, women are terrible judges of
character, probably because they want someone to be better than
he is. How many couples do you know, the woman is terrific and
he's a jerk, and everybody wonders, How did he get her?"

Lots.

"Right. And then, how many couples do you know the other way
round, where he's terrific and she's a jerk? How many?"

Not many.

"O.K., so what's the only possible reason for that?"

There are more good women than good men?

"Exactly."

Feminists come in funny packages. "You're married, right?" he
says. "How many times have you gone and done something stupid and
your wife says, 'But why didn't you think of it this way?' My
coaches are the same. They give me the right approach I never
thought of, and I go back to my players and they just melt in my
hands."

On the court Geno assembles his Huskies. They stand there,
surrounding him, 13 players, three coaches--16 women, most of
them taller than he is, listening as he addresses them. Auriemma
gives his orders and watches. Seldom is he pleased. On those rare
occasions when he is, the dumbfounded associates refer to him as
Mister Rogers. He passes quickly through that neighborhood.
Sometimes he is caustic. Sometimes he sprinkles in barnyard
words. His most scathing epithet, though, is "girlie-girlie."

Diana Taurasi says, "He'll pound away at you. There were times I
hated to come to practice because it was so mentally demanding.
He'd put you in situations where you couldn't win. But it's like
he says: 'You're going to prove me right. Or prove me wrong.' And
I'm always determined to prove him wrong. You see, you hate him
in a way you need to."

Diana is forever intent, utterly engaged. Form three lines:
layups, pull-up, cut off the high post. Rote stuff. Pass, then
back to the end of the other line. Next time shoot, then back
to.... But after Diana has taken part, when she goes into the
next line, she shuffles backward. She doesn't want to miss her
teammates even working a silly drill. Ms. Mona Lisa is always
watching.

"Girls are dumb as rocks," Geno declares. "At basketball I mean.
They don't play enough. I ask my players, 'How many days do you
think a guitarist plays guitar? Every day. Well, basketball is
your art. Do you talk the game every day, touch a ball every
day?' D does. D's different. She plays all the time. So she's
picked it up. I mean, how do you teach someone to stick her ass
out when she goes up on a shot so she can draw a foul? D knows
that. But most of 'em just don't play enough."

Implicit in all of this is the wistful belief that if Geno were
coaching men, they'd all be as dedicated as Diana. And, of
course, if he were coaching men, more people would take him
seriously. He'd be a coach then, instead of what he is now: a
coach on the women's side. Geno's trouble is that as much as the
Huskies mean to him, he's always an outsider, the odd man out in
a woman's game, an odd duck for not coaching men.

"I could do it with men for a while," he says. "For a while. It
really isn't that different--what you're trying to do. But see,
you try to teach a man something, he's much more inclined to view
it as, Hey, what difference does it make? What difference does it
make if I come off a screen and catch the ball exactly like you
tell me to?

"I wonder too. I wonder if I were a men's coach, if I'd end up a
p----like most of 'em. How many drill sergeants, working with
18-, 19-, 20-year-old guys, don't end up p----s, at work, anyway?
How can you help it? Have I been spared that? I think so. I don't
have to be a p----. I can coach and still be sensitive. See, over
here, the players listen to you, they actually want to please,
they do what you want them to do. Men's coaches have never had a
situation like this. No, this is the perfect place for me."

But certainly there is a part of him that aches some, that would
like to be Coach Geno Auriemma, not Geno Auriemma, women's coach.
He goes to clinics and listens to the masters, men who haven't
achieved anything near what he has but who've done it on the
men's side. "I'm in awe of old coaches," he admits, tenderly. "I
met Tex Winter. I just stared at him. Hubie Brown. Cotton
Fitzsimmons. Johnny Bach. I could listen to them for hours. I
love that. I'm playing golf with Jim Boeheim and I'm thinking,
Gee, this is Jim Boeheim I'm playing golf with."

And part of it, he knows, is that very few of his male colleagues
look back at him with that sort of admiration. If he hasn't been
asked about this a lot, he certainly has thought about it a lot.
Even for a guy with such a silk tongue, his answer is too
perfectly framed by half. "Look," he says, "my wife thinks I do a
good job. My players believe in me unquestionably. And my
coaches. And I believe my administrators think I'm the best coach
in the country. Then everybody else will tell you I just win
'cause I have good players. Ninety percent of the women coaches
resent me because I'm a man. The other 10 percent appreciate what
I do and are my good friends. Ninety percent of the men's coaches
are jealous that I get all the attention I do for coaching women.
The other 10 percent know me and give me a fair amount of
credit."

Anyway, he'll be 50 on his next birthday, and he knows the cards
have been dealt faceup. He must keep on winning with the women.
"It's like that expression: A taste of honey is worse than none
at all," he says. "I want more. I'm a perfectionist. Besides, I
make an ungodly amount of money, so I'm supposed to win."

He looks around Gampel Pavilion, 10,000 seats. Every game, they
all get filled up--as do the 16,000 for the Huskies' games at the
Hartford Civic Center. He calculates the box office gross. The
Huskies also have a five-year, $4 million in-state TV contract.
Believe that? Women's college hoops: seven figures, in a small
state. Geno, who is paid a base salary of $700,000, plus
incentives, adds in the merchandise sales and the million or more
he knows comes in for special contributions. "All of a sudden
we're an eight-, nine-million-dollar-a-year business," he says.
"We lose three or four games, it's like what's wrong this year?
We lose four or five, I guess my family's gonna need police
protection. And all this on the back of some 19-year-old kid
who's fighting with her boyfriend, and she's got her period, and
she has to make a foul shot. And then all of a sudden I start
thinking, If I don't recruit this one good kid, is all this
jeopardized? I mean, how much longer can it keep going up and
up?" He lifts his hand, like a plane rising skyward, but in
counterpoint he shakes his head mournfully. "It's gotta blow up
sometime."

But you just won another title.

"Misery," he shoots back.

You mean, then, you've reached a point where you can't be happy?

"Yeah, you really can't be. Not for yourself. I'm just happy for
the kids. I can't share what they have. But what I can do is try
and teach them how to share it among themselves the same way I
did when I was on a team."

He wins national championships with women, but it's still not
quite as dear as it was to come off the bench as a boy for Buddy
Gardler at Bishop Kenrick. Geno always throws a big party at the
Final Four so his buddies can come, and for once it's not just
Geno and his women. It isn't easy loving the team and being the
head of the team but never being able to really be part of the
team. "You know what I miss?" Geno asks.

He's at the head table, at a UConn alumni dinner in Danbury,
where he had just wowed the crowd, cracking wise. All these fans
of women's basketball. Wide-eyed girls with cameras. Adoring
older women. And: men. Guys 40-50 years old who never even knew
UConn had a women's team when they went there and are now
cheering Geno, asking him about his plans for rotating
substitutes and who's gonna bring the ball up, Diana or Maria?
You're not going to get this anywhere else in America. And the
season is still seven weeks off. This is what Geno has built.
Only it's a house that he can't really live in.

Meg Pattyson, his old player and assistant, has come with him to
the dinner. "So, all right, Geno, what is it you miss?" she asks.

"I miss being able to be with the guys. You know, hanging out,
drinking beer, playing cards."

"Telling dirty jokes," Meg says.

"Yeah, all right. But you got it wrong. I'm talking about hanging
out. You know how many times I been to a strip joint?" He made a
circle with his thumb and forefinger. "Never. I don't need that,
Meg. I'm just talking about hanging out with the guys."

It isn't easy being a dinosaur. "But I got one more year of D,"
Geno says, chuckling almost devilishly. "It's a timeout. I'm just
talking to D. I look over at the other coach, and she's talking
to the whole team. And I know--duh--we're better because I'm
talking to D. Every day I'm gonna go to practice and just enjoy
her from the first minute to the last. Then I'm leaving."

But he won't. It's too much fun getting up every morning and
strutting into the bathroom and looking into the mirror with
those baby blues and seeing the face of women's basketball,
shaving.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN GIRL'S GOT GAME Taurasi complements her court vision and deadly jumper with hell-bent drives to the hoop.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS LIFTOFF The Huskies carried Geno to his second title in 2000, and after Taurasi arrived that fall they would win two more. B/W PHOTO: M. WILLIAM BREADHEFT/UCONN PHOTO SERVICES ALL EARS Auriemma (with Kris Lamb in '86 and Taurasi last January) listens to his players as much as he lectures them. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER TALL ORDER When Huskies assistant coaches refer to Diana as Little Geno, they're obviously not talking about her height.

Coaches had never seen anyone like Diana. SHE NEVER DOUBTED
HERSELF, never expressed any trepidation.

"If players think I like 'em," Geno says, "I CAN DO WHATEVER I
WANT."

Nowadays a man has no shot at a high-profile job in women's
college basketball. GENO IS THE LAST DINOSAUR.

"I got one more year of D," Geno says. "I'm gonna go to practice
and just ENJOY HER TO THE LAST MINUTE."

More coverage of women's college basketball all season long, plus
Frank Deford's Viewpoint every Wednesday, at si.com.

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