LEADER OF THE PACK

After winning his 10th title, UConn's top dog discusses John Wooden, his NBA fantasies and coaching (maybe) the best women's player ever
April 20, 2015

MY FAVORITE tennis player of all time is Steffi Graf. I loved watching her play, and I want Andre Agassi to know that I'm extremely jealous of him. I don't know how many Grand Slam singles titles she won. Twenty-something, right? [Twenty-two.] You know what? I never read anywhere that Steffi Graf was not as good as Bjorn Borg. Seriously, what's the point of that? I grew up appreciating greatness regardless of anything.

There are a lot of people who appreciate what we do. One guy who always calls me before and after our championship games is Bob Kraft, the owner of the Patriots. The relationship started a while ago when I got a nice gift from the Patriots for winning a national title. I certainly love and appreciate what they do, and he and his organization are appreciative of what we do. There's a New England bond there. After we beat Notre Dame 63--53 in Tampa this year, I got a great text from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who I know a little bit. He told me, "Congratulations, great job, and I love your program." It's interesting to me that people who have achieved great things and understand how hard it is to be really good at something are the first people to congratulate you. People who have not accomplished much in their lives are the first to criticize you.

I've spoken to Bill Clinton many times since we first won in 1995. He called me last Friday and we spent 20 minutes on the phone. I also heard from President Obama. He offered congratulations and then said, "You know I picked you guys, and I'm happy for you. You beat a very good team. But you are getting old, Geno. You are slipping. It was a great game, but you used to win by much more, so age is clearly catching up with you." He made sure he gave me a couple of shots. But you can't give him a shot back because he's the President.

This year I didn't like [my players] in October, and they didn't like me either. I knew what we were doing wasn't going to be good enough to get them what they wanted. But they didn't want to hear it. How do you tell a group of guys who have won two national championships in a row that what they're doing isn't good enough? They just thought everything was going to be real easy, and they kind of wanted somebody else to do the hard work. But little by little, they started to see what we were talking about as a coaching staff. Last year's team—we had three bad practices in five months, and I remember all three of them. This team we probably had three a week. I knew we had the talent, but I did not know if guys would step up. So when they did come together, it was great to be a part of it.

My players carried me off the court in Tampa, which first started in 1995. Back then they were overjoyed; now all they do is bitch and moan about how heavy I am. Well, I make it worse because I kind of just lie there like a stone. I don't know that they like it or don't like it, but they do it. They have fun with it. As I've gotten older, I embrace more of the traditions that they think are important.

TO SEE your name next to John Wooden's is overwhelming. It's also troubling and humbling. For every person who writes, What a great accomplishment it is that you've won the same number of championships as Wooden, there will be 15 stories saying, That's a joke, he coaches women's basketball and Wooden coached men's basketball. Coach Wooden made a comment before he passed away [in 2010]. He said, "I think our accomplishments stand side by side." I appreciated that he came out publicly and said he appreciates women's basketball. He was a traditionalist. He enjoyed the purity of the game, and whether we still have that now, I don't know, but he liked that part of it.

A lot of people who comment on Coach Wooden never even saw UCLA play. They couldn't name anyone on those teams other than maybe Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton. Well, I'm 61, and I saw it all. The Bruins dominated the sport maybe more than we are. They won 88 in a row. [UConn broke that record with 90 straight wins.] What kind of parity existed then in men's college basketball? I rooted for them in every game. When I was in high school [in Norristown, Pa.], I made a lot of money betting on their team against the spread—and the spreads were huge. I remember kids my age saying, "Which would you rather do? Go to a school and play 40 minutes a game, or go to UCLA and maybe not play but win national championships every year." I'd say to myself: I'd rather be at UCLA than any other place in America.

Now it's funny that people say we are the same as UCLA. I just hope that we at Connecticut have done our part to grow this game. I do think there's a level of attention that we're given that helps everybody. And just like it ended at UCLA, history has a way of reminding you that the same thing is going to happen with us. So you want to enjoy it while you're in it.

I know my comments on the state of the men's college game got a lot of attention, and here is all I want to say on it: I think if I hadn't used the word joke, the reaction would have been different. I wish I had not used that word. But I saw something [ESPN analyst] Jay Bilas sent out. He said what I said was harsh but it was basically correct. So that's how I feel about it.

People ask me if I ever wished I coached men. Yeah, I would not be honest if I didn't admit that I wonder what it would be like to sit in a film room with LeBron and Kobe and all those guys and think about how to beat Spain. Or what it's like to sit in a film room with an NBA coaching staff, thinking, How are we going to stop LeBron from getting 30 on us? I am fascinated by people who do things really well that are hard to do, and I think coaching in the NBA is the absolute hardest thing to do as a coach in the sport of basketball.

THE NIGHT after I got back to Connecticut, I watched a replay of the Notre Dame game, and my wife and I watched an episode of Scandal because that's one of her favorite shows. I like to watch the game by myself, just to see if it was what I thought it looked like. I thought both teams struggled with any kind of continuity, both teams were a little tight, but very good defensively. I thought we each had a really hard time getting great looks. There were stretches of some very good basketball. But in the last seven minutes a couple of our guys made some huge plays, and that was the difference.

I know the questions are coming about whether [junior forward] Breanna Stewart is the greatest women's college player ever. I would say that the numbers speak for themselves. She's won three national championships in her first three years. Her performances in the Final Four show you she is not just along for the ride. Look at what she did after she sprained her ankle [late in the first half] in the title game—and I saw that ankle a couple of days later, and it was blown up. She subtly had 15 rebounds and four blocked shots, not to mention how many shots she changed. People think it's just about points, but with her sometimes you don't even notice how much she impacts winning. So I think at this point in her career she has been as good, if not better, than anyone who has ever played. But I don't want to compare my best players because they are all unique and did things their own way.

I'm at an age right now where I am not looking at a 20-year plan. I am happy where I am professionally, financially. As long as I keep doing what I am doing and they want me here, I will be here. I don't know if you have the right to work as long as you want, but I'd like to think I will be the first to know when it is time to go.

But this is the great challenge that we all go through as we get older: How do you keep it fresh? How do you make it exciting for everyone? How do you continue to evolve? That's where I think your coaching staff comes in and also the relationships that you have with the players on your team. This past season, and especially this NCAA tournament, I was probably more anxious and nervous and worried than ever before that I would not do a good job for our team. I'm not sure why. Maybe that's why when we did win, I was happier than I had been in a while.

Listen, I'd be lying if I said the grind doesn't get to me sometimes. The plane rides, the next recruiting trip, meetings after meetings. I was in New York City in January walking around Brooklyn for a recruiting trip. It was like 10 below zero, and I'm freezing my butt off, waiting to get into this gym. I'm saying to myself, "What the hell am I doing out here? I should be in Florida playing golf." But I'm still excited and emotional about what I do. When the charge isn't there anymore, then I'll know it's time to get out. But as long as it is, you'll see me around the gym.

THE CHAMPIONSHIPS

Over the last 20 years, Auriemma has had a near stranglehold on the NCAA field, with 10 titles and five perfect seasons

SEASON RECORD RESULT MOST OUTSTANDING PLAYER
1994--95 35--0 d. Tennessee 70--64 Rebecca Lobo
1999--00 36--1 d. Tennessee 71--52 Shea Ralph
2001--02 39--0 d. Oklahoma 82--70 Swin Cash
2002--03 37--1 d. Tennessee 73--68 Diana Taurasi
2003--04 31--4 d. Tennessee 70--61 Diana Taurasi
2008--09 39--0 d. Louisville 76--54 Tina Charles
2009--10 39--0 d. Stanford 53--47 Maya Moore
2012--13 35--4 d. Louisville 93--60 Breanna Stewart
2013--14 40--0 d. Notre Dame 79--58 Breanna Stewart
2014--15 38--1 d. Notre Dame 63--53 Breanna Stewart
PHOTOPhotograph by John David Mercer USA Today SportsCARRIED AWAY The jubilant Huskies gave their coach his traditional lift off the floor after a hard-fought win over Notre Dame in the national championship game. PHOTOCHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDBY ANY STRETCH Battling a sprained ankle, Stewart used her 7'1" wingspan to grab 15 rebounds and win her third straight Final Four MOP trophy. ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)