Geno Auriemma up to the challenge
It hasn't been a fun summer for the Connecticut Sun, who are last in the WNBA's Eastern Conference. But overall, there has been a lot of good news in recent weeks for women's basketball fans in Connecticut.
Diana Taurasi continues to have an MVP-caliber season in Phoenix. Sue Bird is sitting out this WNBA season recovering from injury … but she is finally on Twitter.
In other UConn alumni news, Kara Wolters' Nancy Drew-like mystery, "The Strange Case of the Missing Trophy," had a happy ending: Grandma did it! Um, inadvertently by proxy. (We are still hoping for the definitive Rebecca Lobo top 10 list of one-liners on the heist that wasn't of Wolters' 1997 Associated Press Player of the Year trophy.)
And then this announcement officially came Friday, although word had leaked Thursday: UConn mentor Geno Auriemma will return for another four-year cycle as coach of the U.S. women's national team.
Fabulous! Right, UConn fans?
Well, they are mostly New Englanders who have that "Don't tell me the sky isn't falling, because I know better" mentality. Thus, there will be some worrywarts who'll wonder if this will take too much of Auriemma's time and energy away from their beloved Huskies, who are a lock to be preseason No. 1 later this fall.
Hey, he already did this gig. He led the Americans to gold medals at the 2010 world championship and 2012 Olympics. Isn't that enough of Geno for UConn to share with USA Basketball?
But let us assure the worrywarts there is no need to worry.
"I think coming back to coach at Connecticut from that experience made me a better college coach," Auriemma said of his national-team term. "It gave me more of a perspective. When you're coaching in college, you lose a game in November, and it's the end of the world. Or a kid doesn't play well for a week, and you think they're never going to be any good.
"I think being around the national team, it's more about the big picture. In some ways, I was much more able to take the ups and downs, the high and lows that go with college coaching and understand it better."
Auriemma followed up the triumph in London in the summer of 2012 with his UConn program's eighth NCAA title in the spring of 2013. He and the UConn staff nurtured (sometimes with necessary tough love) his freshman sensation Breanna Stewart. She had her weeks last season when things seemed grim -- if you thought the world was going to last for only one more week. But the world kept spinning … and then she was the Final Four's most outstanding player.
The Huskies will be favored to win it all again in 2014. If so, it will give Auriemma the most NCAA titles for a women's hoops coach; he's currently tied at eight with Tennessee's Pat Summitt.
Who knows how many more NCAA crowns Auriemma, 59, might add in his career? And now, he's going to do something nobody else has: lead the U.S. women's team in two Olympics.
I could tell myself all along: no, no, no. But when I was forced to make a decision, it's something I wanted.Geno Auriemma on deciding to coach Team USA again
Does he need this extra responsibility with the national team? No, of course not. He's already in the Naismith Hall of Fame. Even if Auriemma were the type to sit around thinking in very concrete, numerical terms about his legacy -- which he isn't – he has already piled up so many accomplishments that this isn't something he has to have professionally. No, this is really more about personal fulfillment.
He had said many times after London that once was enough, and he didn't want to lead the national team through another world championship/Olympics cycle again. But when USA Basketball kept asking, he finally asked himself: Why not?
"What ended up turning the tide for me, so to speak, was I want to do it," Auriemma said. "If it had been a really bad experience, I wouldn't want to do it. But I really had a great time; I enjoyed the whole four-year experience last time. I thought to myself, 'Yeah, it is something I really want to do.' I could tell myself all along: no, no, no. But when I was forced to make a decision, it's something I wanted."
That said, the bottom line is, it does help professionally. Even the best at any occupation need to be tested at times, whether that's with fine-tuning some of their philosophies and/or fitting one more thing into their already overstuffed routines.
Auriemma has always said he doesn't believe in things staying static: A team is either working at getting better … or it's getting worse. That's really about as sound a piece of advice as there is for how you stay on top.
He has applied that to himself as a coach. UConn hasn't won eight NCAA titles because nobody else is trying hard. There are challengers who've tried very hard, but Auriemma hasn't let up.
USA Basketball takes the same mentality. It isn't saying of the women's program, "Hey, we've won five Olympics in a row; we've got this Rio thing in 2016. No problem." That USA Basketball mentality that "gold never gets old" has been accompanied by the knowledge that gold medals aren't something you just order up like room service.
Team USA has only to look back at one subpar game that tripped up the Americans in the 2006 world championship semifinals. Regardless of how far ahead in talent you are -- and nobody will dispute that the U.S. women have more of that than any nation in hoops -- you have to keep working at it.
And it has to matter to you. That might seem automatic: Who doesn't want to play in the Olympics? But the commitment for players is much more than that. It's showing up for training camps even when they're tired or have other things to do. It's accepting whatever role they are assigned, even if that means being a WNBA superstar on the U.S. national team bench.
This is a mindset that has been passed down from players who are now retired to current standouts. And Auriemma, in taking another four-year term with USA Basketball, is setting the same example as a coach that he hopes to see in the upcoming generation of American young women playing this sport. Whether they attend UConn or anywhere else.
"I would venture to say it can get harder and harder," Auriemma said. "Because people's schedules get more difficult, and the demands on their time are even greater.
"I want to make sure -- and I'm sure everybody else does -- that all those kids in college now, and the young players in the WNBA, have the same level of commitment that Sue, and Diana, and Tamika Catchings have right now [to USA Basketball]. I think that is part of our mission, which is why this particular cycle is going to be a little different -- and in some cases, more important -- than the last one we just had."
Yet another good reason to keep the same captain of the ship. Especially when he has realized that while he doesn't need another challenge or obligation, this is one he truly relishes having.