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Monday, November 21, 2011
Geno Auriemma and Connecticut a perfect fit

By Graham Hays

This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of this 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.

STORRS, Conn. -- Tipoff at the University of Connecticut's Gampel Pavilion was still almost two hours away when Geno Auriemma poked his head through a temporary partition dividing one section of a corridor beneath the empty stands from that reserved for players and coaches. His audience was no more than five people, but it was enough.

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," he intoned, channeling the title character in the "The Wizard of Oz."

He was selling himself short. The Wizard left his imprint only on a city. Auriemma is working on a state.

The irony, of course, is that Auriemma may be the least likely figure in sports to hide behind artifice. His own personality is sufficiently larger than life to command the room in any situation. Just how "great and powerful" he is depends on your rooting interest -- there undoubtedly are some who would enter the GPS coordinates if it helped land a house on him. But everything that drives some people crazy about Auriemma is what makes him such a comfortable fit where he is. In a state lost in the sports shadows cast by Boston and New York, at once half of each and none of either, he is all theirs. And after a quarter-century on the job, that much is firmly embedded in the culture of the place.

"If I wasn't a UConn fan, I can see where people come from when they bash Geno," UConn sophomore Tim Fontenault acknowledged as he waited for the doors to open before a recent game. "But at the same time, they don't know him as well as the UConn fans do. It's kind of hard to understand his mentality for an opposing fan, I think."

Fontenault, Matt Winters and Chris Ambrose were the first in line at the student entrance outside Gampel before a recent game against Pacific. As hot a ticket as Stanford, Texas A&M or Notre Dame might be this season, this game in the middle of the week occupied the opposite end of the spectrum, a foregone conclusion if ever there was one. Yet there the three of them were 30 minutes before the doors opened and two hours before tip, the vanguard of a student section that would fill the bleachers at one end of the court and patiently wait out a rout for the only drama of the night: to see which student would win a $25 gift certificate and how Auriemma would make fun of the lucky soul (in this case, by suggesting that a winner from well-to-do Greenwich probably didn't need a $25 gift certificate).

Even at a time when the men's team has the upper hand in the constant campus tug-of-war -- with Jim Calhoun's team fresh off its third national championship -- it's not much of a revelation that college students would pay attention to the women's team. College kids are creative when it comes to wasting time, but there aren't that many things to do in Storrs. Besides, people don't need to be committed to a sport to enjoy a winner in their backyard, and the seniors in the student section have seen Auriemma's team lose just twice total and never at home. What's different at Connecticut is that it isn't just a four-year joyride. Winters said he has been coming to games since 2002 and offered an explanation for his fandom that spoke volumes in its simplicity.

"It was part of my childhood," Winters said. "I grew up watching Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, and back then it was really intense competition. It was just fun, so I just stick with it."

When Winters started attending UConn games, Mark Spanek was still getting acclimated to being a dad. At the game against Pacific, he was sitting high in the second level behind the UConn bench with his older daughter, Sarah. It was her 10th birthday, and Mark wore the beam of a father who knew he had scored some serious points by surprising her with tickets to see her favorite team play in person for the first time.

And get the full Auriemma experience for the first time.

It's safe to say UConn's coach operates on at least a PG-13 rating on the sideline, with a warning for excessive sarcasm. It takes all of 58 seconds this night for him to come out of his seat and raise his voice to a volume exceeded only by the fan in the blue-and-white wig leading the cheers from the stands. Senior Tiffany Hayes commits a cardinal sin when she gets beaten off the dribble by a player who is no threat from the perimeter, and compounds her error by fouling her foe from behind.

"Why, Tiffany, why?" Auriemma bellowed in frustration.

It's one of the sides of Auriemma that rubs many people the wrong way (he's a geometric marvel in that respect): the public admonitions and seething on the sideline, the bluntness of his targeted barbs. For his part, the elder Spanek doesn't arrive here as a lifelong member of the church of Geno. He just found that he liked the guy. He likes him because he identifies with something, a personality type that is hardly scarce from Auriemma's hometown of Philadelphia up the I-95 corridor and into New England.

People around here get to the point. It's neither a gift nor a fault. Or maybe it's some of both. But for Spanek, a model of geniality this night, it's a sign of authenticity.

"The way he coaches is a lot the way I am, personality-wise," Spanek said. "I'm very loud, boisterous. I have to tell them, [Sarah] and her younger sister, 'I'm not yelling at you; it's the way I am.' I played baseball and I was a catcher, so you have to yell in order for communication. ...

"There are some [loud coaches] that are probably bad, but overall, you want people to succeed. That's the bottom line. You want people to succeed, and you have ways to do it."

Far from being scared off, the Spaneks are still inside a rapidly emptying Gampel about 30 minutes after the game, having found their way down to the court. Huskies sophomore Stefanie Dolson emerges from the locker room in street clothes, signs an autograph and poses for a picture with a birthday girl. For her part, Sarah appears a tad more nervous in the presence of the 6-foot-5 Dolson than in the daydream she recounted earlier -- the one where she wears a uniform to the game and hits five 3-pointers and a free throw to complete a comeback when called out of the stands in the closing minutes. Now it's the real thing, her body language seems to say: a close encounter with an actual Husky.

"I'm reminded of this by my staff all the time, that I've never gotten a bigger reaction than any of my players," Auriemma said. "It's never been about me, so in that respect, I have a pretty good understanding of who it's all about. I think we've had some of the best players in the history of college basketball play here."

There are signs of fraying at the edges of the empire, at least in the attention of the audience if not the quality of the basketball. The announced attendance for the Pacific game was 6,067, almost as large as the crowd that attended a top-10 showdown between Texas A&M and Louisville the same day in College Station, but Connecticut's smallest regular-season crowd in more than a decade. After an even smaller crowd showed up at Gampel for a second-round NCAA tournament game against Purdue last season, Auriemma came under fire in many quarters when he called fans "spoiled" and sarcastically suggested the team needed to win more often to deserve their love.

As much as he seems made for the role now, Auriemma couldn't have anticipated the cultural impact his program has had on this state. He talks about his reaction to it over time as a three-stage process: the first uneasiness, the second acceptance and the third best described as only Auriemma can.

"All right, enough of that, and can't we just move on and make it back the way it was when it was normal?"

Of course, he knows the answer and knows it's one that doesn't include fans like Winters and Ambrose or the Spaneks.

"I think you go through all those stages," he continued. "But I think the alternative is that none of this would have happened, and we wouldn't live in the world we've created and none of us would have ever had a chance to experience what very, very few people in college basketball have experienced or ever will experience."

As the man behind the curtain might say, there's no place like Connecticut.