Commentary

The secrets of Geno's success

UConn coach shows how to win games and influence people

Originally Published: March 19, 2013
By Graham Hays | espnW

HARTFORD, Conn. -- What makes Geno Auriemma tick is often overshadowed by what happens when the fuse runs out.

Go back to the semifinals of the Big East tournament. Connecticut struggled through a poor second-half performance against Syracuse. The Huskies never quite put their 15-point halftime lead in real jeopardy, but they made a full evening's work out of what looked at one time like it could have become something close to the 30-point win they averaged in conference play. Against the Orange in that second half, possessions went awry, unforced turnovers pooled and the coach grew audibly more agitated by the minute, until finally one mistake too many meant detonation.

[+] EnlargeUconn Women's Basketball
AP Photo/Bob ChildChris Dailey said Geno Auriemma's greatest strength -- and weakness -- is an unrelenting demand for perfection. But it helped produce a 2001-02 team largely regarded as the best ever.

As the noise of a subdued crowd hit low ebb after another miscue, Auriemma gave up on admonition and instruction and let loose with something that seemed constructed of equal parts disbelief and disgust at what he was watching.

Something that sounded like "goalie mitt" echoed unmistakably, accusingly around the former home of the Whalers.

Of course, those weren't his exact words. They just rhymed with them.

As he enters his 25th NCAA tournament, Auriemma's method remains not so much Socratic as searingly sarcastic. Love it or hate it, love him or loathe him, it's the underpinning of the mental game that has set his teams apart from their peers at least as much as the talent he eventually accumulated.

"I am a hardass," Auriemma acknowledged when asked if he considered himself as much. "But we wouldn't have had all the accomplishments we have as a basketball program if that's all I was. Players would have stopped listening to me, and I would have been run out of coaching if that's all I was.

"So I think we win because I am, because I demand sometimes more than they can give. But I don't know what that is until I find out you can't give it."

I am a hardass … I think we win because I am, because I demand sometimes more than they can give. But I don't know what that is until I find out you can't give it.

-- Geno Auriemma

There is a case to be made that no coach in American college sports ever got more out of players, relative to their peers, over an extended period of time than Auriemma. He shares his place in the discussion with a long list of legends who got as much -- Bear Bryant, Anson Dorrance, Pat Summitt, John Wooden, among them. He has 833 wins entering the NCAA tournament, exactly 700 more wins than losses. His teams are 151-27 in the win-or-go-home environment of the Big East and NCAA tournaments, including 7-0 in national championship games.

Indeed, one of the things that makes Notre Dame's current hold on Connecticut all the more compelling is that while the Fighting Irish have won seven of the past eight meetings in the series, most recently in the Big East championship game, the Huskies have suffered just nine losses against the rest of the country since the start of the 2006-07 season.

The results are unimpeachable. It's that method that irritates so many beyond the borders of Connecticut.

Sarcastic, smug, supremely self confident. All have been worn out by the frequency with which they are associated with Auriemma. He's the guy who once told the rest of the country the difference was his team had Diana Taurasi and they didn't, truth which would have been grating enough without the simultaneous unspoken reminder that many heard in those words -- that the Huskies also had him. And you didn't.

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma
Bill Shettle/Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesGeno Auriemma didn't like what he saw against Syracuse in the Big East semifinals. But top-seeded UConn is 29-4 and seeking a sixth consecutive Final Four.

He pushes buttons the way the best musicians play instruments, expertly and aggressively, whether with a team in 1991 that wasn't as talented as the rest of the Final Four field it joined for the first time or with more recent teams that featured multiple WNBA lottery picks. So it's surprising to hear him acknowledge how much more difficult it is now to find the right way to reach players, a generation whose most important basketball moments before college come in the hundreds of meaningless summer games he loathes, games in which everything is at stake individually and nothing collectively.

Connecticut is 29-4 and a No. 1 seed. It beat Texas A&M by 31 points, Purdue by 34 points, Stanford by 26 points and Duke by 30 points, among other notable wins. And yet even as he, moments later, lamented the expectations that come when a populace gets comfortable with four undefeated seasons and seven national championships, he sounded like someone coaching a team that was on the WNIT bubble.

He sounded like he believed each and every word.

"I think, and I'm not in this category, I think coaches have to adjust a lot more than I've been able to adjust," Auriemma said. "This has been a really incredibly humbling experience for me this year. That 75 percent of all the stuff that I've done and things that I've done and ways that I've done them that's gotten us to where we are with this program don't work anymore. It's crazy. It's really, really crazy. Because kids don't respond in that way, so you got to find a different way to reach them. You hope you can, but it's getting more difficult to reach them."

The current team is perhaps one missed jump shot, one made free throw and one botched inbounds play away from a 32-1 record, each of the three games against Notre Dame in its grasp in the final moments. The Huskies even led Baylor at halftime after as effective a defensive effort against Brittney Griner in the first half as any team managed this season -- Stefanie Dolson giving up her body, getting help and all parts rotating in rhythm to cover holes. It's difficult to point to such slim margins as overwhelming evidence of any flaw. If those three bounces went the other way, we'd be talking about the team's indomitable spirit. At the same time, those margins are what Auriemma described when he talked about the mental game being an understanding in the moment of what needs to be done and the ability to do it.

I think coaches have to adjust a lot more than I've been able to adjust. This has been a really incredibly humbling experience for me this year. That 75 percent of all the stuff that I've done and things that I've done and ways that I've done them that's gotten us to where we are with this program don't work anymore.

-- Geno Auriemma

"The great players, they know what they have to do it, and they do it to the best of their abilities almost every time," Auriemma said in reference to one of his favorite quotes from Bob Knight. "That's what makes them great players. And other guys, they know what has to be done and 'Ehh,' they may or may not do it to the best of their abilities. And they may or may not do it all the time.

"And that's what makes them average players."

Associate coach Chris Dailey described Auriemma's greatest strength as his willingness to stay on the same thing, hour after hour, until what he saw on the court matched the vision he had in his head for how it ought to work. She described his greatest weakness as exactly the same thing, an unrelenting demand for perfection. What criticism he offers publicly, and it isn't rare, is something his players heard first.

"I think that it's just getting used to him always just really, what's the word, badgering you almost," freshman Breanna Stewart said of adjusting to Auriemma. "He's trying to get the best out of you, and he's trying to make you figure out how to bring that out of yourself. I mean, he's just constantly -- he's always, always on me at practice. And I do appreciate that, but during the time, I didn't appreciate it.

"But I obviously understand where he's coming from, and he knows what he's doing because of the program he has created."

It feels at times, watching or listening to him, as though Auriemma is orchestrating a game of chess. But if that's all there was to him, to go back to the question he posed, would it have lasted for a quarter of a century's worth of NCAA tournaments? Ultimately, perhaps it's the players who drive him. The wins are the byproduct.

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma
Elsa/Getty ImagesGeno Auriemma has won 833 games. His Huskies are 7-0 in national championship games, with the most recent title coming in 2010.

He can have perfect seasons; he'll never feel like he got perfection from a player. And that eats at him.

Consider his reaction to how he would fare if women's college basketball suffered the same one-and-done phenomenon that NBA money imparts on men's college basketball.

"Would I be able to do that? I don't think so," Auriemma said. "I'm a relationship guy, kind of. I think success is part of building relationships and having relationships with your players that grow over a period of time. I don't know that I would be as good without those relationships, and I don't know that you can build those in one year. At that point then, you're just trying to get guys and win national championships. You're rolling the dice. And there's something to be said for that, don't get me wrong. I just don't know that my personality …"

Here he paused at the end of a contemplated point, and the sarcastic grin returned as if on cue at the mention of his personality.

"Although I don't know," he continued. "As I'm getting older they don't want to be around me more than a year, and I don't want to be around them more than a year. So maybe I would be good at it."

The method is the man. The man is the method.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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