- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
NEW ORLEANS -- Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma can't possibly be having as bad a time as he sometimes makes it appear. The heavy sighs, the grumbling asides, the caustic humor to perceived slights, the suggestion that all this success is kind of a burden -- that's just part of the shtick, right? Geno being Geno?
Yes ... and no. He says playing in the Final Four is still fun, even if he doesn't always look like he's having any. But the path to the last game of a season is not so much fun anymore. If it ever was for Mr. Perfection.
"For me, it's gotten harder and harder to enjoy the process leading up to this," is how Auriemma put it Saturday before his team came out Sunday and beat Notre Dame, advancing to UConn's eighth NCAA final. The Huskies have won all seven of their previous trips: 1995, 2000, '02, '03, '04, '09 and '10.
Tuesday night against Louisville (ESPN, 8:30 ET), the Huskies will try for the program's eighth national championship, which would tie Tennessee and former coach Pat Summitt for the most titles in NCAA women's basketball history.
"That doesn't mean anything to me really," Auriemma said of the number eight. "If all that stuff was important, I would have signed my [new] contract five minutes after I got it instead of five weeks after I got it. How about we just say we've got seven right now and leave it at that?"
You can try to decipher those statements however you like, but it's impossible to think becoming the all-time leader in NCAA women's titles doesn't matter to Auriemma. Don't think he doesn't realize the impact of matching Summitt, whom he always has respected despite their difficult-at-times professional relationship.
But by the same token, he's wise enough to know it's best not to talk too much about what hasn't happened yet. Take care of business on Tuesday first.
Still, how can we observers not pause to consider what Auriemma and UConn have already accomplished?
"I want the eighth one for Coach, just because this team is special and he deserves it," said UConn guard Caroline Doty, a fifth-year senior. "This year, with so many ups and downs that we've overcome, he's really brought us together this whole season. We've turned around a lot from the Big East championship game."
"Ups and downs" is always a relative phrase with UConn. The Huskies are 34-4 -- three of those losses coming to Notre Dame and the other to Baylor. Both the Fighting Irish and the Lady Bears were No. 1 seeds like UConn. Unlike the Huskies, they are not playing for a title Tuesday.
UConn's national semifinal win over Notre Dame purged what passed for "demons" in UConn's mostly heavenly existence. Even if Auriemma sometimes puts out the vibe that it's hell to be at the top so long, you know deep down he doesn't really believe that.
"We won six championships in 10 years," Auriemma said of the stretch from 2000 to 2010, which technically encompasses 11 seasons. "I always thought during that run, 'You know, someday everybody's going to look back and go: I can't believe that that actually happened.'
"Because the more time passes and the more you see how many really good teams come up short, you start to realize how incredible that was and how hard it is to do."
His opponent on the sidelines Tuesday, Louisville's Jeff Walz, is now in his second NCAA title game. The first was also against UConn, and the Cardinals lost 76-54 as the Huskies finished out the first of two consecutive perfect seasons.
Told that Auriemma had joked about his red-and-white "tablecloth" shirt Sunday, Walz returned the volley. He deadpanned in Monday's news conference that he was going to step aside as Louisville's coach after the final to become head waiter in Auriemma's restaurant. Auriemma later said Walz didn't dress well enough for that job, so he would have to bus dishes and take out the trash.
"I think I'm pretty sarcastic at times, and I like to give it back to him as well," Walz said. "It's all in good fun. He's just honest and blunt. Like I always say, he says what the rest of us think.
"What impresses me so much about what he's done is he takes really good players and gets them to play hard."
Walz recalled that early in his career at Louisville, UConn was practicing in the Cardinals' gym and Walz asked Auriemma if he could watch. A lot of coaches would never let an opponent do that. Auriemma has been open to it, because he wants the sport to grow.
"He's like, 'Sure.' Actually, my whole team came to watch," Walz said. "And he sat there and talked to me for the first hour of practice. [They] had Renee Montgomery, I think it was Maya [Moore's] freshman year, Tina Charles -- those kids were out there running practice.
"He didn't have to tell them to go hard. That's when you know you've got yourself a great program and leaders. Because as a coach, you've just got to coach. You're not trying to encourage your kid, 'Go hard, go hard!'"
Of course, that doesn't mean that Auriemma never does any encouraging. Sometimes it's done in what might seem a verbally harsh fashion, challenging a player to see that she's actually not getting the most out of herself.
But Auriemma and his staff, led by associate head coach Chris Dailey, have been very savvy about targeting not just talented players, but ones who could adjust to the demands at UConn.
"We're best friends," joked Huskies junior center Stefanie Dolson of Auriemma, displaying a deft touch of Geno sarcasm. "No, actually he's a guy who is so straightforward and will tell it like it is. For me, because of my personality, I don't let a lot of what he says affect me. I take what he says, and not how he says it. We always have fun off the court; he makes fun of us, and we'll make fun of him.
"His mentality overall with the team and how he coaches us has driven us to want to make him proud and get this win [Tuesday], not only for ourselves but for him and the coaches."
Having a team with such outstanding underclass players as freshman Breanna Stewart and sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis suggests that if No. 8 does come Tuesday for UConn, there's good reason to think Nos. 9 and 10 might follow immediately after.
That kind of thinking is both what Auriemma sort of craves, and what drives him crazy. He's irritated if he ever perceives the Huskies are being counted out as title contenders or somehow short-changed in national prestige. But it also bugs him when people think UConn should just be expected to be in this position year after year, as if it's automatic and easy to stay great just because you've been great.
In other words, Auriemma might just kind of thrive on being irritated. It's a motivation, a needle that keeps sticking at him from two different sides.
Now, the Huskies go into another final as favorites, a No. 1 seed versus a No. 5 seed. In their only meeting this season as Big East foes, UConn beat Louisville 72-58 on Jan. 15 in Hartford, Conn.
Stewart, who's having a fantastic NCAA tournament, didn't even play in that game against the Cardinals. So what does UConn have to fear?
Well, Auriemma is a perpetual glass-half-empty guy. His kind of movie would be "Dark Clouds Playbook." He foresees every potential mishap for his squad.
You could guess that part of him thinks, "Louisville beat Baylor, which beat us. How could anyone think we're just going to cruise over the Cardinals?"
And yet another part of him thinks, "We're as proven a commodity as any NCAA women's basketball team ever when it comes to national championship games. We're like Tiger Woods used to be when leading going into the final round. How can anyone pick against us?"
The truth is, very few will. The Huskies have risen to the occasion once again at the most important time of the year. Auriemma credits his staff -- especially Dailey, who has been his assistant since he took over at UConn in 1985 -- saying that he has "gotten a little lax."
"Like, I don't have the brain power or the discipline as much as I did," he said. "[But] every player on our team buys into it, and that's why every year we put ourselves into position to be at this point during the season."
And you know what? It's really not a bad place to be at all. It's exactly where Auriemma has proved over and over that he belongs.