Women's hoops coach Geno Auriemma on cusp of adding golden chapter to remarkable tale

Dan Wetzel
Geno Auriemma (Getty)

LONDON – Across a life of basketball, even as the victories and championships and perfect seasons piled up, Geno Auriemma always figured there was one goal out of reach: United States women's national team coach.

It wasn't just that he was born in Italy. It wasn't just that he was a man in a women's game. It wasn't just that he was from the college ranks and the trend lately swung to taking pro coaches.

It was Geno himself. He is, admittedly, an abrasive force. Unapologetic. Politically incorrect. Not at all a member of the inner cliques of the women's basketball. He's had longstanding feuds with any number of coaches, most famously Pat Summitt, the icon of the sport.

He wins games, not popularity contests. Getting to be national team coach is, quite often, a popularity contest.

"I did think that if there was a committee that picked the coach, then the chances of me getting picked were zero," Auriemma said Thursday.

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It turns out there wasn't a committee, at least not in a traditional manner. Carol Callan, the women's national team director had the most to say, and Auriemma isn't 804-129 (.862) by accident. So one day in April, 2009, Auriemma's phone rang in his office at the University of Connecticut, and Callan told him he was hired.

So here he sat at the Olympics' Main Press Center, talking about the women's teams' 33-game, four-gold-medals win streak, discussing six of his former UConn Huskies on the squad and basically revealing an opportunity he didn't see coming.

"I could never, ever, ever be here as an athlete," he said. "So you kind of live vicariously."

This is a culmination for an American original. He was an immigrant kid, moving to Norristown, Pa., at age seven, speaking only Italian. His parents weren't interested in sports, and Auriemma said he wasn't any good at them anyway. The only positive was since they never attended his games, he'd just tell them he played well.

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To somehow envision that he'd enjoy fame, fortune and almost unimaginable success coaching women's basketball was absurd. Yet he got into coaching, stuck with the women's game, captured seven NCAA titles and through his brash, colorful personality helped the game surge in popularity.

"Every [player] knows what coach has done for women's basketball," said Diana Taurasi, his former UConn and now national team star. "He brought a different point of view to things. It's not all flowery, flowery women's basketball. It's not just skirts and cupcakes. Sometimes there's some steak and cussing. That's life, it's not all that pretty."

Auriemma has ruffled a million feathers, never backing down for speaking out or running it up. He treats his women's players simply as players, getting after them with any manner he sees fit. If he's asked an opinion, he gives it in full force. He built a machine in Storrs that just churns out these victories over mostly overmatched opponents, and he can't imagine doing it any other way.

In that sense, he's perfect for the juggernaut of USA women's hoops. They are the overwhelming favorite.

"There's a lot of people who want to coach the underdog," Auriemma said. "Me, I don't like being the underdog. I like to coach the best team, the best players and then if we lose, it's my fault.

"It's like poker. I don't want to win on the seventh hand because I got lucky. I want to have four aces right off the bat and beat everyone's asses."

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Auriemma said his favorite Olympian as a kid was Franz Klammer, the daring Austrian downhill skier who won gold in 1976 with a dramatic performance where he almost wrecked about five times yet somehow held it together to go faster than anyone thought possible.

So that made sense.

Then he talked about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the American track star who held their fists in the air in a black power salute on the podium of the 1968 Games, even as they knew their opinions would create an uproar.

And that made even more sense.

Mostly Auriemma laughed here Thursday. He was enjoying every second of this.

He knows the challenges, knows the pressure of the win streak that he has yet to have any part of. He is as much worried about how his team plays as anything. He notes that at UConn there's maybe 28 games a year he could win "from a rocking chair," so the challenge is to play the game beautifully, not just to score more points than the other team.

"We would love to play basketball like Spain plays soccer, the ball moving all about," Auriemma said. "We aren't trying to be like Italy and win 0-0 on penalty kicks."

Someone told him that those comments might make news in Italy, the American hoops coach bashing the Azzurri.

"Hey, I'm Italian," he said, leaning back and putting his hands up. He looked and sounded like a Philadelphia Eagles fan complaining about Andy Reid's offense. Naturally he doubled down on the insults.

"I've seen some Italian blowouts in soccer. When they won 1-0."

Auriemma has the deck stacked in his favor and is going to remind everyone of it. There are some good teams out there, he notes, and his players say he isn't overlooking anyone. But let's be real. It's gold or humiliation.

Besides, just being here means Auriemma is playing with house money. He may have banged heads with much of the women's hoops establishment in America, but he always volunteered to coach for USA Basketball's younger teams. He was rewarded for the loyalty.

So now he jokes about his own life story, a sappy fairy tale. The 58-year-old wasn't even a naturalized citizen until 1994.

"A kid coming to America, my mother made all my clothes, eating sausage and peppers in school," he said, smiling. "Look, it's not like my mother found me floating down the Schuylkill River in a basket."

He jokes, but he understands. Out of nowhere, out from behind barriers, some of his creation, here he is, keeper of the American flame and not changing one bit.

"Given all that, it's pretty remarkable that it could happen. Like they say, 'Only in America.' "

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