Work, humor define Auriemma
Geno Auriemma was sitting in the lounge of the team hotel with a few friends late last Monday night, munching on some postgame fare, the nachos at Sean O'Casey's Irish Pub in South Bend, Ind.
Auriemma, tie loose, relaxed, grinning, was doing what he likes most, other than coaching basketball: joking, teasing, telling stories. He was recounting his team's 69th straight win that happened just as the 68 others did - decisively, completely - when suddenly, the room's entire focus went from Auriemma's musings to the remote control.
All eyes darted to the television. Volume. More volume. Everyone in the room wanted to hear what Bobby Knight was saying on ESPN about Auriemma, one Hall of Famer about another.
Auriemma sat with laser beam concentration, absorbing the hosannas:
"If I were starting a team, and I don't care who's on it - men, women, Israelis, Eskimos," Knight said, "I'd ask Geno Auriemma to coach it."
Auriemma was speechless ever so briefly.
Then he turned over his right shoulder to a friend behind him, looked quizzically and cracked, "How the hell would I coach a bunch of Eskimos?"
That's the man who leads UConn women's basketball, the six-time national champions with a high graduation rate, who can tie their own NCAA record win streak today with their 70th straight win. All by at least 10 points, too.
Auriemma, whose wit ping-pongs between brutal honesty and hilarious hyperbole often in the same breath, could be a biography told in sound bites.
But what few know is that the man who appears as comfortable on big stages as he would in his living room, doesn't want the spotlight.
"You know," his wife, Kathy said, "the thing most people don't realize about Geno is that he's a very private person living a very public life."
And so there is the ultimate paradox that the private man has his name and face enshrined inside the perpetual basketball bliss at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, not to mention the face that is among the most recognizable in Connecticut.
"I have to be a certain way in public. But it doesn't mean I like it," he said. "I have to be that way. And if I have to do it, I'm going to do it as well or if not better than anybody else."
And with that, Auriemma, 55, cracked a wry grin. Another sound bite.
'Your last 10 bucks"
Auriemma's sense of humor evolved with the rest of his life as a kid in Norristown, Pa., a blue collar suburb of Philadelphia. Donato and Marsiella Auriemma immigrated to Norristown from Montella, Italy, a small village south of Naples. The Auriemmas brought three children - Geno, Anna and Ferruccio - and one suitcase.
They settled in a row house on the west side of town.
Donato, who died of cancer in 1997, and Marsiella, who still attends games today, were factory workers.
"All my parents knew was work. My mom never stepped in a schoolhouse. Work is the only thing they've ever known. They got up in the morning to go to work. They worked for the sake of working. It's how you define your life, by the work you do," Auriemma said.
Geno, who spoke the best English in the house, became the liaison between his parents and everyday life. At age 9, they sent him with an envelope of money to pay the bills, even to the bank to pay the mortgage.
Auriemma stocked grocery shelves, played Little League in Elmwood Park and found time for school. Then came basketball. His foray into coaching began with Phil Martelli, who has become the successful men's basketball coach at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia. They are still friends today, frequently vacationing together with their families on the Jersey shore.
Auriemma was Martelli's assistant coach at Bishop Kenrick in Norristown.
"Geno and I were just married, no children, and we'd argue about everything with everyone," Martelli once said. "We'd talk about the NBA. What we read in the papers all week. What a time. ... I always knew he'd be a success. He was never afraid to speak his mind and he is fiercely loyal to the people around him."
They'd talk about newsmakers, never dreaming they would, one day, become similar subjects for those who like to solve the problems of the world in bars, barber shops and diners.
"It was the camaraderie," Kathy Auriemma said. "We didn't have two dimes to rub together. But, hey, Friday nights meant a game and then beers and steamers. You took your last 10 bucks and didn't have a care in the world."
Auriemma, with many cares in the world now, manages to keep his days like those Friday nights, when needling, instigating, inciting and provoking were the only things better than the beers and steamers.
"Humor was my defense mechanism, my way of ingraining myself into the mix," Auriemma said. "Going to high school, even sixth and seventh grade, you got involved with a bunch of guys who had fun at each other's expense. And then it just escalated. When people said anything nice, you started to wonder. No self-respecting person I grew up with ever said anything nice. It was a sign of weakness. It was so much fun. Constant laughs every day. There was nothing serious about any of it."
It is inaccurate, not to mention simplistic, to suggest that UConn women's practices and games have evolved the same way. They're plenty serious, although the participants don't take themselves too seriously.
"If you don't have a sense of humor when you come here, you get one quickly," associate head coach Chris Dailey said. "Sometimes, I'll just burst out laughing at things he says. Sometimes, I'll wait to see if they get it. If there's seriousness to it, I have to hold my breath or turn away. He's always got new material, not just old stuff."
Senior Kalana Greene said, "We laugh every day. It's hilarious. I laugh when it's directed at me, too."
Former program great Rebecca Lobo, an analyst for ESPN, agreed that humorless players are a bad fit for the program. She said Auriemma's humor and personality make his messages more vivid.
"He's so much funnier when it's directed at somebody else," Lobo said. "I remember one game at Pittsburgh when (former All American Kara Wolters) did something Kara-like in the middle of a game. Geno yells, 'What's the name of that really big dinosaur with the really small brain?' That's funny enough. But then Jen (Rizzotti) yells over 'Stegosaurus' and keeps playing."
Humor, too, isn't merely relegated to Auriemma. He likes byplay. He likes it in his coaches, his players and even the people who cover the team.
"He wants people who have the ability to laugh at themselves," Dailey said.
Auriemma's players usually must achieve what he calls "exalted status" before they can mount an offense against their coach. Maybe the first was Kerry Bascom, the program's first All-American.
Bascom took particular pleasure at Auriemma's expense one day in Philadelphia. The Huskies were deep into the 1991 NCAA Tournament when Auriemma grew irritated with them one day at practice, prompting him to kick the bleachers. It turned out that he hurt his toe badly.
"What's the matter, coach?" Bascom cracked. "Need a 'toe' truck?"
That's still a legendary line in the program today.
Auriemma, named the U.S. Olympic women's basketball coach for the 2012 games in London, learned in the fall that his comedy shtick doesn't have universal appeal even though his new coaching gig has a more universal appeal.
After a game against Rutgers in January, Auriemma said, "I've realized that now when I open my mouth I'm not just smartass Geno Auriemma coach at UConn, I'm representing the United States of America as voice of their basketball program. And people take it like that. When I make a comment as coach of UConn, it's taken one way. But now I'm in that situation, people start to weigh in. 'How can that guy be our coach?' I don't think I want to be one-word answers, but I don't know if I can be what I used to be."
Then he smirked and said, "I can still throw a couple out there, but we all get older. My fastball isn't what it used to be. Whose is?"
It turned out that Auriemma was speaking publicly in September - he wouldn't say where - and made a comment about another coach and another program. It appeared in print. He received a phone call about it a few days later.
"Maybe the reporter, who I didn't know, didn't hear me. I don't know. But I was misquoted," Auriemma said recently inside an empty Gampel Pavilion, his voice and the hum of the lights the building's lone sounds. "But it was brought to my attention."
When asked who brought this to his attention, Auriemma grinned and said, "that's not important," suggesting that somebody important made it clear to him to be more careful.
But can he?
What he says - and how he says it - has shaped the most famous women's basketball program in the country.
"It reinforced what I already knew," he said. "Not everybody gets it. The world of political correctness has taken over. There's no room for anybody to be themselves. There's no room to needle anybody or make fun of anybody anymore. As I get older, I should care less. Maybe I'll direct the good ones from now on at the people who get it."
Auriemma's lines have become legendary, whether needling his players in the privacy of practice or poking fun at the friendship between Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and Villanova coach Harry Perretta on the podium (with cameras rolling) at the 2003 Final Four in Atlanta.
"Pat sent Harry some ties," he said. "Pat never sent me any ties, just a noose."
Rarely, if ever, had a women's basketball news conference drawn so many uproarious laughs as that day.
"Geno has given the mainstream media an interest in covering a women's sport," said Meghan Culmo, a member of Auriemma's first Final Four team and the color analyst on UConn's Connecticut Public Television broadcasts. "He's funny. It's refreshing for the media. A portion of the population thinks he's funny. Another thinks he's a jerk. What I always say is that if you don't know him, don't judge him on a sound bite."
Auriemma knows he has no choice. It's part of being a public figure.
"People probably look at me and think, 'look at that egomaniac,'" Auriemma said. "Nobody has the right to criticize me if they don't know me. Geno's got a huge ego? Really? How do you know?"
With a win in today's Big East tournament game, UConn will tie the NCAA women's record of 70 consecutive wins that it set in 2003. All the victories in the current streak have been by double-digit margins.
The Huskies are the favorites to win their second straight NCAA title and might even break the UCLA men's team's streak of 88 straight wins early next season.
Translation: Life is good for Geno.
"Sometimes I think I'm the only one who realizes this," he said, "but I can't help to think how fragile all this really is. I mean, sometimes when the season's over, you sit back and think, 'did we really win all those games? Beat all those teams? How did we do that?"
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