Spotlight shines on Geno and Geno Jr.

New Orleans

This just in: Geno Auriemma has retired the trophy. Nobody else is going to win seven (perhaps eight by tonight) national championships and parlay it with the requisite attitude, humor and insight that make him the biggest mug on the game's Rushmore. In a sport with too many Zippy Chippys, he's Secretariat.

But say this much for Jeff Walz: He's making a pretty good bid at the clubhouse turn.

"I see a lot of myself in him," Auriemma said Monday.

Not just because Walz, who has Louisville armed with its slingshot for tonight's national championship game, is a pretty terrific coach, too. But because Walz understands the necessity of personality and passion. He's not Vanilla Muffet McGraw, a great coach, but whose words are eminently forgettable.

Jeff Walz is a funny, engaging, fearless guy. He's the future of the women's game.

It's in good hands.

Walz's players love him. Because they can make fun of him. (Sound familiar?) Much like the way Missy Rose once playfully flipped Auriemma the old one-digit salute at the team party after the 1995 national championship game, Walz's players heaved darts at the coach's checkered shirt from Sunday night.

"It looked like a picnic cloth," Sheronne Vails said.

It was Walz's turn later. He took to the podium like his living room recliner Monday at New Orleans Arena. He told stories about Rick Pitino. About his relationship with Auriemma. He was self-deprecating. You couldn't leave the room because, as is usually the case with Geno, what might he say next?

To wit:

"This will most likely be the last game that I coach here. It's been a great six years. As a women's basketball coach, you go through times where you're always wondering what are you gonna do when you're finished," Walz said. "And now I've got the opportunity to be a waiter in (Geno's) restaurant. I don't know what the hell else somebody wants in life.

"My goal is to become the head waiter, not just one that sits in the back," Walz said. "I want to be the best damn one he's got. So I'm going to talk to him after the game (tonight) and see when I can start, see if we can talk a contract through."

Auriemma shot back: "He doesn't dress well enough to work in the front of my restaurant."

Back and forth they went.

Walz: "I've always respected him because he's just honest and blunt. Like I like say, he says what the rest of us think, and I respect him for that."

Auriemma: "He's always got something up his sleeve. The first time we played them, he had his team line up the wrong way coming out of halftime so we would shoot at the wrong basket. And all our Phi Beta Kappas went with them. Luckily the ref went 'whoa, whoa, whoa.' He's always coming up with something unconventional."

How fitting. Because Walz has a component to his life that's unconventional. Walz speaks with a stutter. We have that in common.

I've addressed this before. But it bears repeating. That Walz was at the podium at all, let alone engaged in being so engaging, was an inspiration.

"I make fun of myself. I'm very sarcastic with the players, so why not take some of it back?" Walz said. "If you can't laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?"

Walz talks about stuttering openly. It is not easy. Trust me on this one: He has no idea the scope of his courage. You'll never know the power of seeing one of your comrades speaking publicly. And bringing down the house.

Spies in the women's game say Ohio State and its considerable resources have Walz on the radar. Maybe that's because this is his second national championship game in the last five years.

"You look around the country," Auriemma said, "and who else has done a better job than him in the last six years? I don't think anybody."

Indeed. This is an important night for women's basketball. It's about the national championship game, sure. The Gatsbys against the Jeffersons, who are movin' on up. But more than that. It's about two of the game's best salesmen. Auriemma and Walz aren't just two women's basketball coaches. They can sell a game that needs to be sold.

"One of the audiences we don't have is that audience advertisers really aspire to get, the 18-to-35-year-old guy who buys trucks and Miller Lite and all that," Auriemma said. "The audience we do have is when those guys get a little bit older and they have daughters, then we get them to become women's basketball fans. I think we have to do a better job or growing our fan base."

Maybe the 18-35 demographic never buys in. But the best chance for that to happen is for the Miller Lite guys to listen to a pair of coaches whose wit and insight transcend the game.

It's Geno vs. Geno Jr. tonight in New Orleans.

The postgame news conference might be better than the game.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.


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