ONE MAN, SO MANY WOMEN
Geno Auriemma, hall of fame women's basketball coach, is at the podium prior to the start of the 2010 Final Four in San Antonio, answering questions about his team, the unbeaten and soon-to-be national champion University of Connecticut Huskies.
The question posed is: Geno, we know you're a guy who can coach women, but how do you peacefully coexist with so many of them?
"Well, wine helps," Auriemma says, grimacing and rubbing his temples, to scattered laughter among the reporters and onlookers in the room. "Helps tremendously.
"Feeling like you're tremendously outnumbered and saying, 'Yes, dear, no problem,' and knowing what's important and what's not important to get upset about, what to argue about, what not to argue about … so they know I'm not after them all the time, that when I get after them about something it's really important to me."
With UConn's 53-47 victory over Stanford on April 6 at the Alamodome, Auriemma won a seventh national championship in his 25th season. He has a career record of 734-122, is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn.
A native of Montella, Italy, until he moved with his family to Norristown, Pa., when he was 7 years old, Auriemma has landed the job of coaching the U.S. National Team through the 2012 Olympic Games in London, achieving what he calls "the American dream," with his appointment to that post in 2009.
He has coached 13 All-Americans and seven national players of the year, where most recently Tina Charles and Maya Moore shared multiple national player of the year honors during the Huskies' second straight 39-0 season, as the team established the NCAA standard of 78 straight victories.
So, back to the women in Auriemma's day-to-day life: 11 players, associate coach Chris Dailey (who's been with Auriemma all 25 seasons), assistant coaches Shea Ralph and Marisa Moseley, wife Kathy and daughters Jenna and Alysa. To balance that, he has only director of basketball operations Jack Eisenmann and son Michael, who is away at college.
Yet, he must be doing something right to consistently produce Olympians, fellow coaches and scholars from his program.
What is that, exactly?
"He understands women," says Rebecca Lobo, a former player and now television broadcaster. "He understands better than most people what makes women tick."
"It's like a dad. Dads get it," says Kara Wolters, the 1997 national player of the year for UConn. "Half of it's not on the court, it's how he handles his players, knows each individual. People don't get that. He'll be the first one to have your back."
Of course, the 56-year-old, impeccably dressed Auriemma's first principle is to not treat his players like girls. He shouts. He swears. He uses his razor-sharp Philadelphia-based sense of sarcasm frequently to nettle anyone and everyone. He throws his players out of practice, even the best of them. He recruits players with no pretense.
"We're not coaching girls' basketball here for sure, and we're not coaching women's basketball. We're coaching basketball," Auriemma says on an ESPN-televised video about the team.
"Did you ever watch a women's basketball game? You see how many layups they miss? How many times they throw the ball away? Why? I don't know. Cause it's 'my bad.' 'It's all right sweetheart, we'll get the next one.' Well, if that's the way you were raised and that's how you want to play, then go somewhere else."
In exchange, Auriemma gives his players a great deal of freedom. He says, for instance, that he leaves them alone to stretch before every practice, something he feels strongly is a waste of time.
"I give them 10 minutes to stretch before practice so they can all sit around and talk about what movie they saw, what pair of shoes they saw in some store or ... you know. And I stay in my office until they're done," Auriemma says. "It's nauseating."
He also opens his home to them for holidays, such as Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, and invited them to watch the presidential election in 2008, the night Barack Obama was voted into office. He believes in cultivating his players as people, too, and often takes them to four-star restaurants on the road, as well as to Broadway shows and other historical sites.
"I give them everything I have and they know it," Auriemma says. "Everything I have is theirs. My house is their house. My family's their family. And that's why it works for us, I think."
"He's brutally honest. He helps you build character," Lobo says. "Once we leave, we adore him. Then we all think the world of him."
Wolters, who came to UConn after Auriemma took a chance on her, lost 67 pounds before she became the national player of the year. The coach may have called her "the worst post player in America" a few times, the way he did to Lobo before her, but Wolters recalls that Auriemma was kind to her when it came to her weight loss.
"He was great and sensitive," Wolters says with a smile. "It was (Dailey) who'd get on my butt for being fat. He just told me, 'This is what you have to do if you want to be the best player you can be.' "
Kathy Auriemma, Geno's wife, says her husband treats his players the same way the couple raised their children, to be independent and free-thinking. Kathy maintains that her husband is an intensely private person, who really had to work at becoming a public figure, despite his persona as a polished speaker andstandup comic.
"He's surrounded by strong women. That's how we raised our daughters. And he smartly chose Chris Dailey," Kathy Auriemma says. "Independent women. He expects them to hold their own. He gives you a lot of autonomy. I run the house … lucky that I want to."
Alysa Auriemma, the couple's 24-year-old daughter, says her father has "women's intuition, but he's a guy." She adds that while Auriemma yells at his players, she's "more scared of Mom than I am of Dad."
Of her father's relationship with his players, she says, "He wants them to carry themselves a certain way on the basketball court. And that will make you carry yourself that way in life."