On one of those rare occasions when he was alone, unbothered, in
his office, the coach sat listening to Pavarotti. Interrupted then, he reluctantly turned off the music. "Love songs," he said wistfully to the interloper. "All the best love songs come from Naples."
This is one of those, of a sort.
East of Naples, in the mountains, in the province of Avellino, sit two small villages. One of them is so small, in fact, that it is almost impossible to find, hidden as it is in the Calore valley, surrounded by vineyards, watched over by its patron saint, San Marciano. It is called Taurasi.
Forty years ago a five-year-old named Mario Taurasi left the hamlet of his name. His parents took him to Argentina, where he grew up, and then, in 1980, he took his wife to California. Their daughter, Diana Lurena, was born shortly thereafter, and a few years later, in the fourth grade, she took up basketball. It was immediately apparent that the kid had a facility for the game.
About 30 miles from Taurasi, due east of Vesuvius, up in the Picentini range, is the town of Montella. At the highest point in the village is the Holy Saviour, sister church to one of the same name in Norristown, Pa., a working-class suburb of Philadelphia. One day in November 1961 Marsiella Auriemma and her three children left Montella for Norristown, where Marsiella's husband, Donato, was already settled, laboring in a candy factory for 15 to 20 bucks a week. Their oldest child, Luigi, who was called Geno, was seven. The ride from his village to the port in Naples was the first time he had ever been in a car. He had never had so much as a coin in his pocket. He could not speak a word of English.
In Norristown, at the parochial school, St. Francis, the nun who taught second grade explained to Geno, through an interpreter, the way things worked there. At the end of the school year, she said, the boys who passed went on to third grade. Those who didn't stayed back in second. There would be no remedial help, no English-as-a-second-language class. Pick it up on your own.
In June little Geno went up to third grade. It was obvious right off that, in any language, the kid had a way with words.
Four Octobers ago, Diana Taurasi was a senior at Don Lugo High in Chino, Calif. She had become the best girls' basketball player in the country, and she was boarding a flight from Los Angeles to Hartford to visit the campus of the University of Connecticut, where Geno Auriemma was the coach of the second most eminent women's basketball program in the country. Tennessee was still first, but Auriemma had the Lady Vols in his sights. He had grown up slick and ambitious, driven as much to chase down the big time as to outrun the nebulous fears that dogged him. "I don't know—all the obvious ones," he says. "I'm the oldest, immigrant family, couldn't speak English. I'm Italian, Catholic—hey, that's enough guilt. What more do you need? I felt inferior. I grew up scared of everybody."
No one would ever imagine this, of course. To the women coaches who despise him and to their teams' furious fans who see him on the court, Geno—just Geno—is an arrogant little dandy. Worse, he's one good-looking guy. The azure eyes, the perfect head of swept-back curly hair: Finally, we know what became of Frankie Avalon after Beach Blanket Bingo. Worse: the cock-of-the-walk gait. "Geno's natural walk is a strut," says Rebecca Lobo, the star of his first championship team, in 1995. Sometimes he even snaps his fingers when he struts, daddy-o style. But then, it's enough that Geno just stands there at the side of the court, hands on his hips, as if he is simply not going to put up with these stupid broads anymore. Then there's the stylish tie that's always undone—perfectly undone, as if he has a valet just to perfectly undo his stylish ties. Come on, this cocksure, suave little s.o.b. is running scared?
"The worst fear of all is fear of failure," Geno says. "The year Jen Rizzotti was a sophomore, she was a chem-bio major, and she had to get a four-oh. Had to. I asked her one day what drove her. 'I hate to lose,' she said. 'Well, then,' I told her, 'you're my point guard, so we'll get to the final eight, maybe the Final Four, but we'll never win till you replace that I hate to lose with I wanna win.' And eventually Jen did, and then we won." He pauses. "But me, I'm still motivated by fear of failure."
Because you've got no coach who can change that in you?
"Yeah. That's right."
That day in October four years ago, Geno waited at Bradley International Airport for Diana's plane to come. She'd had the luxury of living in a universe far different from the one he had lived in. Four decades had passed since little Geno had walked off the boat. If there was any anti-Italian prejudice in the California Diana had grown up in, she wouldn't have allowed herself to notice. Geno was hardly surprised. His own three kids—two girls and a boy—don't have a clue about the insecurity he suffered, the sneering prejudice. Dago. Greaseball. All around us now, after all, are Italian clothes, Italian food, Italian wine. Charming Italian men, gorgeous Italian women. The world has come to love all things Italian. Ciao. Va bene. One of Geno's favorite players, Meg Pattyson (class of '92), came to him. "You'll never guess," she said. "I'm in love with a guinea." He hugged her. "It's about time you got smart," he said. Forza Italia!
Anyway, coaches had never seen anyone like Diana Taurasi. She never doubted herself, never expressed any trepidation. The first time Geno saw her she was at an all-star camp, only a sophomore but clearly the best player there. He never coveted a player so much in his life. All this and a paisan, too. But would a Southern California girl go cross-country, Backeast, to a campus at a crossroads named Storrs in the middle of some farmland in northeastern Connecticut?
Not only that, but there was also Diana's mother to contend with. The last thing Lili Taurasi wanted was for her baby to move 3,000 miles away. Geno was well aware what a formidable obstacle Lili posed. "You know," he says, "that stereotype about the tough Italian father who slams his fist down and everything runs his way is wrong. Italians have real strong mother figures."
Except that Geno on the recruiting beat is a formidable presence. Not for nothing does Auriemma mean golden gem. Jamelle Elliott, one of his assistants, remembers when she was a high school prospect in 1992 and saw him coming to recruit her, strutting through her tough neighborhood in Washington, D.C. "Geno was the only white guy—the only one—I'd ever seen come down my street, and he just walked in as if he'd been there 10 times before."
Diana says, "I know this will irritate a lot of coaches, so I never said it then, but I wanted to play for a man. Anyway, Geno was different from all the other coaches. He'd tell me things that were real. And 99 percent of it was true."
Auriemma helps clarify this. "You know what I do better than most anyone?" he asks. "I deal with women. And the way I do it is to tell them exactly what I think. I don't think they're used to that from men."
When he was recruiting Diana, one of the most sought-after high school players in the history of women's basketball, he told her that basically she was full of it. "No matter what she said to me, I didn't believe it," Geno says. "I said to her, 'Look, I've already lived your life. I didn't have the talent, but I lived it, growing up. Your parents have no idea, do they?' See, I conned my parents. Report card? They never saw mine, because they didn't know a kid brought report cards home. My mother never set a foot in school. I said, 'Diana, it's not my parents' fault they didn't know. They just didn't have a frame of reference for what it's like to grow up in America. The same with your parents. So I know who you are, and I know that's exactly why you're going to come to Connecticut because I know you know you've missed the kind of structure and discipline you can get there.'"
Diana didn't let on, but she thought, I want to play with the best. I want to be a lot better, and who can help me? Coach Auriemma is the only one who has the nerve to challenge me.
Another time Geno told her, "You know, Diana, you have a good chance to be the best player there ever was." She replied only, "I just wanna win." Geno liked that, so he let it go.
Still, there was Mrs. Taurasi. She got off the plane in Hartford with Diana, already mad that her daughter was visiting this crazy place, Backeast. And she wasn't going to cut it any slack. "At one point," says Chris Dailey, Geno's associate head coach, "Lili said she didn't like Connecticut because it didn't have enough traffic. I said, 'Lili, you gotta be the first person in history to complain because a place doesn't have enough traffic.'"
Lili told Geno, "I don't like Connecticut. It's too dark."
Geno said, "Lili, for God's sake, it's 10:30 at night. When it's 10:30 in California, it's dark there, too."
Well, Lili did soften a little because Marsiella Auriemma, now a widow, was there, and the two ladies could talk in a mixture of Italian and English. And Kathy Auriemma's eggplant parmigiana was a big hit. And when Geno pulled out a bottle of wine he'd found with the Taurasi label, straight from the vineyards in the Calore valley, that trumped any move any Anglo coach had made. But in the end Geno just told her, "Look, Lili, if Diana goes to UCLA, you'll be happy at first, but if she isn't happy, then you won't be. If she goes here, maybe you won't be happy at first, but when you find out how happy she is, you'll be happy for a long time." And then, in that way he deals with women, he put it head-on: "You know, Lili, we're recruiting Diana. We're not recruiting you."
Probably Lili already knew the jig was up. "She had to have known," Diana says.
After all, going across the country didn't intimidate the kid. When she was 11 her father, discouraged and homesick, packed up the family and returned to Argentina. The Taurasis lived there for a year, but it didn't work out, and they came back. Because Diana won't admit that anything fazes her, she says moving around didn't bother her. Argentina, Storrs—she could handle it.
When she enrolled at UConn, Geno told her again that she could be the best player ever. This time he asked her directly, "You want that?" Diana took a moment, then said, "Yeah, I do."
Geno says, "Once she said that, it was like a license for me to do anything I wanted to with D."
He just calls her D. Among themselves, though, the other UConn coaches call her Little Geno.
Diana Taurasi is not just hard to read. She actually looks very much like that other famous inscrutable Italian lady, Mona Lisa. Diana is friendly, outgoing and full of laughs, but underneath she doesn't let on, doesn't give in. In fact she still maintains that she had no trouble adjusting to Backeast. Her coaches thought otherwise. "She fought conforming to what the Connecticut ideal is," Dailey says. "She wanted it—after all, that's why she came here—but she was struggling with it."
Geno says, "I called her Eddie Haskell. Everything was, No problem. Everything was a lark. D will say, 'I don't care what anyone thinks of me.' That's her style. That's what she says, and that's her stren'th"—he says strength Philly-style, without the g—"but sometimes your greatest stren'th is your greatest weakness, and I knew there were times when D was dying inside."
Her freshman year the Huskies had the whole 2000 championship starting lineup back, but late in the season two All-Americas, Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova, went out with injuries. "D just decides that she's going to take on both of their roles," Geno says. "Now remember, she's a freshman. She hadn't even started at the beginning of the season. But she does it." Geno ran isolation plays, clearing out for Diana. She was the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA East Regional.
Then, against Notre Dame, in the semis of the Final Four, disaster struck. The other Huskies were hot, but Diana was ice-cold. The freshman kept getting open, though, kept taking good shots ... and kept missing. Notre Dame came back from 15 down in the second half to win going away. Diana made only one basket; she missed 14 shots, and when she fouled out, for once even Ms. Mona Lisa couldn't hold back the tears. Geno tried to console her. "Hey, man, relax," he said, grabbing her as she fled down the bench. "We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you."
Amazingly, the terrible performance didn't haunt Diana. She'll even joke about it to bolster a teammate who has a bad game. "Hey, that's nothing," she'll say. "I shot 1 for 15 in the Final Four."
Bonnie Henrickson, the coach at Virginia Tech, says, "In many respects the most important game Diana ever played was that one against Notre Dame. That would have crippled a lot of players. With Diana, it elevated her."
"See," Geno explains, "in her mind it never happened. D lives in the moment more than anybody I've ever seen. The past is gone, and there is no future. It is only right now."
Anyway, after that came the wonder year. Taurasi's sophomore season UConn went 39-0; it really wasn't fair. Her four fellow starters, all seniors, would be among the first six players taken in the WNBA draft. The Huskies were on another planet. The latest lead anybody held on them all season was with 26 minutes to go. John Wooden said UConn was playing prettier basketball than any of the men's teams were playing. In the backcourt with Sue Bird, the college player of the year, Diana averaged 14.5 points. It could have been twice that. In a lopsided game she wouldn't shoot; she said she got a bigger bang from an assist than a basket.
What everybody says, one way or another, is that she sees. D sees things on the court that God hasn't arranged for other people to pick out.
In its own way, though, last season may have been more amazing than the golden gem the year before. The team was made up of Diana, some holdover subs, two redshirts and some callow frosh. The coaches were figuring six, eight, maybe even 10 losses. The first day of practice was a debacle. Afterward, though, Diana blithely bubbled, "This is going to be the ugliest undefeated team in history."
Diana had to do two things that were in utter conflict: carry the team yet build up the confidence of the other players so she wouldn't have to carry them. Jamelle Elliott says, "Geno kept preparing Diana for the double and triple team. 'You can't get frustrated, D. You gotta keep moving. You gotta make everybody else better.'" The Huskies started out winning. Then they kept winning. They beat Tennessee in Hartford, and a month later they took on No. 1 Duke in Durham. It was the first time Cameron Indoor Stadium had ever sold out for a girls' game. The Crazies came to cheer Alana Beard and the Blue Devils, confident of beating up Geno's kids and Diana. Coming into the game, Geno fed the Dookies red meat, ragging on their private-school elitism. "There are just as many Duke graduates working as waitresses as UConn graduates," he declared. "Of course, I'm sure Duke graduates work at better restaurants." The crowd hooted at him, pretty much ignoring the visiting players.
Diana loved it, Br'er Rabbit in the briar patch. "Duke was such a kick, man," she exults. "All the stuff those guys were screaming...." It perfectly illustrated what Auriemma tells his top recruits: "You're an artist, right? You need a stage. And if you think you're a great performer, you need the biggest stage. You wanna be on the stage in St. Louis—" He pauses, considering the possibility that someday there will be a player in St. Louis he covets. "I got nothing against St. Louis, you understand, but you wanna be on the stage in St. Louis or on Broadway?"
Certainly UConn is the Great White Way of women's basketball. "Everybody brings their A game against us," Diana says, licking her chops. All the home games are SRO. And many on the road, like Duke, bang out too. And in Durham, as the crowd screamed at Geno, Diana led the Huskies to a huge upset, 77-65. Her teammates were getting better, but they had to because Diana was injured and in pain. She had a bad back, a bum ankle and a foot problem called plantar fasciitis, which, in English, means your heels feel like they're on fire. Her coaches figured she was operating at only two thirds of her potential, but behind those searching almond eyes she wouldn't reveal anything. Sometimes Geno would force her to sit out practice on threat of being kept out of a game.
Geno has had so many All-Americas, but sometimes he would simply watch Diana in awe. "I love going to practice every day," he says. "I love watching the kids get better. I tell you what's worth everything: when one of your players says, 'I could never have been this good without you.'" But Diana was beyond that. It wasn't so much that he was coaching her as that she was channeling him. "I'll say, 'D, I've got this vision in my head' about, say, coming over the top, and right away she'll just say, 'Uh-huh.' She just sees it before I can say it. Not only that, but she takes it from where I saw it and goes to another level." Geno shakes his head. "Next year I'm gonna say the same thing to some normal kid, and she's not gonna say 'Uh-huh,' and then I'll know, I finally gotta forget about D."
For all she could do, though, Diana's injuries never really healed last year, and the Huskies finally fell apart—once, in the last few minutes of the Big East championship game. After 70 straight victories they lost to Villanova, but Geno convinced them that it was a blessing in disguise. Sure enough, Diana then led them to another national title. The year before, the Huskies had been a juggernaut. This squad was different. It was not a one-woman team, you understand, but rather one woman's team. At the buzzer of the NCAA championship game, Diana flew into Dailey's arms. "I get it, CD!" she screamed. "I finally get it!"
It was all stren'th now; there was no weakness left, Backeast.
Playing on teams was what confirmed young Geno as an American. Being a part of something, sharing the camaraderie. Team is sacred to him. He was actually best at baseball, but basketball "seduced" him, he says. Baseball was too much of an individual game for him; football had too many players. "But basketball," he says, almost in reverie. "Basketball. If just one fifth of the guys don't do their job, your possibility of winning goes down drastically."
He fit in on the team. "You see, that made me bigger than I was—and not just because I was only five-seven. I was satisfied passing the ball to guys who were open, helping out on defense. The team was what I lived for. I wasn't going to get the Diana Taurasi [glory]. I needed the team."
Geno knows it sounds crazy, but there is still a part of him that regrets that the military draft ended just in time to spare him from Vietnam. He would have loved being with the guys in basic training and in battle. "Look, I didn't want to get shot or anything, but...." But, you see, combat must be the ultimate game, platoon the ultimate team.
The UConn women don't wear their names on their uniforms. The coach has a long, semicomical explanation that he gives fans when they ask about it. But then he sighs and draws his finger across his chest and says, "The short answer is, It's all about what's across here." UCONN. One year, by mistake, the uniform company shipped the jerseys out with the players' names on them. The team voted to send them back. Geno says, "I tell 'em when I recruit 'em, look, after a big game you're gonna have to go into that media room, and you might be looking at 20 TV cameras, and if you win, here's what you say: 'I couldn't have done it without my teammates.' And if we lose, you say, 'I blew it.'"
Walt Frazier was Geno's favorite player. This figures. Frazier had this dichotomy to him. Off the court he was all show, the Beau Brummel, cool, hip, today. Clyde. But on the court he was Walt, the consummate playmaker, solid, controlled, classic. As a coach, for much the same reasons, Geno is very much an heir to Al McGuire. McGuire had the glib patter, the showman's persona. But on the court he was the opposite: conservative and controlling. Geno is much more adaptive in his strategy than McGuire was, but he has the same split personality. He's the snappy barker out front, but once he gets you into the tent, he's quite traditional, jammed up with values and do-right. On a team trip to Europe a few years ago the Huskies hardly ate any of the strange food prepared for them at a stop in Belgium. Geno marched them all into the kitchen and made them apologize to the cooks.
"I remember a few days after we won [the NCAAs], and I was sitting in his office when this fan came in," says Lobo. "She was gushing, asking us to sign all kinds of things, and when she left I made a snide remark. Geno snapped, 'Don't act like that, Rebecca. Don't ever be one of those players who don't appreciate.'"
He discovered his aptitude for coaching the way other people find out they can play the piano the first time they sit down at one. He had figured maybe he would be a history teacher. It was easier than what his old man did, working in a factory, and besides, Geno noticed that teachers drove nice cars and got the summer off. Then one day when he was 21, working his way through West Chester State, he got a part-time job coaching ninth-grade girls. It was an epiphany. "The first time I did this," he says, "I knew. It's still the only thing I've found that I'm any good at."
"Yeah." He pauses. "No, I don't know if that's it. What I can do is, I can see what they can't see." It's a gift. His wife is almost scared by how intuitive he can be. "I always wanted to be one of those guys who could make you do something," Geno explains, which, in a nutshell, is what good coaching is.
He coached both girls and boys, but newly married to Kathy, he also tended bar, stocked shelves, taught gym and worked construction to pay the bills. When Phil Martelli, who is now the coach at St. Joseph's, turned down a chance to be the women's assistant at Virginia because he wanted to stick with men, he suggested Geno for the job. Geno demurred, afraid to venture into the world outside of Philly; the Big Five was his immigrant's glass ceiling. Martelli urged him to at least take a look. Instantly, in the baronial luster of Charlottesville, Geno was bug-eyed—"Me, a little boy from Norristown, at Mr. Jefferson's university," he says.
Debbie Ryan, who is still the coach at UVA, hired him for $13,000 a year. It might've helped that Ryan's a Natale on her mother's side. "Yeah," she says, laughing, "but it was evident right away how aggressive and bright Geno was. And he was well grounded because he'd carried the load for his family from a very young age. He has a wonderful working-class mentality, and he never forgets where he came from." Ryan laughs again. "And if you forget, Geno'll remind you."
Suddenly Geno, the hang-out team guy, had entered this parallel universe where skirts ruled. He had never been a ladies' man, either. Probably that's good. His high school coach had told him that a boy could be a student, a player and a lover—but only two out of the three. Geno had stuck with what he knew best. Now he was not only an assistant in a women's program, but Kathy had given him one daughter and was expecting another soon. Every day his life was like those red-light neon signs that blink, GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!
Only a few male coaches who are wired right can make the adjustment and play second fiddle to the fairer sex. It is also true, though, that whereas male coaches never hire female assistants for men's teams, some women coaches have a special, practical reason for bringing a male on board to coach women. "I always want a man on my staff," Ryan says, "because a lot of players can use a male role model since they don't have one at home." The UConn staff is like a nuclear family, with Geno the daddy; Chris Dailey, his right-hand woman from the start, as the mommy; and two younger assistants, Tonya Cardoza and Jamelle Elliott, as the big sisters. "I told you how my mother was strong and self-sufficient," Auriemma says. "My thinking was that every woman must be like my mother, so ever since, I've tried to surround myself with strong, self-sufficient women."
Curiously, nobody attributes Geno's success to any variation on the theme of being good with women. Rather, the women he has worked with and coached conclude that he gets through to women because he gets through to people. I wanted to be one of those guys who could make you do something. It was just happenstance that he ended up coaching women, and although sometimes he thought the women's side was a dead end, when the head-coaching job opened up at UConn he applied. The Huskies were perennial losers. The women's basketball office was one small room with black rotary phones. The team had to share a locker room with men's soccer. During basketball practice the track team ran around the outside of the court, while, close by, weightlifters hoisted in time to their music. Geno thought he could use the job as a stepping-stone to a really classy program.
Pat Meiser-McKnett, who's now the athletic director at Hartford, was chair of the UConn search committee that year, 1985. Geno was only 31, and he'd never been a head coach anywhere, and he was a man, but he blew them away. "Geno was absolutely captivating," Meiser-McKnett says, "but there was also such subtlety, friendliness and warmth." In other words Auriemma showed his soft, feminine side. The players told Meiser-McKnett that they didn't give a hoot what chromosomes their new coach had. They'd just like maybe to win for a change. UConn signed Geno for $28,229 at a Dunkin' Donuts.
He got in under the wire. Nowadays a man would have no shot at a high-profile women's college basketball job. The sport is too visible for such an athletically incorrect move. Geno is the last dinosaur.
Of course, the antimale process is probably being speeded up because of Geno himself. "I'm quite sure that women don't like me as the face of women's basketball," he says, cat-with-canary, knowing very well that the declaration will ensure that women will like him even less. "A kid like D, a program like ours—it transcends the sport. It's bigger than the game. We've gotten too good for our own good." It's instructive that even though the Huskies won another championship last year as a long shot, the (mostly female) coaches' association voted Gail Goestenkors of Duke, who coached the beaten favorite, coach of the year.
In 1989, back at the beginning, Geno had led the Huskies to a Big East championship and into the NCAAs in only four years, but he didn't get a single other coaching inquiry. Why was that? He cocks an eye, checking to see who just fell off the turnip truck.
Because you're a man? "Yeah." But then, as a gentleman of intuition who does not fear telling the truth, Geno amplified that. "Also, I guess I rub some people the wrong way."
The classic example of the difference between how males and females respond to coaching is, If a coach tells a women's team that some players aren't doing the job, every player will duck her head and think the coach is singling her out. If a coach tells a men's team the same thing, every guy will think, At least he doesn't mean me. "If my players think I like 'em, then I can say and do whatever I want," Geno says. "You've got to be careful how you phrase it, how you approach it. The difference with women is, they can't see that when you criticize something they did, you're not down on them personally."
Nevertheless, he can be a fierce taskmaster. He has always been especially hard on his best players, Diana most prominently included. The only All-America he eased up on was Nykesha Sales, whom the other coaches facetiously called Precious for getting off so lightly. But even Sales once spent a whole week so mad at Geno that she wouldn't talk to him. Lobo can remember the whole team getting so angry at Geno that Jen Rizzotti would call everybody together and say, "'Screw him. Let's just do this for ourselves.' Which, of course, was exactly what Geno wanted."
Lobo's mother had cancer her junior year. "Geno never let up on her, though," Rizzotti says. "Never. He'd call her 'the dumbest smart player I ever saw.' He was brutal."
"But the thing is, Geno couldn't do enough for me off the court," Lobo says. "He was always there when I needed him."
It is this dichotomy that befuddles so many of Geno's female competitors in the game. Why do his players—always "my guys"—put up with this smug, curly-haired little Philly smoothie who can be so sarcastic and rude and man-mouthed? What's the matter with these girls? Meg Pattyson, who played for him and then served as one of his assistants, tries to explain: "He's the kind of man I could tell, 'I got my period, I got cramps, I'm all bloated.' Or, 'My boyfriend's acting like a jerk.' You could talk to Geno about anything. How many men can you do that with?"
In '91 Pattyson was a stalwart on the first UConn team to get to the Final Four. The team was slow, but it had some shooters, so Geno just had them jack up threes. That was pretty revolutionary stuff in women's basketball at the time. With only a few seconds left, against Clemson, Pattyson botched a pass, and the Lady Tigers scored. Geno screamed for a timeout. It was the first time a Huskies game had ever been televised, and with the camera right in his face he yelled, "Meg, what the f---are you doing?" You didn't have to be much of a lip-reader to get it.
Pattyson went back out and made a spectacular shot to ice the Huskies' trip to the Final Four. Afterward, at the victory party, her father approached Geno. "Did you say to my daughter on TV what I thought you did?" he asked sternly.
With an angelic smile, Geno said, "I certainly did. I said, 'Meghan, dear, didn't your father teach you to come meet the ball?'" That got a big laugh out of Mr. Pattyson.
And that's the kind of crap Geno gets away with that drives so many of the women in women's basketball crazy. Arrogant is the word that's bandied about the most. And, just for spite: little. Geno topped out at 5'10". He's not only a man coaching women's basketball, but in a big man's game, he's a short-legged runt.
In 1998, near the end of Sales's senior season, she ruptured her Achilles tendon. She had scored 2,176 points, one short of the UConn career record. The next game was against Villanova, which is coached by Harry Perretta, another dinosaur. Geno and Harry cooked up a scheme: Let Sales score a basket at the start of the game, then a Villanova player would get a matching freebie, and Sales would go out of the game with the record.
When Geno told the team what was going to happen, Dailey says, "it was the first time since Nykesha's injury that the kids felt good." But when Geno and Harry pulled it off, there was a firestorm. The purists in the media went berserk. Where was the respect for the Sanctity of the Game? The genteel Guardians of Pure Sport who inhabit sports radio were especially put out. Thomas Boswell was in high dudgeon. The New York Times was aghast. ABC World News Tonight got on the hot story.
"You know, when it happened there were maybe 4,000 people in the stands at Villanova, and they all thought it was terrific," Geno says. "They gave Nykesha a standing ovation. It wasn't until the next day, when they read the newspapers and listened to the radio, that they found out that they were really all a------s."
"But you see," says Elliott, "he just thought it was right and didn't care what anybody else thought."
So much of Geno is still a reflection of his high school coach, Buddy Gardler. "I listened to him," Geno says. "My son comes home from practice and says, 'Hey, you know what my coach told me?' You think my son ever listens to me, even if I say the same thing? But kids listen to high school coaches." Geno sighs. "What I've tried to do, ever since I started this, since I was 21 years old, was to practice two hours a day as well as I can and learn something new about my players, so then I can go home and sleep well."
But, of course, he doesn't look the part of Old Pop Coach, taking the boys out for hot chocolate and cookies. What people see is slick. Or they hear that he's a sarcastic martinet in practice. Or they hear his wise-ass digs. For his "guys," though, that's just the guy in him. Cardoza says, "Arrogant? Cocky? He's not that kind of a person. Every player on the team likes him, and every player he ever had likes him." Come on—every? "Every. Because they all figure out that he has their best interests at heart."
"We all just liked him so much," Rizzotti says. She's a head coach herself now, at Hartford, where, she says, she bases "only everything" she does on the way Geno ran his show. "People outside don't know what a good sense of humor he has. You know, some coaches, you make fun of them behind their backs. We'd make fun of Geno to his face."
Also, most of them figure out that Geno really likes women. If you're in men's sports, who are you with all the time? You're with men, that's who. So there's just not much preparation for being with women—a whole lot of women. It can be a revelation. "Girls are much more concerned about the social scene," Geno says. "A boy interested in making the NBA, what does he care about anything in school but basketball? But girls need to know what pajamas everybody's wearing. Of course, girls tend to be more conscientious. Tend to be. But here's the main thing: Growing up, girls don't have as many jerks hanging around them as boys do."
You mean that's because boys hang around with other boys?
"Exactly. When you think about it, women are terrible judges of character, probably because they want someone to be better than he is. How many couples do you know, the woman is terrific and he's a jerk, and everybody wonders, How did he get her?"
"Right. And then, how many couples do you know the other way round, where he's terrific and she's a jerk? How many?"
"O.K., so what's the only possible reason for that?"
There are more good women than good men?
Feminists come in funny packages. "You're married, right?" he says. "How many times have you gone and done something stupid and your wife says, 'But why didn't you think of it this way?' My coaches are the same. They give me the right approach I never thought of, and I go back to my players and they just melt in my hands."
On the court Geno assembles his Huskies. They stand there, surrounding him, 13 players, three coaches—16 women, most of them taller than he is, listening as he addresses them. Auriemma gives his orders and watches. Seldom is he pleased. On those rare occasions when he is, the dumbfounded associates refer to him as Mister Rogers. He passes quickly through that neighborhood. Sometimes he is caustic. Sometimes he sprinkles in barnyard words. His most scathing epithet, though, is "girlie-girlie."
Diana Taurasi says, "He'll pound away at you. There were times I hated to come to practice because it was so mentally demanding. He'd put you in situations where you couldn't win. But it's like he says: 'You're going to prove me right. Or prove me wrong.' And I'm always determined to prove him wrong. You see, you hate him in a way you need to."
Diana is forever intent, utterly engaged. Form three lines: layups, pull-up, cut off the high post. Rote stuff. Pass, then back to the end of the other line. Next time shoot, then back to.... But after Diana has taken part, when she goes into the next line, she shuffles backward. She doesn't want to miss her teammates even working a silly drill. Ms. Mona Lisa is always watching.
"Girls are dumb as rocks," Geno declares. "At basketball I mean. They don't play enough. I ask my players, 'How many days do you think a guitarist plays guitar? Every day. Well, basketball is your art. Do you talk the game every day, touch a ball every day?' D does. D's different. She plays all the time. So she's picked it up. I mean, how do you teach someone to stick her ass out when she goes up on a shot so she can draw a foul? D knows that. But most of 'em just don't play enough."
Implicit in all of this is the wistful belief that if Geno were coaching men, they'd all be as dedicated as Diana. And, of course, if he were coaching men, more people would take him seriously. He'd be a coach then, instead of what he is now: a coach on the women's side. Geno's trouble is that as much as the Huskies mean to him, he's always an outsider, the odd man out in a woman's game, an odd duck for not coaching men.
"I could do it with men for a while," he says. "For a while. It really isn't that different—what you're trying to do. But see, you try to teach a man something, he's much more inclined to view it as, Hey, what difference does it make? What difference does it make if I come off a screen and catch the ball exactly like you tell me to?
"I wonder too. I wonder if I were a men's coach, if I'd end up a p----like most of 'em. How many drill sergeants, working with 18-, 19-, 20-year-old guys, don't end up p----s, at work, anyway? How can you help it? Have I been spared that? I think so. I don't have to be a p----. I can coach and still be sensitive. See, over here, the players listen to you, they actually want to please, they do what you want them to do. Men's coaches have never had a situation like this. No, this is the perfect place for me."
But certainly there is a part of him that aches some, that would like to be Coach Geno Auriemma, not Geno Auriemma, women's coach. He goes to clinics and listens to the masters, men who haven't achieved anything near what he has but who've done it on the men's side. "I'm in awe of old coaches," he admits, tenderly. "I met Tex Winter. I just stared at him. Hubie Brown. Cotton Fitzsimmons. Johnny Bach. I could listen to them for hours. I love that. I'm playing golf with Jim Boeheim and I'm thinking, Gee, this is Jim Boeheim I'm playing golf with."
And part of it, he knows, is that very few of his male colleagues look back at him with that sort of admiration. If he hasn't been asked about this a lot, he certainly has thought about it a lot. Even for a guy with such a silk tongue, his answer is too perfectly framed by half. "Look," he says, "my wife thinks I do a good job. My players believe in me unquestionably. And my coaches. And I believe my administrators think I'm the best coach in the country. Then everybody else will tell you I just win 'cause I have good players. Ninety percent of the women coaches resent me because I'm a man. The other 10 percent appreciate what I do and are my good friends. Ninety percent of the men's coaches are jealous that I get all the attention I do for coaching women. The other 10 percent know me and give me a fair amount of credit."
Anyway, he'll be 50 on his next birthday, and he knows the cards have been dealt faceup. He must keep on winning with the women. "It's like that expression: A taste of honey is worse than none at all," he says. "I want more. I'm a perfectionist. Besides, I make an ungodly amount of money, so I'm supposed to win."
He looks around Gampel Pavilion, 10,000 seats. Every game, they all get filled up—as do the 16,000 for the Huskies' games at the Hartford Civic Center. He calculates the box office gross. The Huskies also have a five-year, $4 million in-state TV contract. Believe that? Women's college hoops: seven figures, in a small state. Geno, who is paid a base salary of $700,000, plus incentives, adds in the merchandise sales and the million or more he knows comes in for special contributions. "All of a sudden we're an eight-, nine-million-dollar-a-year business," he says. "We lose three or four games, it's like what's wrong this year? We lose four or five, I guess my family's gonna need police protection. And all this on the back of some 19-year-old kid who's fighting with her boyfriend, and she's got her period, and she has to make a foul shot. And then all of a sudden I start thinking, If I don't recruit this one good kid, is all this jeopardized? I mean, how much longer can it keep going up and up?" He lifts his hand, like a plane rising skyward, but in counterpoint he shakes his head mournfully. "It's gotta blow up sometime."
But you just won another title.
"Misery," he shoots back.
You mean, then, you've reached a point where you can't be happy?
"Yeah, you really can't be. Not for yourself. I'm just happy for the kids. I can't share what they have. But what I can do is try and teach them how to share it among themselves the same way I did when I was on a team."
He wins national championships with women, but it's still not quite as dear as it was to come off the bench as a boy for Buddy Gardler at Bishop Kenrick. Geno always throws a big party at the Final Four so his buddies can come, and for once it's not just Geno and his women. It isn't easy loving the team and being the head of the team but never being able to really be part of the team. "You know what I miss?" Geno asks.
He's at the head table, at a UConn alumni dinner in Danbury, where he had just wowed the crowd, cracking wise. All these fans of women's basketball. Wide-eyed girls with cameras. Adoring older women. And: men. Guys 40-50 years old who never even knew UConn had a women's team when they went there and are now cheering Geno, asking him about his plans for rotating substitutes and who's gonna bring the ball up, Diana or Maria? You're not going to get this anywhere else in America. And the season is still seven weeks off. This is what Geno has built. Only it's a house that he can't really live in.
Meg Pattyson, his old player and assistant, has come with him to the dinner. "So, all right, Geno, what is it you miss?" she asks.
"I miss being able to be with the guys. You know, hanging out, drinking beer, playing cards."
"Telling dirty jokes," Meg says.
"Yeah, all right. But you got it wrong. I'm talking about hanging out. You know how many times I been to a strip joint?" He made a circle with his thumb and forefinger. "Never. I don't need that, Meg. I'm just talking about hanging out with the guys."
It isn't easy being a dinosaur. "But I got one more year of D," Geno says, chuckling almost devilishly. "It's a timeout. I'm just talking to D. I look over at the other coach, and she's talking to the whole team. And I know—duh—we're better because I'm talking to D. Every day I'm gonna go to practice and just enjoy her from the first minute to the last. Then I'm leaving."
But he won't. It's too much fun getting up every morning and strutting into the bathroom and looking into the mirror with those baby blues and seeing the face of women's basketball, shaving.