and he came from basketball-mad Indiana across the country to California where he became the coach at the University of California Los Angeles, better known as UCLA, and almost before you could look up, he had created a bona fide dynasty and he was christened the Wizard of Westwood, which was the name of the arena in which he plied his magic, and if by now you are badly in need of oxygen then you know how it felt to play those Bruins of the Wizard, which left scorched earth behind them and took no prisoners and cemented the legend of the Wizard and was certain his like would forevermore remain unreachable…and so it was.
Winner of the John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching award.
Yes, that Geno, the one of Norristown and the Avalon, New Jersey Genos. And the West Chester University and Bishop Kendrick High School and the Saint Joseph’s University Geno. They all want to claim him; that’s what happens when you are elevated to legend status.
As coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, he has revived the downtrodden and helpless, and molded them into a fearsome juggernaut.
As the Huskies began play this 2017 season, they were seeking their 12th national championship under Auriemma. No women’s team is close and only one men’s…that would be the UCLA Bruins who, under Wooden, won 10.
Can You Spell Unstoppable?
Others may aspire to raising the bar. UConn raises the raise. They don’t just beat their opponents, they obliterate them. Thirty point floggings are routine. And even as they ease up on the throttle, the margins rise…40…50…60….
If you want a snapshot of the UConn experience, consider Breanna Stewart, the latest in a long and illustrious line of Husky superstars: In her 4-year just-concluded career, they were 124-1. (And all but one was by 10 points or more.)
With four national championships.
In a row.
Take a Deep Breath…
…And Start Counting
Starting his 32nd year, Geno Auriemma’s record at UConn is: 955-134.
Unbeaten seasons: 6.
30-wins or-more seasons: 21.
Final Fours: 17.
Coach of the year: 7 times.
Wins in a row: 90.
Ridiculous, isn’t it?
In his spare time, he has won 2 World Championships.
And 2 Olympic gold medals.
On a Fast Track
When he was 7, Geno Auriemma’s family emigrated from Italy to Norristown. He graduated from West Chester and over the next 7 years was an assistant coach at Kendrick, Saint Joe’s and Virginia. In 1985 with one of those pinch-me-I-must be dreaming moments, he accepted the head coaching job at UConn.
Pretty heady stuff, huh? Head man at a big-time program. Time for a serious wardrobe upgrade. In fact, it was the basketball version of Devil’s Island—in the whole Huskies history they had had one winning season.
Even the Wizard of Westwood would be hard pressed to turn that around.
It took Geno Auriemma one season.
His first year they went 12-and-15. It was his first losing season.
And the last.
How Did He Do That?
Well, first he recruited with a frenzy, convincing 18-year-old girls what a star-spangled opportunity awaited them. He was a spell binder. Almost overnight 5-star recruits flocked to Storrs.
Which made it convenient for the envious and the jealous to scoff and snipe: “Sure he wins, and why not, he gets all the great players.”
Well yes, he does get great players…but not ALL the great players. It’s self-perpetuating—who wouldn’t go where you have a legitimate chance at winning a national championship every single year?
And it’s not like Geno Auriemma just rolls out the balls and tells them: “Go sic ‘em.”
That sneering slur strikes a familiar cord—it was precisely what the Wizard of Westwood used to hear when he recruited the likes of Ferdinand Lewis Alcinder…who would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. John Wooden affected the pose of a prim and proper teacher, suit and tie, rolled up program used like a maestro’s baton, looking so composed, almost serene in contrast to his brethren, the Mad Men of March, who fling their wardrobes like helicopters and dance fandangos of rage.
I always wondered how the Wizard managed to remain so tranquil…and then one day I found myself seated directly behind him, second row, not 10 feet from the baseline, and each time one of the referees ran past him, the Wizard would lean forward and plead his case, in machine gun bursts:
“Gimme a break…gimme a break…gimme a break…”
The moral of that is things are not always what they appear to be.
Now About Perfection…
So then, how do you stand on this business of utter domination? It has become the subject of impassioned debate ever since UConn began its run of sustained success.
Unwatchable, sniff the naysayers. Bad for women’s basketball. Bor-r-r-r-ing.
Geno Auriemma bristles inwardly but bites his tongue and says: “’I’m not asking you to watch…just don’t demean those who do appreciate it.”
Certainly a reasonable stance, though not likely to alter the perception.
Personally, I fall on the side of admiring perfection and appreciating all the sacrifices and dedication and blood, sweat and tears that are required. Revisit Breanna Stewart and her four years and consider this: One loss, one hundred twenty-four wins. You had, literally, one stumble in four years. Can you imagine all the things that had to go exactly right…and all the things that could have gone wrong?
The men’s game has evolved into acrobatics and has its pyrotechnic moments…until it’s time to attempt free throwing.
What I appreciate about Geno Auriemma is the way his players defend with a ravenous relentlessness. And how they make such a seamless transition from defense to offense…and vice-versa. And how they share the ball.
Sounds simple. Don’t be deceived, it isn’t. But add it all up and it comes out to, well, perfection.
What’s not to like?