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Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Women's Basketball Hall of Fame: Auriemma Induction Brings Introspection

By Mel Greenberg

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
_ A month of roller-coaster emotions had Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma in an unusual retrospective mood Friday afternoon here at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame on the eve of his induction Saturday night along with five others as the eighth class to be enshrined since the hall’s opening in 1999.

The other five to go into the WBHOF with Auriemma are Bentley coach Barbara Stevens, former Georgia star Katrina McClain, former Texas star Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil, former Louisiana Tech star Janice Lawrence Braxton, and former international star Paula Goncalves daSilva of Brazil.

It’s been a hectic time in recent weeks for the normally-energized Auriemma.

In recent weeks, his Huskies fell short of going into overtime against Duke, 63-61, at the Bridgeport Regional title game, he was announced as part of the induction class for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in September, he had to deal with the untimely death of his friend and Army coach Maggie Dixon, and then two weeks ago he became hospitalized for several days with what was characterized as a stomach disorder.

Now comes the first of two major Hall of Fame celebrations.

On Friday afternoon, Auriemma and the other inductees took a brief time out from a whirlwind of activities to meet with media representatives from the Hartford Courant, New Haven Register, the Knoxville News Sentinel, and ourselves.

Quite likely, between links on the internet at the various web sites leading to stories from those reporters, some of what you read here will be also posted elsewhere.

However, because space limitations in Saturday’s print edition of The Inquirer restricted what we could note, here is what the loquacious Auriemma had to say, especially for those of you who normally visit this site or arrived here via Philly.com links before seeing any stories elsewhere.

When it was noted that many previous coaching inductees who have lost to Pat Summitt’s powerful Tennessee teams here have characterized this weekend as one of their more enjoyable visits to Knoxville, Auriemma had a different take.

“Most of our visits down here have been under pleasant circumstances,” Auriemma smiled about his Huskies’ ability to handle Tennessee over the years. “Some have been unpleasant.

“One of the things that has been missing in women’s basketball that I would like to fix is that I would like every game to be like the games are down here,” said Auriemma, who was tabbed on his first eligibility for the hall after 20 years as a head coach at UConn. “If every game carried that much intensity level with that much passion attached, the games would be a lot more fun.”

Auriemma noted that the emotions surrounding the induction don’t really start to appear until the celebratory weekend arrives.

“It’s like the national championship game,” he said. “You don’t really get the full benefit of it until you actually play in the game or coach in the game to know what it feels like to have been in that game.

“Things like this force you to step back and look at the big picture. You’re forced to look back at how it all came about,” Auriemma said, his voice getting a little softer. “At least that’s the way it’s been for me so far.”

THE JOB HE DIDN’T GET

Auriemma, an assistant to Virginia coach Debbie Ryan at the time, talked about being hired for the UConn job in 1985 a year after he failed to land the women’s position at DePaul.

“That was more like what I was used to (in Philadelphia) _ Catholic school underneath the El (train) in Chicago. I thought, `Hey, this is pretty cool.’ When I didn’t get the job, and I didn’t know what that meant, I don’t why it didn’t work out, I’m just not the person that they hired,” Auriemma recalled.

“Had they, I don’t know what would have happened.

“The following year when I went into the interview at Connecticut, from what I understand, I wasn’t the No. 1 choice going into the interview process. They might have had someone else in mind,” Auriemma continued.

“But I knew if I got offered the job, I would take it. There’s no doubt in my mind about that,” he added. “But one of the ironic things is I didn’t know what job I was taking. I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into.”

We noted to him that Connecticut officials had said Auriemma “blew them away” during the process.

“Well, I don’t know whether that says a lot about me or the other candidates,” he smiled. “Either way, I knew at the end of the day from the interview process that I was going to be offered the job.

“But to this day, I don’t know anything I did differently during the interview process than I did at DePaul the year before. Maybe I just said the right things. Maybe there weren’t too thrilled with the other applicants. Sometimes that happens.”

GENO’S JOURNEY

“My biggest thing is how you can’t plan for things,” Auriemma talked about the bends and curves the highway of life has taken him. “People tell you all the time how they planned their life out.

"`By the time I’m 21 I’m going to do this. By the time I’m 35, I’m going to do this. By the time I’m 50, I’m going to do this.’ And how absurb that really is,” Auriemma said before expounding some of his famous dry humor.

“The last thought in my mind when I was in college was, `Man I can’t wait to get out of here and start coaching women’s basketball. I got to hurry up and do that because time is awasting.’

“Or when I finally did take that job (assistant) with Jim Foster in high school, as you’re mopping the floor, you’re thinking, `Man, one day when I’m in the Hall of Fame I’ll think back … Man if keep doing this, something is wrong with my life,’” Auriemma grinned.

“I just don’t ever, ever imagine, which is probably a good thing because if it all goes according to plan, it takes all the excitement out of it,” Auriemma noted.

“When I think of all the twists and turns my life has taken since I was 20 years old, in the last 32 years, none of it was planned. None of it was scripted,” he said and then smiled again.

“It’s kind of like our (Connecticut’s) offense. One thing flows into another. When you got really good players, it flows from good to great. When you got not-so-good players, sometimes it flows into the ocean, sometimes it flows into the gutter.”

THE LAST MONTH

“I don’t know if I was as ever content about a loss, ever,” Auriemma said of his feelings after Connecticut lost to Duke. “I don’t ever remember, `Given everything, that’s the way it probably was supposed to happen. Maybe when we lost to Tennessee in the 1996 semifinal, I thought, `Yeah, this is where it ends for us.’

“So I thought, `Ok, it’s on to next year. Let’s move on.’

“And I’m at the (Women’s) Final Four, and I’m actually enjoying myself, and I get the phone call about the Naismith in Springfield, and I thought, `Wow, I can’t believe this.

“`You don’t win the national championship and then you get this (Naismith) and then this (WBHOF). Then, Monday night before the national championship game, I get back from Indianapolis (from the men’s Final Four for the Springfield announcement) and I’m in (DePaul coach) Doug Bruno’s hotel room with (Army coach and former DePaul assistant) Maggie Dixon, and a couple of other people.

“And at one point, it’s just the three of us, Doug, myself, and Maggie, and it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, and we’re just talking about basketball, and Wednesday at lunchtime, she’s dead.

{Dixon died suddenly at 28 after suffering an acute heart problem).

“And on the way out to California (for the funeral), you’re thinking the whole time … I’m not one of these guys that spends a lot of time thinking about the future. … Man oh man, it really put a lot of thoughts in my head that have never been there before, I’ll tell you that now.

“And scary thoughts, too. Someone in Indianapolis asked me while we were at dinner, how it felt to get into a Hall of Fame while you’re still working, and I thought, it’s kind of odd. Part of it I think, `You should wait until you’re not doing it anymore.

“But then the other part of it is, sometimes, you wait until you’re not doing it anymore and the guys don’t get to enjoy it. You have to put them in there after they’re not around. Or she’s not around.

“Here you’re talking about a kid (Dixon), maybe someday she would be put in the Hall of Fame, and she’s not even around for her second year as a head coach,” Auriemma said and then talked about his hospitalization, which quickly followed.

“And then all of a sudden I’m in a hospital and you look up and there’s all these tubes stuck in my arm, and I’m thinking, `Man somebody is trying to tell me something here.’

“It’s been a ridiculous three weeks in terms of my thought process. I even called Charde (Houston) and told her I liked her, that’s how bad I started to feel,” Auriemma quipped about his player he criticized in the media after Connecticut’s loss to Duke. “I don’t think I went that far.

“I would have had to feel really bad. I would have had to have the priest next to me,” he said.

THINKING OF THE FUTURE

“Plus, I got to tell you, all that time that was going on, there was a lot going on personally for me. I’m trying to sort out, `How long am I going to do this? Where am I going to go from here. What else am I going to do.’

“One thing being in the hospital for those four days did, it made me cancel everything I had for the next two weeks, except this (WBHOF). It’s really good. It’s the first time in 20 years that I just told everybody who wanted something from me, that I had plans. `No, I’m not doing it,’” he said before switching back to quip mode.

“To a point, it may become an annual event for me,” Auriemma noted. “You know how people go to Florida or Aruba … Maybe at the end of the season every April, just go to the hospital for four days, kick back, and say, `Look guys, just cancel everything for the rest of the month.’ I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody, but it might not be a bad idea. Just make sure there’s a golf course near the hospital to sneak out.

“I made a lot of jokes, if I had known that not going to the Final Four, not going to the national championship, was going to be this miserable, all those years when we were winning it, I would have been a lot happier. I would have enjoyed it more.

"Now that I look back, in a lot of ways, I’m trying to take a whole different spin on it, try to look at things. Ever since I got out of the hospital, I’ve been going to my son’s AAU practices and actually had fun, if you call having fun is being around 17 years old who look at you like you have three heads. I’m actually enjoying it,” Auriemma said.

“I’ve had to do some different things. I haven’t had a drink for 12 days. I was going to kill myself,” Auriemma smiled again. “That would have been great, huh? You go to the hospital, you get healthy, you look great, you feel great, and then you commit suicide because you can’t drink. That would have been a hell of a way to go.

“The guy (doctor) said, `Look, with this medication, you better not take a drink for two weeks. Geesh. It’s worse than what I got. I’d rather have what I have and live with that.’”

Auriemma spoke a little about looking ahead to next season and another attempt to add a sixth national title to the UConn collection.

"I can say things from now until Oct. 15, yeah, I’m going to take a different plan of attack. I’m going to look at things differently. I’m going to treat things differently, have a different perspective. I’m going to keep it all in a proper balance and all that,” Auriemma said.

“Come Oct. 15 and all that changes -- Now just what I want to do is make sure you put the best team you can out on the floor, and if you don’t win a national championship, you feel disappointed,” Auriemma said.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do, but at least for the first that I can remember, I’m going into it with a different thought process than before.”

WAXING ELOQUENT

“I don’t have this burning desire to be the greatest coach of all time,” Auriemma said of his passions. “I don’t know why I feel that way. But that’s how I feel. I don’t get up every morning saying, `I have to win more national championships than anybody else. Or I got to be this, that, and the other thing. I just don’t have that. I don’t know that I ever have. But I don’t have that,” he said.

“It kind of gives me a perspective, I don’t know how to say it, but I’m not driven by that stuff. I’m not motivated by that stuff. I don’t have any of these demons driving me to be at a certain point in my life when I’m done.

“If I stopped coaching tomorrow, I’d be ok with it. I could walk away and say, `Ok, I’m good with where I am. I don’t need to do this any more,” Auriemma said.

“I think the Hall of Fame in Springfield made me realize some things. When they said, `You need a present Hall of Famer to kind of present you,’ they give you a list to choose from – there’s only some 120 people to chose from – in the world.

“That’s when it dawned on me. There are a lot of people in the Hall of Fame who are dead. So if you don’t enjoy the time when you’re doing the things you’re doing., if you go around all the time, saying, `I’ve got to get in the Hall of Fame, I’ve got win X number of championships, or I’ve got to do this, what good does it do if you die and you’re not happy doing what you’re doing.

“So, you think, `Hey, I’m going to try to win the national championship next year. But I’m not going to kill myself doing it. I’m not going to kill my players either,” he said acknowledging feelings could change again by October.

“Again, I say that now, but it’s just a lot of you really start to realize there’s a lot more to what we’re trying to do than winning games,” Auriemma philosophized. “Sometimes coaches get really, really caught up in winning games.”

Near where Auriemma spoke, there’s an exhibit video of him talking to his players (in 1999) before a game.

“I saw that and thought, `If I was my players, I wouldn’t listen to all that crap.’ You know,” he said.

“And then when I heard it was senior night, because I didn’t remember what game it was, I thought, `I hope I didn’t stand there and talk like that every game.’”

Former Connecticut athletic director John Toner, who hired Auriemma, will be his escort at the ceremonies, and Meghan Pattyson-Culmo, who played for him in the early 1990s, will speak in his video introduction before he takes the podium.

-- Mel

7 Comments:

Anonymous AnnieM said...

Mel,
Thanks for taking the time to post such an in-depth account of Geno's thoughts.

It was a big moment for him and a big moment for the State of Connecticut.

We appreciate your time and effort.

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Kathy Rees said...

Watching Geno mature and move from one season to the next has added a great deal to my life...and my husband's. we are great Geno fans and great UConn women's Huskies fans. I think he is good for Charde...I think he gets across how much he cares about these young women, how much he wants them to fulfill their potential. I think that's good fathering and good coaching. I think they know it.

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