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UConn's Geno Auriemma: From Philly to basketball immortality

STORRS, Conn. - That Philly accent is still so pronounced, the words so biting, the eyes so intense, the sideline swagger so macho, that it's only natural Geno Auriemma still gets asked the question.

Geno Auriemma is carried off the floor by his players after Connecticut won the 2010 NCAA championship in April, defeating Stanford.
Geno Auriemma is carried off the floor by his players after Connecticut won the 2010 NCAA championship in April, defeating Stanford.Read moreERIC GAY, Filoe / Associated Press

STORRS, Conn. - That Philly accent is still so pronounced, the words so biting, the eyes so intense, the sideline swagger so macho, that it's only natural Geno Auriemma still gets asked the question.

Auriemma undoubtedly will hear it again Sunday afternoon when, in a nationally televised game from Madison Square Garden, his Connecticut women shoot for consecutive victory No. 88, a total that would match the record streak John Wooden's UCLA men amassed in the early 1970s.

People - mostly male sportswriters - will want to know if the UConn coach, the richest, most well-known and successful mentor in his sport's history, ever dreams about getting richer and more well-known by coaching men.

In part, it keeps getting asked because while accumulating 16 Big East titles, seven national championships, and an astounding .858 winning percentage in 26 seasons at this school in remote and rocky New England, Auriemma has never really said no.

"I think anybody who's happy with and has been pretty successful at whatever it is they're doing, when presented with a different kind of challenge, would always say, 'Yeah. I'd be intrigued to find out how that would work,' " he said last week. "But at this stage of my life, I'm pretty happy and pretty comfortable doing what I'm doing."

Besides, men's college basketball has been transformed from the era when Wooden's Bruins dominated the game as thoroughly and regularly as Auriemma's have on the women's side.

Superstars who stay a year. Football-like budgets. Unscrupulous agents. Posses. The relentless scrutiny. Coaching instability.

Auriemma, 56, isn't all that impressed.

"The more men's games I see," he said, "the more I'm convinced I coach against better coaches every day than I see on TV sometimes.

"[The men's game] is not the be-all and end-all, for sure. I think there's great coaches at every level. Maybe down the road a different challenge will come up for me. Maybe not. But I really don't spend that much time thinking about it."

Last week, as he prepared his No. 1 Huskies (9-0) for Sunday's game against No. 11 Ohio State (8-1) and dealt with the virtually nonstop buzz about Wooden and The Streak, Auriemma sometimes seemed more concerned about his hometown's baseball team than either of those subjects - or his future.

"I worry more about who the fifth starter is for the Phillies," said Auriemma, who developed his love of the Phils during the cursed summer of 1964. "Who's going to hit in the lineup with Howard and Utley? I worry about those things a lot more."

For Auriemma, there are always worries, though they aren't apparent to anyone who casually observes him and the gold-plated program he has built.

Remarkable anomaly

His UConn women remain a remarkable anomaly in women's college sports. They play in and fill big arenas. All their games are televised. They are superstars in a state with no major sports franchise. He earns more than $1.5 million a season.

Curiously, this male, Italian-born gym rat is in some ways the face of women's basketball. That also means he's a target.

"The more attention this team gets, the more uncomfortable I am," Auriemma told The Inquirer several years ago. "I retreat into my office a little more. Phil [Martelli, the St. Joseph's men's coach who is a close friend] knows the janitor, the cleaning woman, everybody in his building. I wish I could be like that. When I was younger and first got the job here, I tried really hard to be like that. And I was for a while. But as things grew and grew, I found myself hiding in my office more."

Beneath the facade, and despite a career that already has landed him in the Basketball Hall of Fame, Auriemma has always been insecure. It's the relentless effort with which he counters those feelings that is his secret. Charming away from the game, he can be a tyrant at practice and during games.

"I remember when he came up for a visit to my high school," said Connecticut's Maya Moore, a two-time player of the year. "Off the court he was pretty laid back, liked to make conversation, was just a nice guy. He was very engaging, very charismatic. Somebody you feel like you want to be around and hang around."

But what about when the subject is basketball?

"As soon as we stepped into the gym, Boom! He flipped a switch," recalled Diana Taurasi, an ex-Connecticut all-American and now a WNBA and international star. "He was this completely competitive guy who was never satisfied."

Solace in sports

Born in Italy in 1954, Auriemma moved to Norristown with his family when he was 7. The transition was difficult and painful. At lunch, kids with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches mocked his thick accent and the exotic lunches - eggplant parmesan, sausage and eggs - his mother prepared.

He eventually found solace in sports. Tough and competitive, he wanted to be a baseball player until he discovered basketball. He made the team at Bishop Kenrick and went to Montgomery County Community College and West Chester before Jim Foster begged him to coach the junior-varsity girls at Bishop McDevitt.

In a coincidence Auriemma termed "eerie," Foster, the Philadelphian who is Ohio State's coach and who also gave his friend his first college job as a St. Joseph's women's assistant in 1978, will be on the other bench Sunday as the man he talked into coaching tries to tie a record many thought unreachable.

"If you put this in a movie script," said Foster, "no one would believe it. It would be way too corny."

In 1975, just three years after Title IX was enacted, Foster had to be persistent to persuade Auriemma.

"No way," he initially told Foster. "I wouldn't coach girls for all the money in the world. When I was [playing at Bishop Kenrick], we wouldn't even let the girls on the court."

But Foster kept asking.

"I was thinking he was being a little bit of a pain in the ass," Auriemma recalled. "He kept asking me all the time, and I didn't want to do it. That was my thought process. He kept saying that. Finally, I said, 'Fine, I'll do it.'

"But it wasn't like I was jumping in on the opportunity of a lifetime. I just said I'll do it, and then I'll get along with the rest of my life at some point."

Ironically, seven years ago, it was another Philadelphia coach and friend, Villanova's Harry Perretta, who ended Connecticut's then-women's record 70-game win streak. Now if Auriemma's women, who haven't lost since the senior Moore was a freshman, beat Ohio State, they will go for record No. 89 in Hartford on Tuesday against No. 15 Florida State.

The two streaks

He won't compare the two streaks or Wooden and himself. Men's basketball, he said, is a different entity from the women's game. It's not that 88 straight victories by women are easier or harder; it's just different.

"This is something that stands on its own merits," he said of UConn's streak. "I don't compare myself or view myself in a context with any other coach. And especially someone like John Wooden. I'm more worried about how my players can navigate all this. I don't give it too much thought. Maybe down the road."

Foster is aware of the distinction, too, but even so, Auriemma's feat is "mind-boggling."

"No matter what level you're on, whether it's men or women, you can only shake your head," Foster said.

Auriemma met Wooden once. Years later, the UConn coach had to chuckle when, during a nationally televised interview, the older man appeared to have forgotten about their encounter.

Still, sometime soon, perhaps before Sunday's game, he plans to tell his players about Wooden, UCLA, and the significance of the streak.

"At some point, I'll do my best to give them a pretty good understanding of what this whole thing is all about," he said. "I think it's important all basketball players should know about UCLA, John Wooden, and what they mean to the history of college basketball."

Whether the streak hits 89, the man who didn't want to coach girls has done pretty well at it.

"I guess I got stuck in it," Auriemma said. "Now I find out it was a pretty good place to get stuck."