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The Great Manipulator

If you read enough war memoirs, or if you have seen “Saving Private Ryan” or “Platoon” (and you have), then you know that soldiers on the front lines do not fight for their country. They fight for one another. They fight to survive.

The University of Connecticut won the women’s national basketball championship on Tuesday night, the school’s eighth national title in the past 18 years. Every woman who has been involved in a Huskies national title, beginning in 1995, will tell you, if they are being honest, that they did not play for Connecticut. They did not play for the sold-out throngs at Gampel Pavilion or the Hartford Civic Center (now the X-Cel Center), a raving fan base that is a unique phenomenon in women’s college hoops.

They do not even necessarily play for one another. No. They play –and they win –for a reason far more primal and important than that. They played to prove Geno Auriemma wrong.

Auriemma, 59, has been the impetus behind all eight Connecticut championships. UConn women’s basketball might as well have not existed when he arrived in Storrs in 1985 to become the head coach. The Huskies had only one winning season before the advent of Auriemma; they have had only one losing season, his first (12-15 in 1985-86), since.

If you are looking for a secret to Geno’s success, I have bad news for you: it is not a recipe that you can copy because you most likely are not Geno Auriemma. You are not smart, handsome, industrious, charismatic, fierce, loyal, charming and exacting. You are not an immigrant who had to learn English when your family arrived in the United States and you were only six because if you failed to learn English you would not advance beyond second grade. You may have some of those traits; you may even have all of those traits, but you do not possess them in the measure that Geno does.

He is, simply, sui generis. The closest a person I have met in women’s sports, in all of college sports for that matter, to Geno is Baylor coach Kim Mulkey. It’s no wonder they like one another so much. But that’s another story.

For all of his hoops knowledge, Geno is a better psychologist. Especially when it comes to the fairer sex. When young women arrive on campus in Storrs, they are met by an assistant coaching staff that for most all of Geno’s 28 seasons has been exclusively female. Christine Dailey, his associate head coach, has been with him from Day One. Dailey, consciously and/or unconsciously, plays the role of den mother and female in-loco-parentis. The other assistants, some of whom like current assistant Shea Ralph are former UConn players, become their older sisters.

Geno? From the day these players arrive on campus until the day they leave, they alternate between seeing him as a father figure and having something of a crush on him. Either way, for most of their careers, they are possessed with an overwhelming desire to please him. To gain his approbation. And that is nearly impossible to do.

Auriemma is the Great Manipulator, and that is in no way has a pejorative meaning here. He understands who he is and, more importantly, how his players view him. To you Connecticut basketball may be a national phenomenon but to the players it is a very small, very insular universe. It is Gampel Pavilion, their teammates and the coaching staff. That is your family for four years and that is your life.

In a very vulnerable time in a young woman’s life, perhaps the first (because if she plays for UConn she has known much athletic success beforehand) she has encountered, the one person whose approval she seeks more than anyone’s is withholding it.

He knows exactly what he is doing.

Former center Rebecca Lobo, the first of seven different Huskies to be named the Associated Press National Player of the Year (freshman Breanna Stewart will be the eighth), spent four seasons under Geno’s wing in which her nickname was simply “Worst Post Player in America.” And Lobo was a linchpin recruit, the landing of whom represented a sea change in Connecticut’s hoops fortunes. She was the type of player upon whom a lesser coach might think his future rested; if she were to become unhappy and transfer, what might other future big-time recruits do? If you have ever traveled to Storrs –particularly between November and March – you know that many a recruit could be lost by the time they arrive on campus, so remote is its location.

Lobo, however, never left. An uncommonly mature and precocious person, she resolved to shut Geno up. As a senior she led the Huskies to a 35-0 record and the school’s first national championship while figuratively putting the program on the map. Not bad for the “Worst Post Player in America.”

It is a ritual at UConn. Some times after practice the team and coaches gather in a circle at midcourt. The symbolism is prevalent. This is a closed circle. You are an essential part of it. No one outside of this circle is part of us and no one else can penetrate the circle. As long as we keep the circle closed.

It really is quite magical, what Auriemma is able to do. Pat Summitt, the only other women’s coach to win eight national titles, played on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. John Wooden, the legendary UCLA coach who won an unsurpassed 10 national titles with the UCLA men’s program, was a three-time All-American as a player at Purdue University. Geno played a little college ball at West Chester University, but as a five-foot-ten guard he was hardly spectacular. And yet year in and year out he lures the top high school players in the nation –as often as not, THE top prep player in the country –and they absorb his lessons without questioning his bona fides.

Geno simply commands that type of respect. And obedience.

I spent a year with the UConn program in 2000-2001 and nothing about Coach Auriemma struck me more sharply than this: far more than he understands basketball, Geno Auriemma understands people. Understands human nature. He also demonstrates to his players in quieter moments, and this is almost never discussed, that they are a family.

In the year that I was there the Husky roster had five current or future first-team All-Americans: Svetlana Abrosimova, Shea Ralph, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash and Sue Bird. When they went to the mall, they were mobbed for autographs; when they stepped onto the Gampel court for practice, they were insecure young women (well, okay, Taurasi and Bird were never that) who craved Geno’s approval.

A quick story: We were sitting around late one night in Seattle, after a road win at Washington. Geno, an assistant coach or two, myself, and a few more adults in the traveling party. The topic was that of two players, both starters, Asjha Jones and Swin Cash. Both had been injured and while sitting out a third player had entrenched herself as a starter. As a result either Asjha or Swin would now be relegated to the bench. Both players returned to practice on the same day.

Geno wanted five starters on the court to run his offense, but instead of naming who he wanted, he simply said, “Give me the starters on the floor.”

Asjha hesitated, and Swin, a far more aggressive person, took that opportunity of hesitation to run out on the court.

“Now,” Geno asked us, “Who decided that Swin would start ahead of Asjha?”

“Asjha did,” I said.

“Exactly,” answered Geno. His point: He wanted the young lady on the floor who most wanted to be the starter to start. In a battle between two forwards who were relatively evenly matched, he wanted the player who was more confident.

Connecticut lost three of eight games between mid-February this season and the NCAA tournament. It failed to win the Big East tournament. This was not a particularly superlative Auriemma squad, especially for a coach who has led four different teams to undefeated national championship seasons (the last men’s team to go undefeated wire-to-wire was Indiana in 1976; on the women’s side, Baylor did it last year).

Somehow, though, the Huskies won six straight tournament games by an average margin of nearly 35 points. The closest any team came to beating them was Notre Dame in the semifinal; the Irish lost by 18. I cannot guarantee what happened between UConn’s loss to the Irish in the Big East tournament final on March 2 and their six-game tourney win streak other than to say that every woman in uniform was tremendously focused. And that every player wanted to please Geno as much as they wanted to cut down the nets.

In some of those practices in the past month, I am sure Geno lost his temper (although not in a Mike Rice way). I’d be willing to bet that a player or two was either on the verge of tears or crying. That an assistant coach, a female, at some point intervened during or after practice to soothe her feelings. And yet, after UConn won on Tuesday night Stewart, only a freshman, had the temerity to muss up his impermeable coif as he was being interviewed on ESPN.

That’s a delicate balance to strike. Where your players can be so desperate for your approval one moment and so easily make you part of their fun the next. But that is the secret ingredient to Geno’s success: he understands people. And he certainly understands women.

Are you ready for the NEXT STEP!