Why Geno Auriemma Should (But Won't) Succeed Jim Calhoun at UConn
Long-time University of Connecticut men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun is expected to announce his retirement on Thursday after 26 years of leading the Huskies. And according to multiple reports, former UConn player and current assistant coach Kevin Ollie is expected to take over.
But who should UConn be looking to? Women's coach Geno Auriemma.
Now don't get me wrong—I have nothing against Ollie or his prospects as a coach. Calhoun has voiced his support of his former captain on multiple occasions and had reportedly advocated for Ollie to succeed him. Ollie has a solid track record in Storrs and may well be a fine head coach for years to come.
But Auriemma, who also led the U.S. women's Olympic team to gold in London this summer, would be a more intriguing pick.
Why? First of all, a renowned coach like Auriemma would keep the Huskies in the spotlight, and that's no small feat given the impending exodus of big-time basketball schools like Syracuse, Georgetown and Notre Dame from the Big East.
If only because of his name alone, he'd mop up recruits like a janitor in a middle-school lunchroom. He's used to recruiting the best female players in the country, and while 18-year-old boys are very different from 18-year-old girls, Auriemma has proven that he's capable of both going after the biggest names in the land and landing them with regularity.
Arrogant? Cocky? A little too slick for his own good (as Frank Deford suggested for Sports Illustrated back in 2003)? You bet he is. But aren't successful men's coaches like Bob Knight? John Calipari? Rick Pitino?
Does his long-term, long-distance spat with legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt rub you the wrong way? Well, what exactly do you think Calipari and Pitino tell recruits about each other? Rivalries in college hoops aren’t for the faint of heart.
His coaching style wouldn't fit the men's game, you say? False. He's always coached his women like men. He's cut them no slack. He's critical. He's paid little attention to feelings or emotions. He cares about teaching the game and winning.
"I don't tolerate any girly-girl stuff," Auriemma told writer Pat Jordan in a story for Deadspin last March. "Boyfriends, stuff like that."
"It's hard to pick out girls who can handle Geno's toughness," former Lady Huskies star and current assistant coach Shea Ralph told Jordan. "It's hard to play here. Geno's always pushing you. 'We don't play girls' basketball, we play basketball.'"
And his players, including three-time national champ Diana Taurasi, seem to appreciate that sentiment.
"Geno was different from all the other coaches," Taurasi said back in 2003. "He'd tell me things that were real. "
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"He'll pound away at you," she said of his coaching style. "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 [my criticisms] 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."
Still questioning how Auriemma’s approach might fare in the men's game? Didn't think so.
Calhoun retires from coaching as a Hall of Famer, holding a 618–233 (.726) record in his 26 seasons at UConn, with seven Big East Tournament titles and three national championships. Auriemma, just 58 and already Hall of Famer, is 804–129 (.862) in his 27 seasons at the helm in Storrs. His women have won 18 Big East Tournament titles and seven national championships. It may not be apples to apples, but it’s not like Auriemma’s an empty suit.
In fact, a recent poll actually showed that Auriemma is more popular in the state of Connecticut than Calhoun.
Of course, none of these factors make him a shoo-in to be successful in the men's game.
In fact, Auriemma has caught a lot of guff for his coaching style and his abrasive personality. He's also facing charges of employment discrimination following a reported incident with a female NBA security official in Russia.
Would Auriemma even want the men's job? Probably not.
Could Geno Auriemma succeed as a head coach in men's college basketball?
"I could do it with men for a while," he told SI nine years ago. "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?
"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."
You can hardly blame him. Auriemma already makes around $2 million a year (just under what Calhoun made), is ridiculously successful in his field, and, frankly, he’d have little to gain from the added pressure in the men’s game.
But having already met every challenge that women's basketball has to offer—and passed with flying colors—why not try something new? He’s already a legend of the game, so who’s to say he couldn’t make a crossover that no one else has successfully made?
Is it going to happen? Of course not.
Nor should it, perhaps. He still has many years to go, but he has nothing more to prove.
Critics will suggest that succeeding in women's basketball is nice, but it’s not as meaningful as doing it in the men's game.
And maybe that’s what sets Auriemma apart. He’s happy right where he is.
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