NEW ORLEANS — After slicing through downtown traffic in the type of motorcade a head of state might expect, Geno Auriemma stepped out of Connecticut's bus, bowed his head to receive a Mardi Gras-style beaded necklace with a Final Four medallion on it and entered the team hotel to the music of a live brass band.
For UConn's coach, the sights and sounds were happily familiar. Once-battered New Orleans, well on its way to re-establishing itself as a premier host for major events, is home to a women's Final Four for a record third time — and Auriemma has been to all three.
"I never get tired of coming down here," said the coach, whose team lost a semifinal in New Orleans in 1991 and won it all in 2004. "This city treats events a little bit differently than any other place where they play these games."
The Final Four — UConn, California, Louisville and Notre Dame — represents the fourth major college or pro championship in New Orleans in the past 15 months as city leaders worked to show how far the city has come since Hurricane Katrina's devastation in August 2005.
The BCS national title game and men's Final Four came in 2012 and this February the Big Easy hosted the Biggest Game. The Super Bowl returned for the first time since 2002 and except for a half-hour blackout at the Superdome, things went well.
The blackout "was pretty innocuous overall," said Jay Cicero, chief of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, which organizes bids for high-profile events.
Familiar: Muffet McGraw and Auriemma have been crossing paths for a long time. Auriemma arrived at St. Joseph's as an assistant to Jim Foster in 1978, two seasons after McGraw graduated from the school that bills itself as the "Cradle of Coaches." A year after Auriemma left to coach at his alma mater, Bishop Kenrick High, Foster hired McGraw as his assistant. McGraw and Auriemma will see each other again Sunday in the semifinals. McGraw is trying to lead Notre Dame to its second national title and Auriemma is trying to help the Huskies win their eighth. "I think it is the most heated rivalry in women's basketball, and it's a game that everybody enjoys watching, and we enjoy playing," McGraw said.