UConn coach Geno Auriemma extends his legacy

“I was a big fan,” UConn's Geno Auriemma says of John Wooden, who won 10 men's titles. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
“I was a big fan,” UConn's Geno Auriemma says of John Wooden, who won 10 men's titles.DIRK SHADD | Times
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TAMPA

One night after Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski put down stakes among the best coaches in the history of college basketball, Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma planted his name among the all-time greats.

Ever. In any sport.

This son of Italian immigrants who moved to Philadelphia when Geno was 7 is now in rarefied air, right next to coaching legends such as John Wooden and Phil Jackson. On Tuesday night, right here at Amalie Arena, Auriemma claimed his 10th national title and third in a row when his Huskies methodically dispensed of plucky Notre Dame in the women's final.

Auriemma's numbers at UConn are dizzying — from national titles to Final Four appearances to NCAA Tournament tickets to total victories. Now the debate can truly begin. Is Auriemma the greatest coach in sports? Not just now but ever?

While you're mulling that over, consider this: the UConn dynasty is nowhere close to being over. Is anyone foolish enough to bet against UConn winning four in a row? Five? Six?

Imagine where Auriemma's name will be when his title total starts getting into the teens.

Is it easier to win championships in women's college basketball, where there aren't that many good teams? Is UConn's program simply on cruise control, collecting titles because the best players in the country line up to walk into Auriemma's gym? Should we celebrate someone who doesn't coach in a glamorous sport such as the NBA or men's college basketball?

None of that matters. Whether it's men or women, college or pro, basketball or marbles, to win 10 titles is an accomplish that must be revered.

"In the last 20 years, we've been as good and as consistent in our sport as anybody else has been in their sports," Auriemma said before Tuesday's latest crown. "I never compare our team to any other teams. I don't compare what we do to what anybody else does. I just know that in our sport, from 1995 to today, what we've done against our peers is as good if not better than anybody else has done in their sport against their peers. I don't care whether it's harder in that sport or this sport or that sport."

Auriemma took over a program that was hardly steeped in tradition. UConn had only one winning season in its history before he arrived on the Storrs campus in 1985. The Huskies went 12-15 in his first season. That's the last time UConn had a losing record.

"You take a job that not a lot of people want at a school that has never had success," Auriemma said. "Then you win a little bit and a little more and a little more. And you win with players that are not being recruited by other schools. And little by little you end up winning a national championship in 1995."

Suddenly, the best players in the country wanted to come to Storrs. A who's who of women's college basketball players — Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore — helped build a tradition that cannot be touched. Add to the list junior Breanna Stewart, the two-time national player of the year who is now three-fourths of the way to her what once seemed like a ridiculous goal: winning four national championships.

Surely, there are little girls all over the country who watched Tuesday night and are now dreaming about the day Auriemma sends them a recruiting letter. Oddly, the fact that Auriemma has built a program so powerful that the best players in the country fight to play there has, somehow, become something that breeds negativism.

"I don't think any of the coaches should apologize for getting the best players," Auriemma said. "I think that's part of the job description when you sign up to be a coach. A lot of coaches think it's noble and honorable to recruit bad players and make them better. I've been there. It (stinks). You don't get to play in March when you have that kind of team."

Wooden coached UCLA in an era where fewer teams were invited to the NCAA Tournament and, thus, fewer victories were required to win in all. Jackson won NBA titles because his teams either had Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, the two best players in the game at the time.

Don't the best teams always have the best players? Auriemma has been able to collect special talent and then turn them into champions despite enormous pressure of being a team that is never supposed to lose.

He can be difficult to play for: gruff, impatient, rude. His practices, say his players, are tougher and more stressful than any game. Junior guard Moriah Jefferson called him "unpleasant" at times. He doesn't always play nice with other coaches. Then again, when coaches of men's teams are like that, no one questions their personalities. In fact, they are applauded for being competitive, for being winners.

Well, clearly, Auriemma is a winner.

When he was a kid, Geno grew up watching the great UCLA dynasty under Wooden. "I was a big fan," Auriemma said.

As the confetti rained down Tuesday night from the Amalie Arena, celebrating UConn's 10th national title, you couldn't help but think of Wooden and the 61-year-old Auriemma. Side by side, along with Jackson, as the greatest coaches in any sport ever.

And Luigi "Geno" Auriemma and his UConn basketball machine are far from finished.

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