• December 6, 2021

Geno Auriemma talks about his Olympic experience as head coach and his future with USA Basketball

Thursday, August 16, 2012 – Geno Auriemma meeting with the press, Gampel Pavilion.

On Thursday, August 16, USA Basketball’s women’s national team and Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma met with the press to discuss his experiences with the gold-medal-winning Olympic team. Here is a transcript of most of the interview. The comments in italics are observations from Hoopfeed’s David Siegel, who attended, and will help frame the context of Auriemma’s answers.

I have yet to find someone who is more comfortable in meeting with the press than Auriemma. Perhaps it is the fact that he has this large contingent of beat writers following his every move, but lounging inside Gampel Pavilion, in jeans and shoes with no socks, it is clear the man is in his element.

The Olympic Experience

Q: Can you talk about the experience of being coach in retrospect?

GA: The whole four years, from the very beginning, when you are formally introduced as the coach of the national team, and you’re not quite sure what that means, and the Olympics feel like they are forever away, and then all of a sudden you land in London. You realize it was a lot of fun for three years and eleven months. (Laughs) That was really enjoyable, but that one month you cram as many emotions and as many feelings and anything else you can think of more in one month than the entire three years and eleven months combined. People say this all the time, unless you are there, unless you are a part of it, unless you go through it, it’s difficult to explain.

Q: Looking back on it now, in addition to the gold medal, was there a particular moment or day that was special to you?

GA: For me it’s always personal; so, there were a bunch of funny moments and a bunch of great moments. But, I think the time that I spent with Diana, there were some moments that we had, either before practice, or after practice, or at dinner, which kind of brought me back to what it used to be like when she was in college and we were doing this for the very first time. That’s probably the moments, those three. The other stuff is stuff everybody does; everybody went to Tower Bridge, everybody went to the Tower of London, everybody went to go see Big Ben, the Parliament buildings, and all that good stuff. But for me, those three times were pretty special for me.

The look on his face was one that indicated that he truly loved the down time with Taurasi, and also that he realizes that it’s most likely not going to happen like that ever again. Part joy, part sadness. Then quickly, the joking Auriemma returned with the following:

Oh and seeing Diana’s mom and dad, that was pretty funny. Just for the record, Lily, Diana’s mother, came up to me and said “Geno, I still hate you.” I said okay, you hated me in 2000, you hate me in 2012, that’s okay, as long as your daughter loves me, that’s all I care about.

Q: After it’s all over, is there a letdown, does it hit you then?

GA: Yeah, it’s kind of like winning the national championship at times. You put so much into it and it happens so quickly, you win six games and it’s over, and when it’s over there’s this feeling of “I can’t believe all that went into it, and it just ended in a flash.” (snaps fingers) It felt a lot like that, but at the same time, when you win a national championship, you don’t get to stand there and watch the gold medal ceremony. I mean that’s just…I’ve been to a bunch of those, with different USA events, in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics as an assistant coach, and probably the most significant time is when after they give out all the medals, you look over, and they’ve got three flags over there draped, and they hoist them up, and they are playing the national anthem. I think that’s the one thing that really, really affects every coach that’s ever coached USA Basketball.

Based on comments from people like Coach K before him, it’s clear the medal ceremony is really the award the coaches get more than anything else.  The images in their mind, the snapshot of those flags as he described them so vividly, have to be permanently etched into their minds.

Q: Is it disappointing that coaches don’t get gold medals? Any empty feeling?

GA: Not really. I think team sports are a weird dynamic at the Olympics. I’ve always thought of the Olympics as you run as fast as you can, you jump as high as you can, you swim as fast as you can, and it’s on you. You win a gold medal or a bronze or silver, or nothing, based on your performance and only your performance. So somebody who only played two minutes in the gold medal game, or in the entire thing, gets a gold medal, whereas a guy ran a 9.8 100 (meters), and got nothing. So to me, it’s always been about the individual athlete. So I understand why they don’t give a medal to the coach. Some coaches have like ten athletes, what are you going to do, give him ten medals? So I’m okay with that. We’ll get our version of that, that’s kind of how it works.

A look into the crystal ball: What about 2016?

Q: Coach K signed up for a second term (with the men’s team), what is your level of interest in doing this again?

GA: Right now? Zero. Everybody has their own reasons for doing what they do. I was honored, I was thrilled, and I’m glad I did it, and I’m ecstatic I was able to experience it and how much I enjoyed coaching the team. We had the perfect blend of players. They did everything I asked them to do and I worked with great people, Carol Callan (women’s national team director) and Jim Tooley (Executive Director/CEO of USA Basketball), but if you are asking me right now, today, I would say it’s somebody else’s turn.

Q: It’s clear on the men’s side the rest of the world is catching up with Team USA; on the women’s side, not so clear. How do you see the future of this USA team and how long can the domination last?

GA: Well, we didn’t look so dominant in the Australia game did we? I think the rest of the world is starting to do more and more; take a look at France, they are a perfect example, and Turkey. Those two countries stand out for me the most because they were amazing in the tournament, and that didn’t exist four years ago, eight years ago. There are countries that have decided, America can do it we can do it. We just need a program, we need a commitment from the players, and their governments are willing to back them. The Czech Republic, the Czech Air Force came to pick them up when the games were over. There is a lot of governments that are getting behind these times and saying, “you know, I think we can do this.” For us, we still have the deepest pool of players; I can tell you that one of the reasons why we are able to do the things we do is because of the continuity of the players. They want to keep playing. Somebody like Sue (Bird), Diana (Taurasi), and Tamika Catchings, this was their third one, and if their bodies hold up, they will want to play in a fourth. So that allows them to mentor the next group, so there is no drop off. If those guys for whatever reason, those three decide they don’t want to play in 2016, I don’t know we are going to be as dominant. Do you see many Sue Birds or Diana Taurasis out there? Tamika Catchings? So, I think, we’re going to have to work harder than we’ve ever worked to stay where we are, no question about that.

Q: Do you see any Geno Auriemmas out there?

GA: A lot of them. Look at the Olympic teams, they’ve won for everybody. Take a look at the last twenty years. It doesn’t matter who the coach is. They win. So it wasn’t like I did anything, like “they were terrible before you came around.” Matter of fact, that was my message to the team. “You guys have won for everybody, you don’t win for me, that’s not my fault, it’s yours!”

For all the criticism of Auriemma as being arrogant, I have found him to be a man that is unwilling to take credit for the success of his players; well most of it. While Coach K was irritated that he was basically accused of doing nothing in coaching the men’s team during a press conference in London, Auriemma has consistently said anyone could coach the women’s team, he does nothing special. This of course could not be further from the truth.

Coaching USA Basketball versus UConn

Q: A lot of your mannerisms on the sideline looked the same as here, so what was the biggest difference?

GA: Well that just goes to show you don’t believe everything you see. My mannerisms may have been the same, but what was coming out of my mouth and what was actually being transferred from me to them was completely different. I learned a lot. I learned a lot coaching those guys. You can’t say things you want to say. You can’t tell them the truth; every time they do something it’s like “that’s alright” and everytime you don’t like something they did “that’s alright; we’ll get it next time.” There’s a couple of players, that are not used to being coaches the way I coach, so you really have to tailor you’re approach to each player, as opposed to them tailoring their reaction to you, like you can do in college because you have them for five months. So, it was different. Practices were different. That doesn’t mean they were worse, they were different, and I learned a lot. I liked it, I liked parts of it. I liked some things more than others, but I think all in all, the fact that you are dealing with adults, for the most part, I kind of like that part. Coaching adults, believe it or not, was way better than coaching kids! Way better! (Laughs)

Hey WNBA, if only you could find a way to afford him, I think Auriemma would take on a pro team!

Q: You’ve accomplished so many things, where on the list is winning an Olympic gold medal?

GA: I thought winning the world championships in the Czech Republic was a lot harder. That really was hard, because you have to win nine games in eleven days in three different cities. But no one in America really gives a damn. If you ask people who won the World Championships, and who was on the team, they won’t know. But that was really, really hard. This? This was the most pressure I’ve ever felt, of anything I’ve ever done. In that respect, it may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The pressure, strictly from the pressure standpoint, what is expected of US basketball, and what is expected when you coach in what USA Basketball’s created

Q: Does that make it more relief than joy then?

GA: Yeah it’s like coaching UConn. You win 90 in a row and some dope wants to know why you didn’t call a time out or why this kid missed a free throw or why that. So when you do win, you say “that’s good, let’s get onto the next one.” France, the kids went back and I was talking to one of the French players afterwards, and she said they couldn’t wait to get home, because they were going to be welcomed home as conquering heroes. One coach said, “You know we played well tonight, and we had fun.” Both coaches are there, and two players are there at the same time. So I looked at him and said, “You know, it’s been a long time since I could say, it doesn’t matter, we’re just out here to have fun.” (Laughs) So that was pretty refreshing to hear him say that. So yeah, basically the feeling I had after winning the Olympics is the same I have at UConn when we win a national championship. The exact same thing.

There was definitely a hint of sadness in that response; while I cannot see him not wanting to be coaching the hunted favorite, I have to think that a part of him longs for the time when it was just about teaching the game, and watching your players grow. Clearly, he still harbors some resentment about some of the criticism directed toward his teams whenever they lose a game, or things do not go according to the fans’ plans.

The Personal Side of the Job

Q: Was this something that you always want to do?

GA: There was a point when I first started coaching USA Basketball in 1993; I just wanted to be asked to do something else. Coach another team, coach this team, coach this team. And I was, and I kept saying yes. But then I thought the door closed, so I put it out of my mind, I thought it was over and done with. Then when the door opened back up again, I wanted to do it, and I told them I wanted to do it.

Q: Saying now you don’t want to do it again, are you ruling it out completely, or is that in a year or two maybe…?

GA: No, the way I feel right now. I want to spend the next four years with this group of players that I have now, because I think we have a chance; actually the next two years with Bria (Hartley) and Stefanie (Dolson) being juniors, I think these next two years could be something real special at UConn, not that we haven’t had some special teams before. I want to spend all my time and energy worrying about that, and trying to make that as good as it can be. After that, it would be pretty hard to top London. I’ve never been to Brazil but it’s hard to top London, it’s an amazing city.

I like chocolate mint chip ice cream. You ever have that? Chocolate mint chip, that’s like my favorite ice cream. The second bowl? It doesn’t taste as good as the first. Never had, never will.

I sense that Auriemma feels he has in some ways shortchanged Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson, the two juniors that have not been at UConn when he was not between the World Championships and Olympic Games. His response about devoting all of his time, especially for the next two years, indicated to me his commitment not only to the program and the celebrated incoming freshmen class, but especially to his two juniors.

Q: Tina Charles and Asjha Jones said the other day they were mentally tired. Do you feel some of that fatigue too?

GA: Oh yeah. Kathy (Auriemma) kept asking me when we got back, “what’s wrong with you?” Not that she doesn’t ask me that a lot, but, this time she was really concerned. It takes so much out of you, because you are so immersed in it, twenty-four seven. I got out to see a couple of sights you know, and I missed out on seeing the British War Museum with Churchill’s stuff and I really, really wanted to go there. But it was get up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to practice, come home, take a nap, go to dinner, go to bed, get up, eat breakfast, watch film, go to shoot around, play, come home, have dinner, go to sleep. It is an amazingly draining time, so I can see why Tina and Asjha would feel that way.

Tina because she had to put all those minutes in, because Sylvia (Fowles) wasn’t one hundred percent; Asjha because she’s just old now. I only brought Asjha over for one game. God bless her I always said Asjha’s a pro. She could sit there for eleven games, and in that twelfth game, you can say to her go in there and save the game for us. Asjha you’ve got one job to do, sit tight and when that time comes you’ll know. I knew it was coming. Dee and I talked about it. “Coach, Asjha’s gonna win a game for us.” Absolutely, because she’s Asjha Jones.

Auriemma clearly heard the comments and statements about Jones and Swin Cash perhaps not being “the best players available” for the team, and they were chosen only because of their UConn pedigree. It is clear that Jones’ performance versus Australia meant a great deal to Auriemma, and he felt great being able to comment about that fact. Now the fact Jones played with a hurt Achilles that will cost her two weeks of the WNBA season has come out, and makes the job she did versus the Opals even more impressive.

The UConn Conundrum

Q: Was there a time during one of these blowouts you thought about putting five UConn players on the floor at once?

GA: Nope. Nope. People were bitching and moaning about the fact there were six on the team to begin with. So can you imagine what they would say if I put five of them out there on purpose? Now if it happened, it happened, but there’s a lot of people out there that aren’t that thrilled we won the gold medal because we had six UConn players on the team. So, I wasn’t going to piss them off anymore by putting five on the court together.

What could I add to this comment?

Q: Were there practices where you had flashbacks, be it Maya or Sue?

GA: There were lots of moments that really were flashbacks. It was like going back in time, no question about it. I don’t think anybody was surprised when we came out at halftime of the France game and we ran a couple of screens, Sue comes off and hits that little fifteen-foot jump shot that people in Connecticut have seen her make with her eyes closed. There were some things were you closed your eyes and you looked back. That one layup that Maya made, right in front of our bench, I thought for sure she was going to dunk it. She’s finally going to dunk it. And I thought back to her very first game, an exhibition game, where she got a break away and I know in her mind she’s thinking “I’m going to dunk this,” but she had no legs and she couldn’t do it. It was so pathetic, the ball like rolled off the rim, she missed the layup, and she never tried it again for the next four years. Right on that time, I thought she’s going to dunk it, but she just kind of laid it up nice. So there were times I immediately flashed back to all the memories I had watching those guys play at Gampel.

Q: Was it difficult trying to find minutes and juggling rotations, especially trying not to put the UConn girls together?

GA:  Yeah, because there’s six of them. One center, two forwards, a couple of guards, so we had one at every position. It was just hard to juggle minutes between twelve players when there’s only two hundred minutes in a game.

Q: Did Diana give you any indication if she is planning on playing the rest of the WNBA season

GA: No, she didn’t say anything.

Proud to Be an American

Q: We always ask the players about the feeling of wearing the USA uniform; do you get that same feeling?

GA: It’s different. It’s absolutely different, and it means there are really smart people that have a lot of confidence in you, and think you are the guy that can do that job. Jerry Colangelo is a pretty powerful guy, so when he says welcome aboard, you don’t want him to say at the end, I think we got the wrong guy. So there’s that, you just have this overwhelming feeling of “you’ve only got one shot at this, and don’t let these people down.” Which is quite different from here; you know here we lose in the Final Four we’re going to come back next year and give it another shot. With the Olympics, it’s four years of work into winning eight games and it’s just incredible the feeling of obligation you have. That’s probably the biggest word I can use, obligation.

The Prides of Minnesota

Q: Did any particular player open your eyes, you had mentioned Lindsay Whalen.

[Video of this segment]

GA: I would put in the same category Lindsay and Seimone (Augustus) I think were two players that really impressed me from where they came from. At the World Championships Lindsay was a minor factor and Seimone wasn’t even there. So now you go two years later and both of those guys were really huge, key contributors to winning the gold medal. So those two, more than anyone else, I think took the biggest steps forward.

Clearly, this was an endorsement of the job Cheryl Reeve has done coaching the WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx. As an aside, I personally think she would make a great coach for the 2016 Olympic team.

The Angel Factor

Q: There’s a good picture of Angel (McCoughtry) jumping on your back.

GA: Yeah, in that particular game I think that’s the only thing that she hit, was my back, although I think she hit a three right in front of our bench. Angel is the Forest Gump of the WNBA. When you open up that box, you don’t know what’s going to come out. Some days she’s the chocolate fudge you have been waiting for and some days she’s the one with the red cherry junk in the middle that you go “oh man I don’t like that.” But that’s Angel, through and through. You’ve gotta love her.

Auriemma has always had his favorite people. Not favorite players, favorite people. Angel McCoughtry is definitely one of those people that Auriemma gets a kick out of. He loves her larger than life persona; the fact she is so exciting in good and bad ways at times on the court, and that she enjoys him as well. Having played against her when she was so effective at Louisville in the Big East, it is pretty clear he enjoys coaching her too.

Putting a Wrap on the Olympics

Q: Before the games you said it wasn’t enough to win; you needed to play basketball in a particular way to grow the sport. Do you feel you accomplished that?

GA: At times. I think there were times that we played the game and it was different than the way everyone else played it over there. At times, but I don’t know that anything was revolutionary that we did, we just don’t have enough time together. But I think there were times that things were happening on the floor that opened a lot of people’s eyes as to what we can do.

I asked this question. Back in July Auriemma made the following quote:

“Hopefully we can create a style of play that is pleasing, enjoyable to watch and exciting and that’s a challenge, and still win the gold medal,” he said. “Here we’re on a world stage. So if it’s ugly, we’re going to harm the game more than help it. So just winning won’t be good enough for us to raise the bar.”

The man entrusted with the winning streak and doing a job where only winning a gold medal would be considered a success seemed to put even more pressure on himself, to try to not just complete those tasks but, to try to elevate interest in the game of women’s basketball.

I do think that he was somewhat disappointed that he could not really achieve this goal, but he found out what others did before him; that with the limited amount of time given with the players, take the gold medal and be very, very happy with that!

Read Previous

Tennessee announces 2012-13 schedule, opponents include Baylor, Stanford, Rutgers, Miami & Georgia Tech

Read Next

Hoopfeed Daily Twitter Digest for 08-17-2012