“I never beat Coach K in a game, and I never coached against Coach Wooden. So the only person I compare myself to is Pat Summitt. And to be there in that spot with her means a lot to me,” said Geno Auriemma, head coach of the women’s basketball program at the University of Connecticut.
On Tuesday, the Huskies trounced Louisville in the national title game. UConn now owns eight women’s hoops titles, which happens to equal the number Tennessee has won. John Altavilla, who covers UConn women’s basketball for the Hartford Courant, joined Bill Littlefield to discuss the accomplishment.
BL: Coach Auriemma and former Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt had a fierce and sometimes prickly relationship while they were fighting for basketball supremacy. Were you surprised to hear Auriemma lavishing that sort of praise on the retired Summitt?
JA: N,o it’s a classic relationship between two people with tremendous ego and professional pride who want the same thing. This sort of reminds me of a version of Adams and Jefferson and Truman and Eisenhower. And what comes with that is sort of a natural acrimony over time, you go after the same recruits, you go after the same championships, you travel in the same circles, and it becomes very competitive. But Geno’s come to soften to Pat over the past three or four years particularly since she fell ill with early-onset dementia. He gave a lot of money to her foundation, and he does have a tremendous amount of respect for her. But I also think that one of the goals in his professional career is to surpass her by winning the next one, and then, if he can win a 10th, to tie the great John Wooden of UCLA who holds the overall record for most national championships.
BL: During the television broadcast of Tuesday’s title game, Geno Auriemma was interviewed in the second half, and all he could do was complain about his team’s turnovers even though they were up by about 19 points at the time. You were covering the game so I’m not sure if you saw that interview, but does that say something about Coach Auriemma?
JA: I didn’t hear the interview, but I think I’ve heard the statement about 5,000 times before. That’s just the way he is. He is a perfectionist, and everything he says, or most of things he says to the public is designed to deliver a subliminal message to his players. This six games that they played in the NCAA tournament were about as perfect as a women’s basketball team can perform.
BL: UConn forward Breanna Stewart was named the Most Outstanding Player in this year’s tournament. This is of course great news for UConn — she’s a freshman, three more years to go. So do we soon see UConn break the tie with Tennessee and add title number nine if not also 10 and 11?
JA: Well if you can show me a team that has three players that are equal in talent to Breanna Stewart then I would say that maybe that won’t be the case. In Breanna Stewart he has a player who has the ability to do pretty much whatever she wants to do on the floor. And when the UConn trainers get a hold of her and when she matures physically and emotionally in two or three years I can’t wait to see what she does. She’s just a great player.
BL: There have been 32 Division I women’s basketball championships, and of those UConn and Tennessee have won exactly half. Only four other schools have won twice, eight have each won once. Is there any reason to think that this pattern is likely to change?
JA: To be absolutely honest with you, I see no reason why it’s going to change. Tennessee is going to go through a rather dry spell now that Pat Summitt’s gone. And until another program finds a 29-year-old, curly-headed, skinny Italian kid from Philadelphia and brings him in and has the patience and the university commitment to build this, it’s never going to happen again in our lifetime.
BL: The next logical question is is this a good thing for women’s basketball?
JA: If you’re a fan of the other 345 schools that play – or whatever the number is now — no, it’s not a good thing because it gets very tiresome to see the same coach, the same program every year in the same situation lifting the same championship. Connecticut women’s basketball is going to remain the iconic brand name in the sport until he retires.