My one encounter with Geno Auriemma came a number of years ago, well before any talk of John Wooden or 89 straight wins. It was the 2001-02 season and a happy confluence of scheduling events had me in Connecticut to cover the regular season meeting between UConn and Tennessee, back when UConn and Tennessee played each other during the regular season. Back when UConn and Tennessee were the only names that mattered in women’s basketball.
Indeed, I was there in part to bring a story back to Buffalo on the notion that there might be parity on the horizon in women’s collegiate hoops after Notre Dame won the national championship the previous spring.
It was the day before the game and I was in Storrs with about 30 other reporters, watching the end of practice, waiting for interviews and discussing the impending nor’easter. Still a bit green to covering national stage stories (and in general woefully underconfident) I hung in the back of the media scrum that surrounded Auriemma. Suddenly, he stopped, mid-sentence and started pointing in my direction.
“You!” he said. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
Confession time: I am not one of those cool, witty guys you see making all sorts of sarcastic remarks all over ESPN. I’m not even the bad wanna-be cool, witty guy on the local cable access sports show. I posses no socratic wonders and, particularly at that time in my life, little confidence to offer a hearty retort when being called out by one of the biggest names in women’s basketball.
And so, my heart leapt into my throat and the blood pumping in my head suddenly became very loud. Who was why and why was I here? It felt like a trick question.
“I’m … I’m … Amy Moritz,” the words managed out of my mouth. “I’m … from the Buffalo News and …”
Then came the voice of an angel:
“She’s here to help us cover the snowstorm.” It was one of my fellow media members who saved me. She started to laugh. Everyone started to laugh and the interview went on.
Eventually my body started to feel normal again and I learned a very valuable lesson that day:
Had I been a basketball player, I could never have played for Geno Auriemma.
He is brash and sarcastic and constantly calls out his players. While not privy to the inner workings of his relationship with his players, he sounds like a coach who does not dole out much praise, instead constantly nitpicking, constantly asking for more.
That is how, in part, we ended up here — with UConn setting the collegiate basketball record for most consecutive wins with 89 straight.
The mark breaks the record set by the UCLA men’s basketball team who won 88 straight from 1971 to 1974 under the honorable John Wooden.
And so for much of the past week in the world of college sports and basketball talk has centered on UConn breaking UCLA’s record. This brings us to many tangents:
- A women’s team breaking the record of a men’s team. Oh the gender wars.
- Comparing Auriemma and Wooden as coaches and debating who would win the game if one of the Wooden UCLA teams played one of Auriemma’s UConn teams.
- All types of self-reflexive media talk about the coverage of “the streak” and the coverage of women’s sports in particular and the eternal debate of which comes first (or which should come first): interest or coverage. (See a great blog by Sports Media Brother on this topic.)
Yet, all I can think about is that day in Storrs, when Auriemma wanted to know who I was and what I was doing there. All I can think about is the way he built a program in the middle of nowhere, how he motivates the most talented players in the country. I think about the women who have played in the UConn program, how they all subscribe to the same line of thinking — that they play for each other, that they be themselves regardless of outside situations including things like their opponent or the potential meaning of the outcome.
I didn’t have the opportunity to watch the historic moment when UConn defeated Florida State Tuesday night. Instead, I was covering another women’s basketball game — one in Alumni Arena between the University at Buffalo and Niagara. There were no records broken in that game, no amazing highlight-worthy plays. But there were talented women, on the court and on the sidelines, seizing their opportunity to do what they love, to be who they are.
In some ways, Auriemma and UConn’s dominance have helped create those opportunities, even as we debate the esoteric and the inane. Maybe it’s the holiday season, but I can’t get myself all riled-up for the gender war fight. Instead, I just want to watch basketball and celebrate.