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April 1, 2016

Geno’s All-American Dream

Geno’s All-American Dream

FIRE-UP FRIDAY – Greetings from Indianapolis! “Who are you rooting for?” The answer is easy.

Geno and Stewie.

I am usually indifferent. I always watch hoping for a great game and an exciting finish. I end up rooting for so many kids based on what emotions I think they are feeling. I often am thrilled for the winners and seconds later, I feel so badly for the losing team. As for this Final Four, I had a change of heart when I started reading Geno’s book, In Pursuit of Perfection, on the plane ride. Read the first 25 pages and you will see more than the cocky persona that is often portrayed in the media, and by Geno himself.

Geno is the son of poor Italian immigrants. Their biggest life goal was to leave the mountains of Italy where many families struggled to survive. His parents and his grandparents had seen and experienced too much, as survivors of the Germans who stormed through their towns and did horrible things during World War II. At eight years old, Geno arrived in rural Pennsylvania unable to speak English. As he made his way through school and picked up sports—mostly baseball—Geno’s father never quite understood his son’s love for hoops. Your profession? Basketball? You’re coaching women’s basketball? And you get paid for it?

What people don’t know is the Geno of 25-30 years ago when he was one of the few men who loved the game to the point where they wanted to make a life out of their passion. (The numbers of men in the game has increased drastically. This weekend I believe all four coaches are men. There are no female coaches in the men’s college game that I am aware of. It’s a very sensitive topic because of the increased salaries offered to coaches thanks to Title IX, and the fact that many of the men who don’t make it up the ladder on the men’s side often make a lateral move to the women’s side ahead of women who have been doing their time for years. To be continued …)

Geno committed himself into being the best he could be at his job. After being an assistant at Virginia, he realized that he needed to run his own program. He ended up getting the job at UConn, in spite of the staff wanting a female, because he demonstrated a powerful and distinct passion for building a powerhouse back when nobody even thought in those terms for a college team that was hardly on the map.

I knew him back then as a 16-year-old kid. I saw this good-looking Italian coach at most of our AAU games. He had great hair, pretty eyes and he was always smiling.

I’m going to enlist the support of Anita Fiedel (since her Stanford team is not playing). Anita will probably not agree with any of this, but I am going to bring her back to old AAU memories when Geno Auriemma used to go to so many of our games, and call our dads’ hotel rooms when they were on the road. He was relentless in his pursuit of players he wanted. He regularly talked to Doc Gallivan, our AAU coach. He bumped into us on the way in and out of gyms, and said no more than what he was allowed to, which was “Hello.” But it was always a fun, friendly and passionate hello.

I’m also going to enlist Nickie Hilton and Marcell Harrison to throw it back to the day we road-tripped to Storrs, CT. If I remember correctly, I believe Geno was also all over our guidance counselor and assistant basketball coach, Harry Peterson. Mr. P took us for a road trip to Storrs. The three of us noticed cornfields along the way. We entered a big barn with a track and basketball court inside. A few of the players actually wore cowboy hats. Granted you don’t forget players like Kerry Bascom—one of Geno’s legendary favorites by far—but the thought of going this far out for college was simply too much for three city-school girls.

So we all passed on UConn.

Within five years, Geno was winning his first national title with a player in our AAU network—a player one year our junior, a player who played on our AAU team whenever she could during my senior year (after I’d blown out my knee). That player’s name was Rebecca Lobo. I hosted Rebecca during her trip to Northwestern (which was not mentioned in the book). I brought her to church and introduced her to our 6’10” men’s basketball center, Kevin Rankin. She loved NU and said I gave her a great weekend, yet we both knew that Geno had won her over.   All she had to do was convince her mother, who wanted to make sure that Rebecca would be in a rigorous academic environment.

Geno gets a lot of heat for offering up his honest answers. Read his book and you will see several stories of how that brutal honesty changed the lives of his best players. You’ll read about how he digs deep into them, even insults them at times, to throw some gasoline onto that fire.

You’ll see how he handled Rebecca, who went from a struggling college player to the poster-child of women’s basketball. He knew how much weight she was carrying with all eyes on her and the team at the same time that her mother was battling breast cancer. Diana Taurasi will say it loud and clear that she would not be who she is without Geno. All of the greats attest to Geno’s mastery as the best recruiter in the country, but one that absolutely would not lie to you. Shea Ralph said that she decided to go to UConn after Geno told her that if she plays well, she will be an outstanding player. If she sucks, she’ll ride the bench.

And he won’t just be on you. He will be on you for all four years.

Everyone looks to Breanna Stewart and thinks that she could be the best of all those great Huskies – Rebecca, Jen Rizotti, Kara Walters, Sue Bird, Shea Ralph, Swin Cash – and so many other players who have passed on the torch of greatness.

Geno will say he picked up a few breaks when he landed the player he knew would change the landscape, but was that luck? No, it was his relentless pursuit, as an underdog who had nothing to lose and everything to gain, as an immigrant from Italy whose parents hit their jackpot just by making it to the United States safely.

Last year—or maybe I’ve lost count and it was two trophies ago—while on the podium, Breanna Stewart looked like she felt so badly for winning another MVP. She broke down a bit, feeling as though her teammate deserved it more, but the spotlight had been fixed in her direction. I would imagine that if the Huskies sweep this weekend, she’ll go down as the most successful college basketball player ever, which Christian Laettner will have to concede. And I’m sure if she does it, she’ll point to the one person who made his dream the reality for so many inspirational, awesome women.

book cover