Let’s talk about the power of perfection. The University of Connecticut Huskies just won the NCAA women’s basketball title, capping a season where they went 39-0. No men’s team has finished a season undefeated since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Led by Wooden Award-winner Maya Moore, Final Four Most Outstanding Player Tina Charles and senior guard Renee Montgomery, they trounced Louisville 76-54.
This team was more than unbeaten. They won every game by double digits. After the game, that fact was repeated over and over by their coach, the unabashedly arrogant Geno Auriemma. Auriemma has won six NCAA championships since 1995. What’s more impressive, even shocking, is that since he became head coach in 1985 the team has graduated 100 percent of its players. After his latest triumph he was still making eardrums bleed, braying, “At Connecticut, there is no next time, there’s only this time, there’s only this time. Every single game was won by double digits. That’s never been done before in the history of college basketball, men’s or women’s.” He’s earned the right to brag, but his tactics of criticizing his players and setting up power dynamics where they feel like they have to please their demanding coach has raised eyebrows since he dragged the UConn program to national prominence. In the past, his caustic, scowling, megalomaniacal style has earned tremendous praise. Aditi Kinkhabwala of Sports Illustrated summed up the conventional wisdom last year in an article subtitled “Auriemma is brash, but he’s good for women’s hoops.”
Kinkhabwala wrote that “the goading, the gamesmanship, the guarantees to grab headlines in a game that doesn’t get nearly enough are all fabulous. The media laps it up, and the true genius of it all is that it’s real.”
It’s real, all right. But now that he has a team even grander than his ego, Auriemma should–for the good of his players and the women’s game–take a step back and cede the spotlight. This should be a moment to praise a team that for my money is the best NCAA women’s team ever and in the conversation as the most dominant college team, men’s or women’s in history. The fact that their exploits haven’t received more attention is just another instance of the way women’s sports get the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Auriemma isn’t helping.
There was a prime example of this right before the Huskies Final Four matchup with Stanford. At a packed press conference, Coach Geno “stood up” for Stanford, saying:
I know this is going to get played out the wrong way, but I’m going to say it anyway, and I know I’m going to get criticized for this: white kids are always looked upon as being soft. So Stanford’s got a tremendous amount of really good players who, for whatever reason, because they don’t look like Tina Charles or Maya Moore [who both are black] the perception out there is going to be, “Well, they must be soft.” Well, I think that’s a bunch of bull. I watched them play, and nobody goes harder to the boards. Nobody takes more charges. Nobody runs the floor as hard. Those kids are as tough as any of the kids in the country. But people in the sports world like to make judgments on people by how they look. And it’s grossly unfair.
The statement was bizarre but it was also pure Auriemma. First it made no sense. No one had made any such statement about Stanford. Also, if there is a tired stereotype about white players, from baseball’s David Eckstein to basketball’s Kevin Love to football’s Wes Welker, it’s that they are “scrappy, hard-nosed” and “would go through a wall to win.” Every sportswriter knows this, which is why the reaction of the press corps was that Auriemma’s statements were more quizzical than controversial. He ended his rant by saying, “So those West Coast people–you know what, the West Coast in general has a reputation of being soft. But that’s to the East Coast people.” So he decries stereotypes by issuing another stereotype? This was another case of “Geno being Geno.” The 55-year-old coach needs to be careful, or the proud rugged individualist will be labeled senile as the years pass.
Tina Charles in the past has defended these tactics by saying, “the pressure’s off us and on him.” Whether Auriemma was trying to take the pressure off his team or just has no internal censor, this moment should be about giving all the credit in the world to the team, not him. Playing for the mercurial, temperamental, volcanic coach isn’t something I would wish on any woman’s player not named Sarah Palin. As Diane Pucin wrote, “There’s only a handful of players in the country talented enough both mentally and physically to handle Auriemma and somehow he finds them all.”
But even with Auriemma’s overpowering ego, his program has over the years created real stars: Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash, Sue Bird and Nykesha Sales. This year it was remarkable Maya Moore. Blake Griffin, the men’s AP Player of the Year, was asked if Maya Moore was the Blake Griffin of the women’s game, and he said, “More like the Lebron James.” That’s respect.
But even more respect would be if Auriemma turned down his volume and the sports world took notice of history being writ large on the hardwood. Gender should be irrelevant when we reckon with perfection. But perhaps we should accentuate it even more and recognize that the Huskies right now are as good as it gets.