January 14, 2024
In light of Nick Saban retiring, how close are we to a sport without Geno Auriemma?
And what will it mean when the greatest coach in women's basketball history finally steps away?
QUEENS, N.Y. — In the words of Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to the Geno Auriemma era. Or something to that effect.
Alabama football head coach Nick Saban retired this week, news that readers here might be reading for the first time. For those who may be unfamiliar with the significance, Saban is without a doubt the greatest college football coach of all time, a man who won more championships (one at LSU in 2003, six at Alabama, all from 2009-2020) than anyone else and in an era when winning was harder than ever, who both shaped and was reshaped by a radically changing landscape. And since this was announced, I have been thinking about what it will mean when Auriemma one day follows suit.
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When Auriemma does eventually leave the sport, it will probably look a lot like how Saban just left: no warning, no reporters leaking the news ahead of time, a university communications office caught completely off-guard, just a man going through the day as normal until he tells everyone that it’s over. It will probably be a bit easier to anticipate, though, even without any official warning.
“That’s the reason why most of us got into this job: We enjoyed the relationships that we would build with our players for four years,” Auriemma said after yesterday’s win over St. John’s, a program that has both added from and lost to the transfer portal over the past few seasons. “Well now you have kids that are at four schools in four years. What relationship have they built with their coaching staff, or with their teammates? … It’s unfortunate, because at a school like St. John’s, maybe you got a player that’s really, really, really, really good and you coach the hell out of them and you just made them like who they are and that kid goes, ‘Yeah, well, I think I can make more money somewhere else.’ … It just becomes a transaction.”
Auriemma has said many times how important his relationships with Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd in particular have been in maintaining his passion for coaching. And, at least for the near future, there are more players going to Storrs to build that kind of relationship. As he told CT Insider’s Mike Anthony this week, “Do you really want to leave that kid? And there’s always another kid and another kid after that.” He added more thoughts in that vein on Saturday.
“I’m somewhat fortunate, where I am,” Auriemma said. “There aren’t a whole lot of high-level players coming to play Connecticut going ‘I’m leaving for a better opportunity,’ right? So I’m kind of fortunate in that regard. We have pretty strong relationships with our best players; they didn’t come here for the money, they didn’t come here for the other stuff. So not only do they make more money than the average bear, but they understand they can [do that while building these relationships].”
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Eventually that will not be true, at least not in the same way that it is today. There may someday be enough money to undermine more of those relationships, something which we are already seeing hints of here and there. There may someday be conference realignment that again forces the Big East to undergo a radical transformation, losing enough members or status to fundamentally affect UConn in a way 2011-12 did not.
Regardless, someday Auriemma will not be on the Huskies’ sideline, and neither will Chris Dailey. Both are widely expected to retire at the same time, whenever that may be, and current SEC Coach of the Year candidate Shea Ralph is viewed as the Auriemma Successor in Waiting. But he has expressed his disinterest in following the Mike Krzyzewski model of
strong-arming hand-picking his successor, and so much as with Saban’s departure, the process of finding UConn’s next coach could completely upend the sport.1
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Women’s basketball will have been a smarter space for Auriemma coaching in it. No collegiate program has played a truly pro-style system as much as he has for nearly as long as he has; there is a reason that general managers around the WNBA view UConn products as generally possessing exceptionally strong makeup and knowledge of the game.
Women’s basketball will have been a more varied and interesting space for Auriemma coaching in it. When the Huskies’ famed 1998 recruiting class2 came to Storrs, every great team was running some variant of the same system: “pass the ball around the horn until it can be entered into the post” — what Kim Mulkey ran her entire run at Baylor, essentially. There were exceptions when a Cheryl Miller or Chamique Holdsclaw showed up, but what Auriemma did with Sue Bird and co. was a complete upending of that. While programs like Tennessee kept running the same system, Diana Taurasi led a Husky offense that featured more off-ball movement and 3-point spot-up shooting than most offenses did a decade later.
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Women’s basketball will have been a more competitive space for Auriemma coaching in it. His embracing guard play in the early aughts created more pathways for both players to succeed and for programs to succeed; it’s hard to see the (re)emergence of programs like Maryland under Brenda Freese and Duke without that.
Women’s basketball will have been a pettier space for Auriemma coaching in it. He has fostered rivalries through the media (to put it gently), talks to his players indirectly through press conferences in a way quite distinct from Saban or Dawn Staley, and permanently deactivated his Twitter account after subtweeting Arike Ogunbowale during her recruitment process — not even the last time he had some pettiness for a Notre Dame commit.
It is tough to imagine any coach besides Auriemma ever going out of his way to make sure he is quoted as saying “I mean, I am a sarcastic prick,” or “I’m too much of a smartass.” That is what it will mean when Auriemma one day retires: a much less entertaining sport.
UConn WBB Weekly’s Daniel Connolly contributed reporting to this story.
- Saban’s replacement is Kalen DeBoer, who this season took Washington to the championship game. Washington, in turn, has become an incredibly attractive job, one that could pull someone like Kansas State’s Chris Klieman or Dave Clawson from Wake Forest (according to ESPN), which would then create another Power Four opening.
- Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams-Jeter