"Does this look like the office of a fucking egomaniac?" He makes a sweeping gesture with his arm. A coach's office. Small, cluttered. Papers strewn across his desk, the papers inked with symbols in odd patterns, like ancient hieroglyphics, waiting for future generations to decode them. X's and O's, dotted lines, arrows. X bounces a dotted line to another X, who drives past an O in an arrow toward a big circle on a rectangle. The Perfect Play. In his head, anyway. On paper! But not yet perfected by his team. Imperfect human beings. Imperfection, his curse, his cross, his albatross. And Perfection: his goal, but not in this life.
There are photographs on the walls of his various teams since 1985. There are trophies in glass-fronted bookcases, testaments to the fact that his teams have approached Perfection to a degree few or no other sports teams have. Seventy consecutive wins. Ninety consecutive wins. Four undefeated seasons. Three consecutive national championships, four in five years, seven in 15 years.
He reaches down to the floor, produces his prized possession, a basketball signed by all the members of the 1971 New York Knicks, "The greatest team ever," he says. He begins rattling off their names, "Bradley, Monroe, Frazier …" while I look around his office.
Like a good coach, he has peripheral vision. He interrupts himself, says, "Do you see any photographs of me?" I shake my head no. "Egomaniac," he mutters, and goes back to his Knicks. "… Reed, Jackson, DeBussch …"
I keep looking. There are no photos of the coach triumphant, the coach with actors freshly out of rehab, the coach with presidents. The coach has, in fact, met Clinton, Bush, and Obama. ("On the plane to meet Clinton, some of our guys were saying, 'This fucking guy is ruining the country,' and then they met him and they were stuttering," he says. Then he adds, "Any man capable of being elected president is not worthy of the job. You have to compromise who you are to get elected." He shakes his head. "The shit they got to do.")
And then, Aha! I see it! A photograph of the man, very tiny, one of 50 or so photographs arranged on a poster like stamps on an album page. It's an advertisement for Michael Jordan's Flight School, a fantasy basketball camp for executives who can afford to blow 15 g's to rub elbows with and be taught by famous college and NBA coaches. All of the coaches are men, and all but one of them made their bones coaching men.
"I don't coach women," the coach says. "I coach basketball players." He tells a story. He was practicing with his team before a game when the opposing team's female coach came out on the floor. "I'm telling my players how to play man-to-man defense. The other coach says: ‘You can't say that. It's person-to-person defense.' I said, ‘You're shittin' me.' She says, ‘But it's women playing it.' I say: ‘Yeah, but it's man-to-man. They're just pawns, without gender. I'm a gender-neutral coach.'"
There are opened cardboard boxes on the floor, spilling sweatshirts, t-shirts, caps, all embroidered with his team's logo, a dog, a Husky, UConn. He grabs a sweatshirt from a box and thrusts it at my chest like a two-handed pass. I demur. He insists. "Take it! Take it! Here, take this!" He thrusts a glass jar filled with red glop into my chest. Spaghetti sauce. On the label is a black-and-white photograph of his Italian parents, Donato and Marsiella, very Old-World-looking Italians, forte. They came to America 50 years ago, when their son, Luigi, was 7. Till then they lived in Montella, a little mountain village outside Naples, in a cold stone house without electricity, heat, running water. They almost didn't make it into their new country. There were questions about Donato's political inclinations. All those Fascist songs he liked to sing while he worked in his yard. The reverential photos of Il Duce, who saw to it that the garbage was picked up and the trains ran on time throughout Italy. The rest, the unpleasantness, the Italian Jews who were herded into those trains late at night, well, that was just comunista propaganda.
When the family finally did get to the Promised Land neither Donato nor Marsiella could read or write. "My mother never set foot in a school," he says. They never had a credit card or a checking account. Donato had wads of cash stuffed in his pockets, when, each day, he walked to his Italian Social Club in Norristown, Pa., where he would drink espresso with a lemon peel.
It fell to Luigi, a child in short pants with an Italian accent, to go around town with envelopes stuffed with cash, to pay their mortgage at the bank, their food bill at the grocery store, their electric bill at the power company. On those rare occasions when they went out to dinner, he had to read to his parents from the menu and then order for them in English. Little Luigi, who knew he didn't dress right, didn't talk right, didn't eat the right foods. He went to school with his lunch in a brown paper bag, the bag dripping with olive oil from his sausage and pepper grinder that his white-bread classmates drooled over, so he swapped it with them for an exotic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Luigi hated the fact that he was "different." He only wanted to "fit in," to be like everyone else, so he worked hard at it, in high school, college, until finally one day he realized he did "fit in," although he also realized he would never be much like everyone else.
Today, home for Luigi is a big house in the leafy eastern hills of our WASPiest state, Connecticut. He's an American now, with an all-American family: the pretty Italian-Scottish wife, the handsome son, the two beautiful daughters, the Mercedes convertible. He's Geno now, Geno Auriemma, a big-deal basketball coach, the biggest-deal coach, a seven-time Coach of the Year, a Hall of Fame coach, the coach of the USA women's team in the 2012 Olympics, and, not incidentally, for the past 27 years, the coach of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team. He makes $2 million a year and expects a raise to $3 million, which would make him the highest-paid women's coach ever, and one of the highest-paid college basketball coaches, period. "But with the recession," he says, "I'll look like a dick." He shrugs. "Fuck it!"
The University of Connecticut women's basketball team draws more than 10,000 fans for games, not uncommonly outdrawing the men. UConn was the first women's basketball team to be covered daily by The New York Times sports section in the late '90s, and it was the first women's team to count as the core of its fan base not the usual tykes-and-dykes niche audience, but men of a certain age.
Geno Auriemma invented women's basketball as it is played today, or rather he reinvented it so that it resembled men's basketball as it was played in the '60s and '70s. His genius. He took women's basketball back to the future. In the process he took it from a specialty sport—a novelty, an amusement, the girls running down court as if wading through water—and made it respectable. Jim Calhoun, the UConn men's coach, once disparaged women's basketball by calling its fans geriatrics. He wasn't far from the truth. A lot of UConn's women's fans are in their 70s. Men who don't much like the way the men's game is played today, all that dribbling, one-on-one, muscling to the hoop without finesse, a slam dunk, hanging on to the rim, then a chest bump and hopefully a highlight reel on ESPN that night. Seventy-ish men prefer to watch the "girls": passes, cuts, picks, drives to the hoop, a bounce pass, a lay-up off the board, the basketball they once played. The Old World.
Harry Hyra, 74, is one of those men. In high school Harry was all-New England as a shooting-passing point guard. He was a master of the no-look pass and the pull-up fadeaway jumper at the foul line. In the '50s, he was also one of the early white boys who dribbled behind his back and through his legs to elude defenders. After a distinguished college career at Fairfield University, Harry became a high school math teacher and basketball coach. He coached for almost 50 years. He went to all the big name coaches' clinics. At night, he got his pretzels and his Pepsi and got in bed to watch the '70s Knicks on TV. Today Harry doesn't watch much NBA basketball. "Too much muscling," he said. "LeBron's like a butcher. I prefer the women and their finesse."
When I told him I'd interviewed Geno Auriemma, Harry said: "Great coach. I love to watch his team play." They reminded him of the basketball of his youth. "Did you see the Baylor game last year? They were down, maybe nine points, in the closing minutes. I thought for sure they were gonna lose. You could see it in Geno's body language, like he didn't know what to do. His team was beaten. But then his girls did what he'd taught them, not to quit. They reached in themselves and pulled it out?"
Harry's coach in college was my brother George, now 83. It was George who'd insisted I write a story about Geno. I told George over the phone that I wasn't interested in Geno or the girls, but he insisted. "You'd love the way they play," he said. And then my brother, more Italian than I, applied the coup de grace. "You have to do Geno!" he said. "He's an Italian!"
* * *
Five minutes after meeting, our conversation was peppered with expletives from our childhood Italian neighborhoods. Figlio di puttana! Testa di cazzo! Stronzo! Vaffanculo! A local sportswriter told me, "What did you expect? He's surrounded by women! He loves to talk to guys."
It doesn't matter to Geno whether those guys are reporters or not. He pulls no punches, as long as his instinct tells him he can trust them. "I can't be the same asshole with everyone," he says. "Only with those who know me." Geno makes a lot of snap decisions about important issues, both on the court and off, based on his instinct, his mantra. While we're talking, his wife calls with a minor problem. He listens, says, "Well, go with your instinct."
So I ask him about two rival coaches, a man and a woman with whom he's been feuding for years. Of the woman he says, "Aw, come on, why ruin it. We're having fun. I'm not gonna sleep with her." Of the man he says: "He's a fucking dick. He gets people in trouble." I point to my tape recorder on his desk. "Fuck it," he says. "You figure it out." And then, "Go with your instinct." (Later I asked the local sportswriter if he spent all his time protecting Geno from his own uncensored tirades. The sportswriter gave me a small smile and said, "Don't kid yourself. Geno knows what he's saying. He's testing you, to see if he can trust you. Geno never says anything that isn't pretty well thought out to get a certain reaction.")
At 57, Geno is still a handsome man, wavy, sweptback hair, muscular arms, stocky build, maybe 5'9", tough-guy handsome out of Mean Streets, but handsomer than De Niro, tougher-looking, too. He's hot-tempered, emotional. "I'm Italian," Geno says with a toss of his hands. "What can I say?"
What others say is, Geno is an egomaniac—his enemies, mostly, but his friends too. Diana Taurasi, one of Geno's favorite players, described Geno as someone "who isn't very well-liked in the women's game," as a coach who "screams at us … is completely driven … never satisfied … [and] isn't for everyone." She said when other coaches recruit players who are thinking of going to UConn, they say, "You don't want to play for that maniac!"
But the truth is, Geno is an egomaniac, if an egomaniac can be defined as someone deluded enough, certain enough of his own grandeur, of his own infinite possibilities, that he sets as his goal in life the unattainable, Perfection. "It's simple," Shea Ralph, a former player and now a UConn assistant coach, told me. "The problem is that Geno has a vision in his head of the perfect game, and we're supposed to play it. If we're ahead by 30 at the half, he'll tell us how pitiful we are."
Anything other than Perfection for Geno is a profound embarrassment, a loss, even a sloppily played victory, and Geno WILL NOT BE EMBARRASSED, except by his own behavior at times. "At his worst, coach can be irrationally emotional, freaking out on the sidelines," Ralph said. "A lot of times we have practice games against male students, good players. One game, they were kicking our butts. Geno sat in the stands and refused to blow the whistle. We were down 32 points. He said, ‘Practice won't end till you win this game.' We played for hours but couldn't make up any ground. Our players were crawling on their knees. We would have still have been playing if the fire alarm hadn't gone off for a gas leak."
Another time at practice, when his team had no clue what he was trying to teach them, he told them: "I can't take this anymore. I am having a nervous breakdown. … You are watching me have a breakdown," and he crawled underneath the bleachers and sat on the floor with his knees pulled up to his chest. His girls were terrified. One said: "How could we do this to coach? All he wants is for us to be great, and now we've made him have a nervous breakdown."
When I ask Geno if his "breakdown" was a coach's act to motivate his girls, he looks at me and says: "No, it was for real. I was losing it."
Geno, In Pursuit of Perfection was the title of the book he wrote, or dictated to his ghostwriter, a Boston newspaper writer. He meant perfection in basketball, not in literary achievement. It's sloppy, repetitive, disorganized, and boring mostly, except for an occasional Genoism: a funny story about the time he got into a screaming match in a crowded restaurant with the mother of a player he was trying to recruit. ("It was even worse than in the book," he says.)
He asks me what I thought of the book. "Whatever they paid you for it was too much," I say.
He nods. "I know," he says. (For the record, it was peanuts, 30 or 40 thousand.) He admits it was a vanity project. As a big-deal coach, he had to have his own book. Another publisher has approached him to write a how-to book, Geno's Rules for Success in Business, Sports, and Life. Geno's idol as a coach is the late John Wooden. Wooden was always considered the Great Man of college basketball, by others and by himself, so he wrote a successful How-to-be-Great-by-the-Great-Man book years ago. Hence, Geno's books.
But in sports, Geno hasn't been accorded Wooden's stature, despite his parallel success. Which makes him feel he's been unfairly underappreciated as a coach because he made his bones coaching "girls." He's right. Geno Auriemma is a truly significant college coach, and he hasn't been accorded his proper respect, a very important word among Italians. So Geno feels he has no choice but to trumpet his accomplishments himself, with quickie vanity books.
But the problem with Geno's Perfection book is that he comes off worse in it than he does in person. The author of the book is egotistical, dictatorial, self-righteous, pompous, solipsistic, and sometimes just downright cruel. He sees everything through a mirror reflecting himself. When a female UConn student reporter at a news conference asked Geno a question that he didn't like, he writes about how he berated her in front of veteran reporters. He said: "[T]hat really pisses me off. You're too young to ask those kinds of questions."
When Geno met George Bush in the White House, he saw in the president's face how much pressure he was under over Iraq and Afghanistan. So he gave him a pep talk. "Just hang in there, man," he told him. And: "The dogs will bark but the caravan moves on." The president thanked him for his encouragement, but alas, the world did not change.
When his assistant coach's father died, during a UConn winning streak, Geno writes about how much pain it caused him: "I can't lift my head, I'm in agony." So he checked himself into a hospital for a CAT scan which revealed that he had a …. headache. But still: "It is scary." His assistant, whose father had died, thus becomes a footnote in Geno's testimony about his own empathy.
When Taurasi left UConn without her degree to play in the WNBA, he banned her from the campus until she got her degree. He harassed another player, point guard Sue Bird, a cool, controlled customer, until finally she broke down and cried. "I'm ecstatic," he wrote. "My players pay for the scars of my past." He justifies his behavior, writing, "I only pick on people I care about."
What happens when people pick on him, when reporters write things about him that he doesn't like? He told me, "If they don't behave I cut them out. [In this way] I can control the local press."
* * *
The following morning I return to Geno's office to take him to lunch. His assistant, Sarah Darras, says to me, "You guys had fun yesterday, huh?" I look at her. She grins, "I heard you."
Geno drives me around the campus in his 10-year-old Mercedes, a two-seat convertible with the top down on a sunny day in late May. "40,000 miles," he says. "Mint. Wanna buy it?"
"Why don't ya just give it to me," I say.
He nods. "Yeah. Here, take it, it's yours." I'm not even sure if he's kidding.
The campus is mostly deserted except for a few parents ushering their high-school-aged kids around, pointing at the buildings, Gampel Pavilion, the basketball arena. Geno and I lounge in our seats, our faces to the sun, getting a little color, as if we needed it, two guineas, cruising, looking for a drive-in with waitresses on roller skates.
Geno is telling me about his father, how he was never close to him, not even when he died a few years ago. "He didn't get me," Geno says. "Women's basketball coach? What kinda job is that for an Italian son? I shoulda been president. I'm Catholic, Italian, part-Jewish. How much guilt can you have?"
His mother, now, was a different story. "She raised me," he says. "All that so-called macho father shit, well, in an Italian family the husband doesn't do shit without checking with his wife. It came from World War II, when there were no men around. That's how I got to see women as being tough. My vision as a coach is not about girls who can't do stuff. They're tough, they can do anything."
Like most immigrants, Geno's family was conflicted. They wanted to retain their Italian culture but also assimilate into American culture. When it came time for Geno to go to the Italian school in his neighborhood, his mother said: "I didn't bring you to American to go to an Italian school. You go to an American school like everyone else." It was there that Geno began to assimilate the way most immigrant boys did, through sports. His first love was baseball. "In the spring," he says, "I'd smell the grass," he takes a deep breath, "and I'd think, baseball." His first hero was the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, who had a reputation for throwing fastballs at the heads of batters who displeased him in some small way. Geno recalls Cards catcher Tim McCarver warning a rookie about digging in at the plate, "Kid, you're digging your own fucking grave." Geno laughs. "Toughness like that doesn't exist anymore. Now, batters wear a suit of armor at the plate."
Geno points out the different buildings on the campus, nestled in the hills. In the late 1800s, UConn was founded as an agricultural school for young men. For years, in the 20th century, UConn was the school of last resort for great athletes. It was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farms, with horrible New England weather descending in the winter and spring. It wasn't until the latter part of the 20th century that UConn began making a name for itself in basketball, beginning when Geno and Jim Calhoun came on the scene. By the time they both won men's and women's NCAA championships in the same year, 2004, UConn had become one of the elite basketball powers in the country.
Geno became a women's coach by accident. He was 21, without a job. A friend asked him to help out coaching a girls' high school team. Geno said, "Girls! No way." Then he thought about it. "I realized it could be pretty cool," he tells me. "So I gave it a shot. The girls listened to me. They appreciated what I taught them." His high school job led to an assistant coaching job on the University of Virginia's women's team, which led, in 1985, to an interview for the head job at UConn. By then, Geno had decided that he "liked coaching women. But I didn't view it as coaching women. I was just coaching the game the way it should be played.
When I ask him why UConn hired him, he says: "I have no fucking idea. They wanted a woman. But nobody wanted the job. UConn had had only one winning season in its history. The facilities were lousy, there was no money, the pay was $29,000 a year, but I didn't give a shit. I wanted to coach. So I lied to them. I told them I'm gonna do this, and this, and this, and they believed me. So I took the job. I figured I'd win a few games then after four years I'd go someplace good, men or women, as long as I could coach on a high level." Those plans never materialized. His teams became very good, very quickly, and then, as he puts it, "a funny thing happened. After those first winning seasons, nobody called. Nobody gave a shit because I was a guy. The women's teams didn't want a guy, and the men's teams figured if I was coaching women, how good could I be?"
He smiles, the big smile of a guy who's got the last laugh. "Now nobody wants me because I'm making too much fucking money."
The male coach in the woman's game is like an immigrant in a new country, where different codes apply and mistrust comes easily. "Reverse sexism," Geno calls it, "like I'm trying to break into the old girls' network. There is a perception that men are trying to steal their game."
In 1985, the year Geno took over at UConn, the situation looked hopeless. He faced three seemingly insurmountable problems. One, he was a man coaching women at a time when there were few men's coaches in women's basketball, and he was doing it with an intensity that made his own players call him a maniac. Geno says, "They didn't get me at first. Some of them never got me." More than a few of his players complained to the athletic director, and some of them quit the team. Geno shrugs. "Fuck it. I wasn't gonna change."
His second problem was that the players he inherited in those years weren't very talented. White girls from the Connecticut suburbs, New Canaan, Greenwich, Westport, Fairfield, used to playing a nice, structured, white girls' suburban game. Pitty pat, excuse me, did I foul you, oh, I'm sooo sorry. Black girls at the time didn't want to go to UConn. Inner-city girls felt they wouldn't be comfortable playing at a predominately white school in the middle of cow country in WASPy Connecticut with a bunch of white suburban chicks and an Italian male coach. Thus his third problem: recruiting. How did he convince the best inner-city girls to spend four years in the sticks?
Geno couldn't do much about his first problem. He was a man, after all, and even worse, he was Geno. So he went to work on his second problem, turning mediocre players into a great team. His best player in those early years he describes as being "slow, she can't run and she can't jump," but she was also "very bright and a very good team player."
He had already arrived at UConn with his own theories on how to make a good team out of mediocre talent. "I coached fundamentals," he says. "Footwork, dribbling, passing, catching the ball, cutting to the basket, boxing out, shooting off a dribble. We'd have two solid hours of fundamentals without shooting the ball."
The result was a style of play more reminiscent of old-timey men's basketball from the '60s and the '70s. A game of perpetual movement, a lot of passing and not much dribbling, because, by necessity, the game was played below the rim. And no matter how physically talented women players would become, Geno knew that their game would always be played below the rim.
"When done right," he says, "my guys move the ball so fast other teams can't catch up. The key is to move without the ball, be unselfish. Like a choreographed dance. It's beautiful to watch. The creative movement of five people, flowing, like a musician creating rhythm with his music. In an ideal world, this is what basketball is all about, movement that can't be scouted by the opposition. It's a style with no description," a style so fluid and fast that X's and O's become irrelevant. Opposing teams can't anticipate what move will lead to another because all the movements are part of a whole, not distinct pieces, and as such, they can't be broken down, analyzed, anticipated, and defended against. "People really like watching it," Geno says, "because it's cool, but they can't describe it."
The problem with such an offense is that it's based on a basketball player's instinct, not training or thought. Each movement is a reaction to the previous movement that comes from somewhere deep inside each player's acquired basketball experience. But women players don't always have the depth of men players' basketball intuition.
"Girls don't learn how to play basketball the way guys do," says Geno. "Guys learn in an empty gym in 3-on-3 games. There's 20 other guys waiting to play if you lose, so you've got to learn to read the floor, see things, and react or else you lose and sit down for an hour. That's hard to teach, and that's basically what I'm teaching my 'guys,' how to be instinctive players. From early on, girls learn basketball on organized teams, not in pick-up, three-man games. They want to be told by me what to do. I want them to know what to do on their own. I don't want to be too much the Padrone so they're always looking to the sidelines for me to tell them something. I tell them, ‘Yo, dude, Christ, you figure it out.'"
Geno runs his practices with the same improvisational mentality that he wants his "guys" to have in games. He says: "I'm a seat-of-the-pants guy who goes on his instinct. Some coaches are so fucking organized in practice. Everything is by the clock. '3;12 we do this. 3:38 we do this. Eight minutes to practice this. Six minutes to practice this.' What if no one gets it in eight minutes? You gonna go on to the next thing?"
Shea Ralph told me that "Geno coaches a style of play not seen much today. We have options for all our plays. He wants us to think on the fly like he does. But his real genius is his sense of people. He knows what motivates each one, what people can and can't do. When I played for him, he made me feel I had it in me to be better. If he left me alone it would've meant I was playing my best. I never thought I was capable of doing the things I did here."
When UConn won the NCAA title in 2000, Shea Ralph was named MVP of the Final Four. Lately, Geno has been pressuring Ralph as a coach. He'll tell her he wants their guards to be able to do this and that in six weeks and then leave it to her to figure out how to get them to do it. "I'll go by her office," he says, "and I'll see six videos on her desk. That's how she's gonna be smarter than the average bear when she becomes a head coach."
* * *
We're driving along route 95, a two lane blacktop, past old colonial houses, some restored, some ramshackle. Geno turns right, up a hill. I ask him why so many short Italian men are such great basketball coaches. The list is endless: Pitino, Izzo, Calipari, Fratello, Carnesecca, Massimo, Valvano, Carlisimo, Carnevale. Auriemma. He says: "We're good with people. Italians are very giving. When I'm recruiting a kid in her kitchen, they can see my emotions come out." As we crest the hill, I see to my right a huge barn and a pasture dotted with cows. UConn is cow country, once famous for its animal-husbandry degrees. Other rival coaches would try to steal his black recruits by telling them they didn't want to play in the sticks with a bunch of white chicks. But Geno used that to his advantage. He faced it head on.
"Back in the day," he says, "there was no culture of inclusiveness at UConn for inner-city blacks. The perception was there was nothing here for them. But we explained that because it's isolated, the girls here form a closer-knit community."
One of his recent recruits, Asjha Jones, from New Jersey, told Geno she had promised to visit one more college before she made her choice. Geno told her: "Why bother? You won't go there." She visited the school and called to tell him how great it was. He said, "So, why aren't you going there?" She laughed and said, "Because they tried to impress me and you didn't." Ohio State flew in one recruit on a private jet, according to Geno's book. Geno sent that same recruit a paper airplane. The University of Florida once met a recruit with a caravan of navy SUVs that whisked her away to a fancy restaurant that had already named a steak dinner after her. Pat Summitt, the coach at Tennessee, took one recruit to her home where all her players wore t-shirts with that recruit's baby picture on the front. At the team's arena that night, an indoor blimp flew over and dropped a Tennessee letter of intent at the girl's feet.
Summitt, the godmother of NCAA women's basketball—who is coaching this season after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia—is the only coach who has won more major college games than Geno, and more NCAA titles, eight to his seven. From the late '90s until 2007, they had one of the great rivalries in sports. Then Summitt canceled their series over what she claimed were Geno's shady recruiting tactics, and, after when the NCAA refused to bring down the hammer, the rivalry turned so rancorous that neither will talk about the other. Geno will only say, "It's just a question of very different personality types." Introvert and extrovert, immigrant Yankee and Southerner, ironist and literalist. Neither of them gets the other. If Summitt were a high school recruit today, Geno probably wouldn't want her on his team, and she definitely wouldn't want to play for him.