Like Bill Belichick, prickly fellow New England coaching legend Geno Auriemma has long been a guy people love to hate. Some of it has to do with jealousy. It’s an American tradition to grow weary of coaches whose teams always win. And Auriemma’s University of Connecticut women’s basketball teams have done so in even more impressive fashion than his Patriots counterpart.
Part of the dislike also has to do with Auriemma’s personality. There have been times when he’s downright Belichickian—caustic, arrogant and a poor sport—though he seems to have mellowed a bit and become a tad more gracious in recent years.
Regardless of how you feel about him, there’s no denying the guy can flat-out coach. In fact, UConn’s 100th consecutive victory Monday night is yet another argument why Auriemma isn’t just one of the best basketball coaches of all time, but also one of the best coaches. Period. In any sport. Men’s or women’s. He has 980 victories, surpassed by just four major college coaches (three, if you believe in the silliness of the NCAA’s vacation of 101 of Jim Boeheim’s wins). His .880 winning percentage is the best ever at any level, and he also owns a record 11 national titles.
A fifth consecutive championship is a distinct possibility this April, and, if that happens, it might be his sweetest net-cutting of all because this was the year pundits were saying “you can’t” to UConn. Even Auriemma had lowered expectations heading into the season, after losing the three best players in the country to graduation. When the Huskies were ranked No. 3 in the preseason polls, their coach believed that rating was way too high. But a less-talented team has been no less successful. Connecticut’s 25-0 record includes victories against eight teams that have been ranked in the Top 25. The players come and go, but the beatings go on, with the one constant being Auriemma.
An Italian immigrant, Luigi Geno Auriemma came to this country when he was 7 years old and quickly fell in love with basketball. After graduating from West Chester University of Pennsylvania in 1972, he began his college coaching career as an assistant at nearby St. Joe’s. Following a few years there, a few years as a boys’ high school coach and a few years as a University of Virginia women’s basketball assistant, he landed the UConn head coaching job in 1985. It was not exactly a plumb assignment. Auriemma inherited a program that hadn’t won 100 games total in its history and had recorded just one winning season. They had a losing season his first year—and haven’t had one since.
Some people argue that UConn’s dominance is a bad thing for women’s basketball. I disagree. Yes, it can become monotonous to watch one team reign the way the Huskies have. But their current streak has called even greater attention to the women’s game, and is elevating the play of other programs. Eventually opponents will close the gap and we’ll see the parity we see in the men’s game.
Interestingly, the streak could have been even more phenomenal than it’s been. Had the Huskies not dropped an overtime game to Stanford in November 2014, they’d be shooting for win No. 149 in a row Saturday.
As it stands, they hold the NCAA record, but not the women’s college basketball record for most consecutive victories. That belongs to the Wayland Baptist team that won 131 straight from 1953 to 1958 when women’s collegiate sports were governed by the AAU.
That record’s probably safe. Then, again…
On the same night the Huskies reached another milestone, the Syracuse University men’s basketball team lost a tough one in overtime to Louisville in the Carrier Dome. If they had won that game, the Orange men probably would have secured an NCAA tournament bid because it would have marked their third victory against a Top 10 team and secured a .500 record in the nation’s toughest basketball conference.
They have four regular-season games remaining—a home-and-home with Georgia Tech, a home game vs. Duke and a road game with Louisville. If they beat either Duke or Louisville and split with Tech, they’re probably in. If they lose to Duke and Louisville and sweep Tech, they’ll probably have to win at least one game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, and perhaps two. If they go 1-3 or 0-4 down the stretch, they’ll probably need to win at least two games in the conference tourney.
Jordan Spieth’s win Sunday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am made him the youngest golfer since Tiger Woods to win nine PGA tour events. Spieth was 23 years, six months old—one month older than Woods when he notched his ninth back in 1999. But any comparison of Spieth, or any other young golfer for that matter, to the phenom that was Woods is utterly ridiculous. Consider this: Woods had 28 tour victories in his first 100 events, 18 more than Spieth had in his first 100.
Unfortunately, O.J. Simpson is back in the news. The superb documentary about him—“O.J.: Made In America”—is deservedly up for an Academy Award, and the Juice is eligible for parole sometime this summer. Simpson, who turns 70 in July, reportedly has been a model citizen in prison, but that doesn’t guarantee his release. Sports Illustrated put his chances at 50-50. And even if he is paroled, he’ll never truly be free, nor does he deserve to be, after what he did in 1994.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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