The selection of Geno Auriemma to a second term as coach of USA Basketball’s women’s national team is the latest historic item on the Hall of Famer’s resume.
The coach of eight national champions at UConn is the first in the sport’s history to be invited to return to its most pressure-filled job.
“It’s nice that he would sacrifice his golf game for the good of the country,” Diana Taurasi joked.
While Auriemma’s return has been generally hailed, it represents somewhat of a surprise to some and a disappointment to others who aspired to replace him.
“I don’t know what he may have been thinking, but I imagine it’s a lot like what they say about childbirth,” said Connecticut Sun coach Anne Donovan, whom Auriemma replaced in 2009 after the USA won gold in Beijing. “As you are delivering the child, some women say they are never going to have another one.
“For me, I was really happy to just have had the experience. You have the gold medal and then you move on.”
Still, the job and all of its inherent pressures, was something many women’s basketball coaches covet. And college coaches such Baylor’s Kim Mulkey and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and WNBA coaches Mike Thibault, Brian Agler, Cheryl Reeve, Dan Hughes and Lin Dunn, among others, all possessed the credentials to assume they would be candidates.
The problem was, Jerry Colangelo, chairman of USA Basketball, and Carol Callan, the manager of the women’s program, had decided from the start they wanted to replicate a environment of continuity similar to what exists on the men’s side. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is serving his third straight term.
“We find success when we have our players repeat, and as our committee started to talk about this choice of a coach moving forward, we felt continuity was important, and when we asked Geno to do this again and he agreed, we were thrilled,” Callan said.
“The men obviously have found great success with Coach K, so I think when you’re looking at what’s best for USA Basketball and what you need to do to continue to win gold medals, we felt this was what we needed to do, to have Geno do this again, represent us again as the coach, and work with our players.”
Thibault, coach and GM of the Washington Mystics, was Donovan’s assistant for the 2006 World Championship and 2008 Olympic team. He considers Auriemma a friend and is happy for him. During his 10 years as Connecticut Sun coach, Thibault often talked to Auriemma about the game and its players.
But while Thibault understands Auriemma’s appointment, and the philosophy that laid the ground work, he says he is somewhat disappointed that another coach wasn’t given the chance to lead the national team.
Thibault pointed out that Auriemma was the fifth different coach to lead the United States to gold in 2012, joining Anne Donovan (2008), Van Chancellor (2004), Nell Fortner (2000) and VanDerveer (1996). And he felt a sixth would have been able to do the same thing.
“It doesn’t appear that other people are going to get opportunities on a regular basis,” Thibault said. “I understand why we got to this point, because the men were struggling and keeping Coach K for a number of Olympics brought consistency to the program. I get that. It’s just hard for me to think other people lilely aren’t going to get the chance to do something like that.”
Colangelo, the former general manager and owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, whose son Bryan is the former president of the Toronto Raptors, is one of basketball’s most respected administrators. He said his major goal after coming to USA Basketball in 2005 was to build programs that would be able to build upon themselves.
“We have a structure now, we have a program,” Colangelo said. “Coach K has done a tremendous job [with the men]. And I feel the same way about Geno. … The dominance of the women in the world of basketball has been incredible, so there is a little bit of pressure to maintain it. You need the personality who is ready for that kind of fight. He represents that.”
And USA Basketball was intent to get Auriemma to change his mind about returning, a fact the other candidates began to realize as the summer passed with news of a replacement.
“If it [the first term] would have been a really bad experience, I wouldn’t want to do it again. But I really had a great time,” Auriemma said. “I really enjoyed the whole four-year experience. And in the end, when it was presented to me the way it was presented, I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, you know, it is something that I really want to do.’
“I could tell myself all along, ‘no, no, no,’ but when I did really sit down and think about it and was forced to make a decision, it’s something I wanted to do and something that I just felt like I want to do it. That’s the best answer I can give you.”