On his way back to New York from dropping one of his children back at college last week, Harvey Araton of the New York Times stopped by Gampel Pavilion to say hello to Geno Auriemma.
Here is the fruit of Harvey’s labor, an interesting Q&A that appeared in the Times.
Q. What effect has Summitt’s retirement had on the sport?
A. As with all coaches who have been synonymous with their programs, when they stop coaching, that program may still be competing for national championships, but they’re not going to have the same feel, the same aura. I think they hired a great young coach, think Holly is going to do great, but for a long period of time it’s not going to be who they were.
Q. It’s no secret that your relationship with Summitt was strained in recent years and that she wouldn’t play UConn. Have you spoken with her since her diagnosis?
A. One time, briefly, at the Final Four. Other than that, we both know a person in our Big East office, so we kind of communicate through those means. Because, really, what can you say in that situation?
Q. How has Connecticut and Tennessee’s not playing during the regular season impacted the sport?
A. Good and bad. It did get to the point where it seemed that was all anybody cared about. And while it was unfortunate with us and Tennessee, what’s happened with Notre Dame might not have happened, with Baylor, with Stanford, new rivalries.
Q. Your top conference rivals – Rutgers, Notre Dame and Louisville – are leaving, and Connecticut’s status is at best unknown. Are you concerned?
A. As much as you like to think that we’re above it all, that we’re at a certain perch that we can look down and say it doesn’t affect us, it affects us tremendously. Are we destined to have to go through what we did in the mid-1990s, when it was called UConn and the Big Least? What happens next, does anyone know? The approach that I want to take, whatever conference we’re in, we’ve done it once, so let’s see if we can do it again, lift others up by virtue of our brand.
Q. Has all this uncertainty made you think this might be time for the change you have wondered about in the past?
A. So many times where you see someone who’s built a program, where you say he can stay there the rest of his life, and he goes, “No, I’ve got to give this a shot.” But at what age do you say, “You know what, I’m not going to do that anymore, consider the next level?” So let’s say I was 48, and I’ve won seven championships, won the Olympics. I think I’d be antsy. But as you get older, you start to say, “I don’t know where I can find it this good.”
Q. Speaking of the gold medal, six of your players were from Connecticut. Did you ever feel defensive about that?
A. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi were the starting backcourt before I even got the job from the other Olympics. Tina Charles was on her way to becoming the M.V.P. of the W.N.B.A. Maya Moore was on the world championship team, and Asjha Jones and Swin Cash had established themselves as great W.N.B.A. players. We ended up starting four UConn players, but I actually took pains to make sure that we never had five on the floor at the same time. I was like, “That’s not going to look good, even if we win.”
Q. Was there a psychological adjustment to make returning to the college game after coaching such great players all summer?
A. If you are Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard and you are directing Tom Hanks or Robert De Niro, you have a vision and they make it happen. Now you get somebody who maybe isn’t as good, and your vision doesn’t happen. And coming back, all the things that I envisioned my college team being able to do actually happened at the Olympics. Now you bring that back, and after a little while you look around and you go, “Oh, boy, it’s not happening,” and you really have to fight really, really hard to not get frustrated and lower your expectations. But at the same time you know you can’t have the same expectations. It’s a fine line, and it’s not easy.
Q. Although this season’s team can’t go undefeated, might it still achieve greatness?
A. It’s really, really possible, but our young guys have to play great and our upperclassmen can’t have bad games. Whereas when we had Maya Moore or Tina Charles, if a couple of our other players didn’t play well, it was like, “Don’t worry, she’s going to get 30.” Think about it. In a nine-year period, six players came through here that were good enough to play on the Olympic team. That’s the big change in women’s basketball: a lot more good teams than there were 10 years ago but not as many great teams.
Q. The price of progress?
A. Yeah, kids are not going to say, “I want to go to Connecticut and wait two years before I play 30 minutes every night.” That’s been the recruiting thing against us, and for a lot of kids that’s the best approach to take.