Shortly before leaving for the 2012 London Olympics, USA women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma stood with his arms folded at the team’s training facility in Washington, pondering all that had led him there.
He said he was tired of the world travel. He said he felt enormous pressure to win gold so not to let his nation down. And he said this would be it, that he would be one-and-done as Olympic coach. And he said it in a way befitting his oval office status in the game.
“If nominated, I will not run,” Auriemma said. “If elected, I will not serve.”
Until recently, Auriemma steadfastly stuck to that story, dismissing suggestions that he was still USA Basketball’s choice for the job with varying degrees of annoyance.
That was until a few weeks ago, when the persuasive administrative body of USA Basketball finally prevailed upon UConn’s eight-time national champion coach.
Friday at Gampel Pavilion, Auriemma, relaxed and enthused again, will be re-introduced as USA Basketball’s women’s senior national coach. This next term will conclude with the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo, U.S. women’s national team director Carol Callan and USA and WNBA executive Renee Brown will attend.
Auriemma was traveling Thursday and not available for comment. And his current UConn players, a few of whom may eventually play for him in 2016, were advised to withhold comment until the press conference.
“I am not as surprised as I would have been had he accepted the job again right away [after the 2012 Olympics],” said Connecticut Sun coach Anne Donovan, who Auriemma succeeded after winning gold in Beijing in 2008. “He is a little more distanced from things now.But more power to him. He did a great job in London. He’s willing to take it on again and he is more than capable of handling it.
“I don’t know what he was thinking [in the past], but to me it’s similar to what they say about childbirth. As a woman delivers her child, she swears she will never have another one.”
Auriemma, 59, apparently changed his mind in the short weeks leading up to an appearance at Mohegan Sun on Aug. 22 to present Tina Charles and assistant Jen Gillom with their Olympic rings. Callan was there with him to make the presentation. A source told the Courant Thursday that he had already agreed to take the job by then.
Until then, Auriemma continued to be publically adamant in saying he was not interested in returning. When approached with the idea shortly before the start of the UConn women’s basketball season back in November 2012 and his answer was quick and to the point.
“One time is enough,” he said. “It was a great experience.”
And as recently as an appearance at the Traverlers Golf Tournament and his own charity golf event at the Hartford Golf Club, by which time rumors were swirling again that USA Basketball really wanted him, he denied he wanted the job.
But many WNBA coaches considered likely Auriemma successors, Seattle’s Brian Agler, Washington’s Mike Thibault, Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve and Indiana’s Lin Dunn, all told the Courant they heard the job was being held for Auriemma.
The coaches all said USA Basketball wanted to build a women’s program to model the one Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski will run for a third time in the upcoming quadrennial.
Charles, who played for Auriemma at UCon, the 2010 World Championship and 2012 Olympic team, will likely help lead the 2016 team.
“It’s great,” Charles said. “He’s so able to evaluate the game of a player. It’s always an honor to play for him. He’s a great guy. He brought us so many words of wisdom. It was a great time in my life to be a part of that Olympic team.”
Frankly, one thing that may have delayed his decision was his experience coaching the national team wasn’t everything he’d hoped it would be.
Some of his collegial ways and methodologies didn’t universally translate at times with the 12 WNBA players he coached, including six of his former UConn stars – Maya Moore, Charles, Asjha Jones, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Swin Cash.
“It was an adjustment for him and the players,” Gillom said. “Geno realized the mentality for the professional player is totally different. You can’t demand as much from them as you can from a college player. The players needed to adjust to his way; he’s a coach who likes to yell to get his point across. Many players are not receptive to that [as professionals]. And it took a while.”
Once those issues were resolved in Auriemma’s mind, and once the air returned to his lungs, Gillom thinks he was more than happy to come back.
“I think all he needed to do was get away from it for awhile,” said Sun assistant Jen Gillom, who was one of Auriemma’s assistants during his first term. “The closer you are, the more inclined you are to think you want to be away from it all. Then you take a step back and observe. I’ve seen him at some of our [WNBA] games. And he seemed to like it.
“We all know the college game is much different than the pro game is. But now I think he misses [the USA Basketball] experience. And he changed his mind.”
Gillom said the delay in hiring the new coach – Auriemma’s first assignment began in April 2009 – was the best sign possible that USA Basketball was trying to convince him to return.
“He knows the game. He demands a lot from his players,” Gillom said. “And if he doesn’t get that in return, you are not going to play for him. The players know that now. Geno is real and I think the players will understand and respect that. He is who he is. The players know that.”