Geno Auriemma and Barack Obama, the President of the United States, renewed acquaintances Wednesday in the East Room of the White House. And you would have thought they were fraternity brothers.
Nope, this was nothing like a lunch with Speaker of the House John Boehner.
“I see this guy too much,” said President Barack Obama upon greeting the UConn women’s basketball coach Wednesday at the East Room of the White House. “You know, there are a lot of presidents who don’t last eight years in the White House. He’s spent more time here than some presidents do.”
Winning eight national titles has turned the White House into a summer timeshare for the UConn women’s basketball program. Some years they visit, some years they don’t, just like most American families.
“And the reason we are here is all because of basketball,” said UConn junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. “If not the national championship we wouldn’t be meeting the president. It’s not an opportunity that everyone gets and had it because of basketball. It’s been quite an experience already.”
For UConn, its last visit was in 2010.
“I missed you guys,” Obama said.
What’s clear is the winning culture that’s evolved since Auriemma began coaching at UConn in 1985 has made these trips both comfortable and familiar. When the names Auriemma and Wooden are used in the same sentence, and they are so frequently these days, you have a feeling there will always be an open invitation to visit.
“This never gets old,” Auriemma said. “We’re glad to be back. This is familiar territory for us. You never get tired of it, that’s for sure.”
After being greeted by Obama, the Huskies presented him with an autographed game ball commemorating their season and national championship. They also gave him a UConn jacket, repaying him for a ball former UConn guard Renee Montgomery inadvertently took after the 2009 visit.
“They created one of the most outstanding sports dynasties of our time,” Obama said. “But they are also outstanding young women.”
Many state dignitaries attended the 20-minute session, including George Jepsen, the Connecticut attorney general, and Democratic congressman Joe Courtney.
UConn president Susan Herbst stood on the podium with the team, as did athletic director Warde Manuel and Larry McHugh, the chairman of UConn’s Board of Trustees.
Also in the audience was Auriemma’s mother, making her first trip to the White House.
“Probably the most important person here,” said Obama. “She gorgeous I can see that’s where [Auriemma] got his head of hair.”
Led by precocious freshman Breanna Stewart, UConn won its record-tying eighth national championship in New Orleans in April.
Just back from Lithuania with UConn teammates Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, Stewart helped lead the U.S. to a U19 world championship last weekend. Earlier in the summer, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Bria Hartley played for USA Basketball championship World University Games team.
“It’s been a long journey for all of them since last September,” Aureiemma said. “This kind of wraps it up. This is the end.”
This was the third time Obama has welcomed a UConn champion since 2009. Bill Clinton greeted the Huskies first two title teams in 1995 and 2000. George W. Bush welcomed three straight champions from 2002-04.
“And it was funny to see President Bush butcher Coach [Geno Auriemma’s] name every year as well,” said former UConn post Jessica Moore, now playing for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.
Unlike some of their past visits, when the women literally shared the stage with UConn’s men’s team (2004) and the Syracuse men’s team (2003), they alone had the Obama’s attention.
Obama seemed as much at ease with Auriemma and Auriemma was with him. The two shook hands a number of times. Obama singled out many of the players for their performance, especially Stewart.
“That was pretty cool,” Stewart said. “It’s wonderful to be here and see things in person that you only see on television or in the movies.”
And the president took the time to pronounce everyone’s name correctly, even briefly stopping to get Mosqueda-Lewis exactly correct.”
Obama made a point to congratulate the team for having the gumption to beat Notre Dame in the national semifinals by 18 points after losing three previous games to the Irish during the season.
“It looked tough at the time, but these folks didn’t stop believing in themselves,” Obama said. “I have to confess that my bracketology [Obama picked Baylor to repeat] needs some work.”
And for Kelly Faris, now a rookie guard with the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun, it was one more chance to be with teammates she will never forget.
“It’s such an awesome privilege. It’s great for all of us. It’s one of those things you never would have thought possible, but seems to happen when you play for a program like UConn,” Faris said. “A lot of people naturally look at the basketball experience we have [at UConn] and say ‘Wow.’
“And that’s understandable. We accomplished a lot during the years I was there. But there are so many other things, off the court, that we get to be a part of just because of our association with the program. I feel very fortunate to be able to go and experience another day like this.”