(Eds: With AP Photos.)By PAT EATON-ROBBAssociated Press
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has been described as brash, irreverent, even more than a bit cocky.
But entering this season’s NCAA tournament with another top seed, seven national championships and 800 career wins, players and colleagues say one of the biggest secrets to his success is that Auriemma is really a very caring, people person.
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”He knows about the game, he’s smart about the game, but he has an instinctive way of knowing how to deal with human beings,” said DePaul coach Doug Bruno, an assistant to Auriemma on the U.S. national team. ”He has teams that share and give, because the head guy is a sharer and a giver. That’s what people don’t necessarily understand, because his public shtick is a funny one. Underneath all that, is a human being that sincerely cares about others. You just don’t see that unless you work with him.”
Center Stefanie Dolson said that’s one of the reasons the Huskies work so hard, even when the coach berates them publically, or says – as he has several times this year – that they don’t have enough talent to win a national title.
”He knows how to push everyone’s buttons just the right way to get what he wants from them and to get them to play the best that they can,” Dolson said. ”He’s done an amazing job of pushing us.”
As a result, Connecticut is 29-4 and coming off an 18th Big East championship in what could be described as a rebuilding year after the loss of two-time player of the year Maya Moore. They will play Prairie View A&M (17-15) in the first round in Bridgeport. Auriemma is 800-128 in 27 seasons at UConn, reaching the milestone faster than anyone else. Tennessee’s Pat Summitt had been the fastest to 800 wins, doing it in 958 games and 29 seasons.
”It felt like we won 800 this year,” Auriemma said, taking another tongue-in-cheek shot at his team. ”This was the most grueling, taxing year that we’ve had at Connecticut in a long, long time.”
Auriemma said he gets far too much credit for wins that his players earned and does little more than set an agenda and try to get kids to believe in a program and each other.
”We recruited the right kids, we coached them the right way and we’re fortunate that here we are, we’re standing here talking about 800,” he said.
But his players say it’s also clear that he cares, not just about winning, but about them.
Auriemma recently sat down with forward Kelly Faris, whom he felt hadn’t been playing up to her potential, passing up wide-open shots and deferring to teammates. He said their talk was like one a parent would have with a 17-year old, a conversation that the teenager doesn’t necessarily want to hear.
Faris responded by hitting two big 3-pointers down the stretch, helping the Huskies beat Notre Dame, 63-54, to win the Big East.
”You just have to know how to take him,” she said. ”You have to know how to take what he says, and to listen to it and hear it, but maybe not necessarily listen to how he says things. He says things for a reason.”
And it’s not just his kids who listen. St. John’s coach Kim Barnes Arico said she asked Auriemma to talk to one of her stars, Shenneika Smith, last year when Smith was struggling.
Barnes Arico said whatever Auriemma told Smith, gave her confidence and ”turned the kid around.” She became an all-conference player this season, averaging almost 13 points and seven rebounds. Last month, she hit a 3-pointer just before the buzzer that beat Connecticut in Storrs, ending the Huskies 99-game home winning streak.
At the conference tournament, Smith found Auriemma again. And in front of several members of the media, the coach started needling her about that shot.
”`It just means the world to her,” Barnes Arico said. ”Sometimes people don’t realize the impact that Coach Auriemma can really have on kids I think he does. What he did for this young lady in just a short bit of time has really helped and made a major impact on her.