| Story by Greg Johnson | Photos by Jamie Schwaberow
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma isn’t shy about voicing his opinions. And that might be just what women’s basketball needs.
The scene wasn’t spectacular – just another work meeting in the Christine Grant Ballroom at NCAA headquarters, where tables had been set in a square shape with a microphone in front of each seat so everyone could be heard.
But while the environs were unremarkable, the impetus for this gathering was not. Thirty-five of the most influential minds in women’s basketball were seated at that table, reviewing the findings of the Women’s Basketball White Paper. Compiled by reputable basketball administrator Val Ackerman, the paper proposed both long- and short-term changes for the sport. These suggestions – some of them tweaks, some of them overhauls – have the potential to inject new energy into the game and, as Ackerman’s white paper emphasized, spark some much-needed growth and excitement.
The presence of many of the giants of the game added to the palpable buzz in the room. There was Jody Conradt, the former Texas coach with 900 career victories. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, with two NCAA championships on her resume. Vivian Stringer, the coach at Rutgers who entered the 2013-14 season with 901 career wins. And Donna Lopiano, the legendary women’s administrator who is former president of both the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women and the Women’s Sports Foundation.
And there was Geno Auriemma, whose UConn Huskies program sits at the top of the sport, winning titles at a Woodenesque pace. Auriemma is in his element guiding his teams to victories on the sidelines – and equally comfortable sharing his opinions.
The leaders came together in September to have a frank discussion about the future of the game they love. And no one, you might say, can be as frank as Auriemma.
You might think Geno Auriemma would be the one person who wants women’s basketball to remain exactly as it is now.
After all, he is the reigning national champion coach in Division I women’s basketball, and his UConn Huskies have won a record-tying eight NCAA titles. Six more of his teams have reached the Final Four. But Auriemma doesn’t want to just dominate the sport. He wants to elevate it. And now that women’s basketball is taking an introspective look, this might be the moment for the sport to heed his advice. The notion of Auriemma as a herald for women’s basketball might make some of its other legends bristle. Critics find him abrasive in the way he prods opponents. Consider how he needled the women’s basketball program at Tennessee, dubbing his rival the “Evil Empire.” The attention drawn by his blunt opinions can paint him as arrogant.
Yet many of the game’s supporters feel women’s basketball needs a jolt. Field goal percentages are dropping. Women’s Final Four sellouts are no longer a given. Nationwide, even 30 years after the first NCAA women’s basketball championship, the sport is still clambering for status, searching for ways to surge beyond the progress it has already made.
Meanwhile, in Connecticut, the sport has long been a success. UConn basketball doesn’t just perform on the court; it draws fans and builds loyalty. The excitement surrounding the women’s game even persuaded WNBA owners to move a franchise only 30 miles south of the Huskies’ home.
Yet Debbie Ryan, who hired Auriemma as an assistant on her Virginia coaching staff in 1981, isn’t surprised that, as women’s basketball wrestles with its identity, Auriemma is emerging as a statesman. “He is extremely bright, and his passion and his knowledge for the game are off the charts,” said Ryan, who retired from coaching in 2011 after 34 seasons leading Virginia. “He is good at deciding when it is time to talk and when it’s not time to talk. When he does say something, it is usually time to listen, because what comes out of his mouth is usually what needs to be said.”
The recommendations contained in Ackerman’s white paper were part of a comprehensive assessment of the sport. For the project, Ackerman, the first president of the WNBA and now the Big East Commissioner, conducted more than 100 interviews with coaches, commissioners, campus administrators, network television representatives, sports executives outside women’s basketball and NCAA national office staff.
While no one she spoke with thought the game was “broken,” the underlying theme throughout her many conversations was, according to the paper, “a tremendous appetite for change” in the way the sport is played, marketed and managed.
The Women’s Basketball White Paper Summit was scheduled after Ackerman delivered her final report in June to Mark Lewis, the NCAA executive vice president of championships and alliances, and Anucha Browne, vice president of women’s basketball championships.
Browne requested the invitees to the summit be willing to express their thoughts – an invitation that set up Auriemma for an easy layup.
“The best time to make changes is when you have a pretty good thing going on, and you just want to make it better,” Auriemma said. “The most difficult time is when you’ve lost your edge and hit rock bottom, and you are panicking. Then, you start to make panic moves.”
Auriemma is ready to help take on the challenge of advancing women’s basketball, and it also fits perfectly with his upbringing.
The foundation to Auriemma’s success can be found in his work ethic, developed from a family that immigrated to America from Italy when he was 7 years old.
His passion for coaching started during his sophomore year at Bishop Kenrick High School in Norristown, Pa. After being cut during basketball tryouts as a freshman, Auriemma came back to make the junior varsity squad the next year. He was a backup point guard who played very little his final two years, but he grew to love the game by watching his high school coach, Buddy Gardler, shape the team into a cohesive unit.
Before he became one of those people whose first name suffices as identification, Auriemma toiled as a shoe salesman, stocked shelves in a supermarket, worked in a paint store, worked on construction sites, bartended and worked in the college library while earning a political science degree from West Chester in 1977.
Of course, he also coached part time at the high school level to help make ends meet.
Auriemma broke into college sports when Saint Joseph’s women’s coach Jim Foster hired him as an assistant. After a couple of seasons there, Auriemma joined close friend Phil Martelli, now the men’s basketball coach at Saint Joseph’s, as an assistant coach for Bishop Kenrick’s boy’s basketball team.
When a position opened on the Virginia women’s basketball staff, Martelli insisted Auriemma interview with Ryan, the head coach.
But Auriemma wasn’t sure a move back to women’s basketball was the right one. He hadn’t enjoyed his brief time in the women’s game at that point and wanted to stay on the men’s side.
Finally, he relented, and was ultimately hired as a full-time assistant making $13,000.
“He had such a unique vision of the game. He opened my eyes to a lot of things,” Ryan said. “He helped me get better as a coach. He was strong about what he believed in, which was good. I liked being challenged.”
Four years later, Auriemma was offered the job at UConn. It would be his first as a head coach and a chance to build a program from the ground up. But there was a lot of building to do: UConn had produced only one winning season in the 11-year history of its program.
“When I got this job, guys couldn’t get really good jobs,” Auriemma said. “The only jobs you could get as a guy was an assistant coaching job or you could get a job at Connecticut, which was like an intramural program at the time.”
He took the job in 1985 and earned $29,000 his first year. That turned out to be a great investment for the Huskies.
Auriemma built his success partly by being open with current players about the importance of playing the game in a way that makes fans want to watch.
“We live in a society where people want to be entertained,” said Auriemma, who entered the 2013-14 season with a record of 839-133 (.863). “You are fighting for that entertainment dollar. People are deciding if they should go to a movie and spend $12, or should they go to a UConn women’s basketball game?”
The success of the UConn women’s basketball team is a prime example of how fans will turn out to see a good product. The Huskies have been a hot ticket since the mid-1990s, and the following grew to a fever pitch when Rebecca Lobo, Jennifer Rizzotti and Jamelle Elliot led UConn to its first national title in 1995.
The progression of UConn women’s basketball explains why Auriemma continues to push his players to more and more success on the court. And in the drive to push women’s basketball nationwide, it also makes his voice one that deserves attention.
The coaches are on the ground level, and the ones responsible for teaching the players the fundamentals needed so they can reach their potential on the court. For years, women’s basketball was lauded for its technically sound play on the floor.
But Auriemma and other coaches are starting to see a crack in that foundation. Many of the skills prospects should already have, such as throwing a proper chest pass, are now being taught at the collegiate level.
“In the big picture over the next 10-15 years, the most important thing we can do is make sure the product is getting better,” Auriemma said. “You can’t keep selling the same iPhone for 10 years and expect your profits to grow. We have to figure out a way to make the product we have better every year.”
One of the biggest areas lacking in the women’s game comes in the youth development stages, Auriemma says. One way to remedy that is to somehow devise a certification process for coaches. A centralized body, perhaps USA Basketball, could conduct clinics and seminars on the proper way for players to learn the game at young ages.
College basketball coaches have seen youth coaching knowledge erode through the years, a topic that was discussed at the White Paper Summit.
“Training coaches how to teach the game is going to be a huge piece of the puzzle,” Auriemma said. “One of the advantages that helped me be a better college coach is that I coached six years in high school. You are coaching ninth-graders who can’t play and can’t dribble twice. You have to start at the very beginning and work your way up until they are pretty decent.”
Auriemma said he’s noticed a drastic change in his ability to evaluate players through the years. In the mid-1990s most of the big summer tournaments were played in a format that required players to win state or regional competitions to qualify for a national tournament.
Teams had to practice to get better; winning and losing meant something.
Now, teams pay a fee to get into a particular tournament, and they are usually guaranteed a certain number of games.
In the same era, Auriemma remembers, he could go to summer games and see up to eight Division I players combined between the two teams. Auriemma theorizes parents are afraid to have their children play on teams with other great players because their kids won’t stand out as much.
“Now you go to Chicago and there are 500 teams, but 350 of them have no DI players – zero,” Auriemma said.
Even the players who are highly touted aren’t always as impressive as you would think.
“When they show up in college, you hear how someone was a first-team All-American in high school,” Auriemma said. “Then you watch them play for a half an hour and you go, ‘Wow. What are the coaches doing with the players on that team who weren’t first-team All-American?’ I would kill myself if I was coaching those guys.”
Female players of today can run faster, jump higher and are better in terms of athletic skills. But the ability to play five-on-five basketball doesn’t exist, according to Auriemma.
He said the men’s game has a similar problem, but the talent pool is just larger when compared with the women’s game. He believes the proliferation of money is the reason behind the lack of fundamentals being taught.
Elite-level camps used to be organized around stations focused on fundamentals. But Auriemma has seen those phased out in favor of more lucrative tournaments.
“I’m probably not the right person to speak about money,” said Auriemma, who signed a five-year contract extension for $10.86 million last March. “I get paid a ridiculous amount of money to coach women’s basketball. But once people realized you can make money in women’s basketball, it changed everything. God bless them, because they all made a lot of money with these camps. But who lost? The players; they stink because they never get to practice, and they don’t get taught anything.”
Auriemma would like to see more rules changes to help the offense in women’s basketball.
He cites examples such as Major League Baseball lowering the mound following the 1968 season, which became known as “the year of the pitcher.” Following the dominant pitching performances, MLB lowered the height of the mounds to 10 inches from 15 inches to give the hitters a better chance to have success.
He also noted that the NFL made rules to protect quarterbacks and wide receivers from physical play so more scoring could occur through the passing game.
Auriemma believes the collegiate women’s basketball game has become too physical.
“What is entertaining about every time someone moves, you grab them; every time they cut, you punch them; every time someone shoots, they get cracked?” Auriemma said. “We have to allow our players to show off their skills. They can cut, pass and shoot. It is kind of a throwback to (the 1986 movie) ‘Hoosiers.’”
Sometimes the officials take the brunt of the criticism for the physical nature of women’s basketball. Auriemma feels that is misguided because that is the way coaches are teaching their teams to play.
He added it comes from the American mentality that teams have to be tough to be successful.
Auriemma’s recent stint in international basketball, where he led the U.S. women to gold in the 2010 FIBA World Championships and the 2012 Summer Games, showed him the rest of the world has abandoned that style.
In the international game, teams shoot two shots after four team fouls have been committed. In women’s college basketball, one-and-one situations at the foul line take place on the seventh team foul of each half. The double bonus doesn’t kick in until the 10th team foul.
Auriemma said it is not unusual to hear an international coach scolding the team about committing fouls and putting the opposition on the free-throw line.
“When I was coaching the Olympic team, the older players on our team would yell at the younger players to stop fouling,” Auriemma said.
One change Auriemma trumpets is for the women’s game to return to using the same basketball as the men. Before the 1984-85 season, the NCAA went to a basketball that is one inch smaller in circumference and two ounces lighter than the men’s ball. It was introduced to women’s basketball in the belief that it would be easier for women to dribble and control since they have smaller hands.
It had the initial desired effect as teams shot an NCAA-record 44.2 percent from the field in the 1985-86 season. But the field goal percentages have steadily declined over the last seven years to 38.9 percent last season, which is an all-time low since the NCAA began sponsoring women’s championships in 1981-82.
Auriemma said the women’s basketball is too light.
“It hits the rim and flies off,” Auriemma said. “When is the last time you saw the ball hit the rim multiple times in a women’s game and the shot still goes in? Never; and it happens all the time in the men’s game. Look at the layups in women’s basketball. The ball comes off the rim, and it’s gone. It’s like pingpong balls in the lottery.”
During UConn’s version of basketball madness, Auriemma and Huskies’ men’s coach Kevin Ollie each coached a team made up of half women’s players and half men’s players. Auriemma said he was approached about the format and was told they would use the men’s basketball the first half and the women’s ball the second half.
He declined to use the women’s basketball.
“My guys shot the hell out of it that night,” Auriemma said.
Jamie schwaberow and arnel reynon photo illustration
Auriemma believes the game is on pretty good terms when it comes to short-term measurements like the state of the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship, regular-season attendance and television viewership.
In October, the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee recommended adopting a plan in which the top 16 seeds in the tournament host first- and second-round games, holding the regionals at neutral sites and moving the Women’s Final Four to a Friday-Sunday schedule on the same weekend as the Men’s Final Four. Currently, the Women’s Final Four is played on a Sunday-Tuesday schedule. The Division I Championships Cabinet must approve the changes, which Auriemma feels are the best for the game right now.
The committee also looked at moving the Women’s Final Four to the weekend after the Men’s Final Four. This would give the women a weekend to call their own. It would also separate them from the men’s tournament, which commands most of the attention from fans and the media.
But there is a concern the Masters could take the spotlight away from the Women’s Final Four.
Still, Auriemma is in favor of the Women’s Final Four standing alone and having its own weekend. He knows there is a thought that once the men’s championship game finishes on Monday night, so has college basketball.
He doubts people will be making a decision of whether they should attend the Masters or go to the Women’s Final Four. Also, he doesn’t believe there would be a television conflict.
“The last time I checked they don’t play golf at night,” Auriemma said. “We have a little window there where we could take advantage of it. I’d like to give it a shot.” He also likes the 10-second backcourt rule that went into effect this season. Like many in the game, he only wonders why it took so long for this rule to pass, considering women’s college basketball was the only level in the game that didn’t incorporate that rule.
He applauds its addition to the rules book because it can speed up play.
“It met a lot of resistance because people think it will lead to more turnovers,” Auriemma said. “Of course there will be more turnovers. But what you’re really saying is my players aren’t any good. Are we just a bunch of girls that are afraid that if the game speeds up there will be too many turnovers? That comes back on us as coaches. We have to teach them better.”
Again, critics can point to that being easy for Auriemma to feel that way since he has had 29 first-team All-Americans, 14 first-round WNBA draft picks and 12 Olympians on his rosters.
“I know people in the world of coaching are going to say, ‘Of course you don’t want anyone to foul you. You’ve got the best players in the country,’” Auriemma said. “If the rules don’t change one iota, it is not going to affect us, but it might help other coaches and their teams. If you don’t have as good of players as I do, you’re probably not going to beat us. If you are playing a team that’s equal to you and you’re not allowed to beat each other up, that’s better for everybody isn’t it?”
All these ideas, all these possibilities for change — they are bound to face resistance, even if they have the backing of a well-researched proposition, as outlined in the white paper, and the backing of some of the most influential women’s basketball minds in the country.
That’s because they face what Auriemma sees as a big obstacle: complacency.
“People are comfortable where they are,” Auriemma said. “There is a feeling I can’t escape at times when I listen to people say, ‘Look how far we’ve come. Look what Title IX has done for us. If it wasn’t for Title IX, we wouldn’t be here. Do you remember where we were before Title IX?’”
The subject is a tricky one for Auriemma. Clearly, he wouldn’t be sitting where he is today without the landmark legislation that requires gender equity in every educational program that receives federal funding.
But he wants to make sure women’s basketball is forging ahead.
“What we have to do to measure success now is look at where we were five years ago or where we were 10 years ago,” Auriemma said. “Then you have to look at where do we want to be five and 10 years from now. You can’t keep going back to 1972.”
What does equity mean? Can the sport, for instance, get to the point where coaches who aren’t pulling down wins and energizing the fan base will lose their jobs?
“Right now, we’re probably getting to a cycle that a lot of coaches feared would come,” Auriemma said. “We’re coming to a cycle where if you don’t win, you’re fired. I think that’s a great thing, provided you took the job under certain circumstances, and they didn’t change the rules on you.”
Could that kind of pressure be ahead for women’s basketball? Auriemma hopes so. And it leads to the most important question he is asking:
“What are we going to do,” he asked, “to get really good?”