STORRS — Between the UConn opener in November and the Olympic gold medal game in August 2016, Geno Auriemma might be favored to win every game he coaches.
With Breanna Stewart and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, UConn could, incredibly enough, run off another two undefeated seasons. We'll have to wait on how the collegiate landscape develops in Stewie's senior season in 2015-2106, but certainly Team USA will be the favorite to win the 2014 world championship in Istanbul and the Olympic gold in Rio.
Do you realize how much sustained pressure is squeezed into the previous two paragraphs?
On Friday afternoon, when his re-appointment as the women's national team coach was made official at Gampel Pavilion, Auriemma smiled after those expectations of perfection were piled in front of him and followed by this question:
Might you pack it in at 62 after the 2016 Olympics?
After all, he stands to surpass Pat Summitt's eight national titles at Tennessee this April. He could tie John Wooden's record of 10 with the UCLA men in two years. Heck, if he runs the table three times he'd stand alone at 11. Auriemma, 59, also stands to become the first women's basketball coach to lead his country to two Olympic gold medals. With all that history-making pressure over three years, might that be enough to exhale and say, "Enough?"
"It's funny you ask that," Auriemma said. "When [athletic director] Warde Manuel and I talked about our contract this past winter, it might have been on my desk, and about a month later he said, 'What's the holdup? Why haven't you signed it?' I said, 'I don't know if I want to do this anymore.'
"He goes, 'Are you serious?' I said, 'Yeah, I don't know.'"
Auriemma, 839-133 in 28 seasons at UConn, went home and took up the topic with his wife, Kathy.
"I said, 'We just won the Olympics. We're [en route to] a national championship. Maybe it's time to move onto something else. She looked at me and goes, 'You're kidding, right?' I said no I was being serious. She goes, 'I'm being serious, too. You're signing that five-year contract. That's all there's to it.'
"So even if I wanted to stop in 2016, I'm not sure I'd be allowed to."
So in March Auriemma signed the five-year, $10.86 million deal, filled with incentives, that runs through the 2017-2018 season. That would put him at 64. Every coach is permitted to change his or her mind, of course. Every coach can chart a career path and then reality — health, diminishing passion, Notre Dame — can throw an enormous monkey wrench into the best laid plans. Auriemma owns a couple of restaurants. He markets his own wine. He has charitable ventures. He is man with varied interest beyond the game.
Still, as he stood there explaining how he had relented to USA Basketball's call to return, Auriemma sounded like a coach intent on fulfilling his current UConn contract.
"There's always that feeling when you look into the future and say, 'When I get to this point in time it'll be enough for me.' You have a date. We all have a date. It'll be enough. But when that date comes, you have a tendency to say, 'You know I feel pretty good. I want to keep on doing it.'
"It's like when somebody tells you their grandmother died. She was 92. You go, 'I'll take 92 right now.' Until you're 91 and 10 months and you're like, c'mon, give me 93. So when I get to 2016, hopefully there will be some championships between now and then, I'll have enough in me to want to keep doing it.
"I would say there's a better chance of that than 2016 coming and me saying because we won a gold medal, hopefully, and because we won a couple of national championships, hopefully, that would be enough and I don't want to do it anymore. I'm one of those people that the more success we keep having, the more I want to stay and keep having it. There's a better chance if we start losing I'll go, 'I've had enough.'"
Auriemma went through his hectic schedule for September. From the 10th to the 29th, he won't be in one city for more than a day and a half. When he's moving he keeps moving. Once he stops he doesn't want to move anymore. And that, Geno said, "is not good. When I'm active, I'm happy."
Auriemma had balked at returning as national coach. Actually, he was publicly insisting no. He didn't want to presume he'd be asked. More than that, he felt it wasn't his turn anymore.
"I didn't need to win another gold medal to solidify my reputation," Auriemma said. "I don't feel as if I need to go to Rio to win another gold medal to prove anything to myself."
He held to his convictions until July 31. UConn's championship team was getting ready to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House. Women's national team director Carol Callan and USA Basketball Executive Director Jim Tooley called. They wanted Geno to return. During the entire conversation, Auriemma was saying to himself, "This can't be an accident." Yep, they played the patriot card on Geno.
Some NBA people and national leaders urged him. One was Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Did the nation's highest ranking military officer strong-arm him?
"Actually, it was his wife, Deanie," Auriemma said. "They were a persuasive bunch on what it meant to our country. How do you say no to that?"
Jerry Colangelo has done a remarkable job as USA Basketball chairman. He hired Mike Krzyzewski as the men's coach after the 2004 Olympic disaster and has helped coerce Coach K into a third term. They not only brought pride back to the Olympic team, they made it cool again.
The women have won five gold medals in a row, but Colangelo also admitted Friday that he didn't wait for the 2012 Olympic committee and came right out and said Geno was going to be the coach. He not only began the same road toward continuity, but began a feeling the men's and women's programs are more together than separate. Four years later, his feelings are only stronger. He said Auriemma is the kind of guy he wants in his foxhole.
"Geno has a passion for women's basketball and understands the difficulty of winning," Callan said. "But ultimately, he's a great American. He wears his heart on his sleeve and his flag on his other sleeve."
When it comes down to it, few are more loyal to America than a military man. And few are more thankful to America than an immigrant. Coach K played for Bobby Knight at Army. He returned to West Point as head coach before going on to Duke. He understands loyalty.
Auriemma, at his roots, is young Luigi from Montella, Italy. Over the years, he has spoken many times about the hard blue-collar work his family did in Norristown, Pa., to survive and flourish in a new land. There's that immigrant fear in him, too, that it could all disappear tomorrow, and the wonder why he is so fortunate. As a result, his fire never seems to burn out. He understands being thankful.
So we lay all the expectations on his doorstep again, for three more years and beyond. Geno's response? He smiles.
"It's like a lot of people said, if I hadn't mismanaged that team last year, we would have been undefeated as well as winning the national championship," Auriemma said. "What's the old saying? When Auburn or LSU won the national football championship, went undefeated and somebody said, 'Just think what Bear Bryant could have done with that team.' That's my world."
Yes, this is Geno's world. And he's not planning on leaving it soon.