The message from Geno Auriemma is short but polite, a quick apology for delaying our phone conversation while he wrapped up a practice that was running bit longer than scheduled.
To which I immediately wondered, “Extra practice? Seriously? What could possibly need improving?”
This is Connecticut, the No. 1 women’s basketball team in the nation, the 32-0 juggernaut and once again the overall top seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, the favorite (again) to win an unprecedented 12th national championship, the team alternately cheered or derided for being so ridiculously dominant, revealed in an average margin of victory of 36.9 points this season.
But then again, this is Auriemma, a coach who hasn’t won more than 1,000 games and built a national powerhouse by cutting practice short, who hasn’t built the game’s longest-running highlight reel by slowing down the tape, who doesn’t ready a team for March Madness by easing off the gas.
This is Auriemma, a man who will not hesitate to bare his gritty Philadelphia roots in defense of what he has built, who hears the regularly scheduled objections to his regularly scheduled blowouts and challenges you to remember that the conversation does not always have to be framed as something that’s wrong with the game, but something that’s right with Connecticut.
And he is right.
Stop blaming the Huskies for being so good. And stop letting that detract from how they’ve managed to stay so good for so long. On a campus that claimed the men’s and women’s national titles a mere four years ago, the search is on to replace fired men’s coach Kevin Ollie.
The search for Auriemma? How to replace last year’s shocking national semifinal loss to Mississippi State with a win this time around, how to continuously challenge his players to be better than their previous best selves, how to coach from a permanent position as overdog in a sports world that loves nothing better than to root for the underdog.
Dealing with that level of expectation presents its own kind of challenge, one coaches like Bill Belichick and Nick Saban know well yet aren’t continuously asked to account for the rest of their sport’s inability to interrupt.
“It’s difficult — it gets more and more difficult every year,” Auriemma said over the phone, that weekend practice finally finished. “To be honest, I just had a conversation with our coaching staff about that.
“It’s tough. We’re in a situation where every year it seems like what’s acceptable is a Final Four appearance. That’s acceptable. What’s expected is a national championship. And what’s really, really expected to really make everyone happy is an undefeated national championship.”
Connecticut has done that six times, and should it prevail in this year’s redemption tour, that would make it seven. As last season showed, it is no foregone conclusion, but if the 2016-17 team carried itself to the Final Four on the strength of some rare doubts, based in the departure of three first-round WNBA draft picks, what is this year’s team to do?
The Huskies won their fifth straight American Athletic Conference tournament last Tuesday, improving to 101-0 all time in AAC play by adding a 16-point title-game win over South Florida to the 54-point semifinal drubbing of Cincinnati. That 75-21 win included a 38-0 run, a 43-5 halftime advantage, and, predictably, a boatload of snarky reactions.
“I’ll be the first to tell you it’s no fun being up 30 at halftime — no fun for players, coaches, anybody,” Auriemma said. “I’d rather be in a situation where if we don’t play well we’re going to lose.
“Yeah, we have a bunch of those games that we play. I get that. But there are more good teams now capable of going to a Final Four, more teams capable of being in that final than ever before, more than there were 10 years ago.”
That is certainly true, and yet there are only a handful of programs truly ready to compete for the national title. But ask yourself this: Isn’t that really true for men’s basketball as well? And for college football?
And if the parity brought on by the one-and-done phenomenon has changed that to some degree in the men’s game, the progression of the women’s game is more akin to earlier years of college basketball, when a certain men’s program (hello there, John Wooden) was dominant to the same UConn tune.
“College basketball came a long way, and you know what?” Auriemma said. “We’re going to come a long way.”
Not that he’s looking to get out of the way. I tried putting the 63-year-old on the spot about how much longer he wants to do this, and other than laugh and call it a “great question,” he offered no definitive answer. Other than to insist that he still loves what he’s doing, even if the definition of love has changed.
The challenge isn’t convincing a player she wants to take a chance on UConn anymore, but in finding the ones who understand that walking onto campus doesn’t mean winning a title, not without the work to make it happen. That remains a fulfilling mission, but it’s found in an altered form.
“If you’ve been married for 40 years, do you still love your wife as much as when you were dating? Yes, but in a different way,” Auriemma said. “It’s not like ’85 [his first season at UConn]. I loved the idea of walking into a gym, making a name for yourself. Now it’s a different kind of ‘wow.’ Now, we’ve got a better team, so let’s go prove it.”
They continue to do that in convincing fashion, but rather than see it as a problem, they celebrate it as an accomplishment.Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.