‘I couldn’t see my way out’: Geno Auriemma’s year of reckoning

‘I couldn’t see my way out’: Geno Auriemma’s year of reckoning.

STORRS, Conn. — From a fluorescent-lit hospital room, Geno Auriemma tracked his team from his phone.

The Hall of Fame coach – with 11 national titles, eight coach of the year awards and more games won than almost anyone who has ever set foot on a sideline – was waiting for a box score to update minute by minute.

Shorthanded as ever in that 2022-23 season, UConn defeated Florida State that Sunday afternoon. This was the machine he built over his four-decade career. Even without him, his players were OK.

But he was not.

Just a week and a half earlier, his mother, Marsiella, the “one constant” in his life, died at age 91. Her funeral was five days later.

And now, as the white coat sat down across from him, Auriemma knew he had been right to leave the team’s shootaround that morning. He has coached long enough to know the look on someone’s face when they have upsetting news, and he has lived long enough to understand that a hospital doesn’t bring a specialist into the room to tell you that everything is fine.

Auriemma needed surgery to unblock one of his carotid arteries. The procedure wasn’t urgent, but it was necessary.

I couldn't see my way out': Geno Auriemma's year of reckoning - The Athletic

The next day, as his team went into prep mode for Seton Hall, Auriemma had the surgery.

Outside of his family, he told five people the truth — his assistant coaches and his athletic director. Everyone else was told he had flu-like symptoms. “I didn’t want to scare them,” he says.

The hospital suggested a four-week recovery. Athletic director David Benedict said he should take as much time as he needed.

Seven days later, he was back at practice.

“You can’t get to where we’ve been without being the person who’s constantly chasing, constantly reaching, constantly wants more,” Auriemma says. “Whatever you have — it’s not good enough.”

Auriemma built the UConn dynasty by obsessively looking for what could go wrong. Admittedly, that was easy for him. He could always spot potential problems. The perfectionist in him thrived in this setting. But this time, too much was broken.

He was now the oldest living person in his family, and that reality hit him hard. His body reminded him that he was pushing 70. Meanwhile, he had five high school All-Americans sitting on his bench with a slew of injuries. The perfection he spent his life and career building was falling apart by the day, it felt.

And he couldn’t do anything about it.

“It engulfed me,” Auriemma says. “And I couldn’t see my way out.”

For the first time in his career, he was forced to truly reckon with the beast. Not the program that he had built, one that had come to define the sport. And not just a UConn that was once so dominant people said it would ruin women’s basketball. But the piece inside of him that had driven him to do it all along.

The question he had never been able to answer.

When was good enough going to be good enough?

‘I couldn’t see my way out’: Geno Auriemma’s year of reckoning

In 1983, when Kathy Auriemma was pregnant with the couple’s first child, Geno’s biggest concern was that the OB-GYN was a Duke guy. For months, the Blue Devil assured them the baby was a boy. Geno and Kathy didn’t care either way, but this guy was confident. And then Jenna arrived. The doctors took their baby girl and ran the standard tests, which didn’t worry him at all at the time. It was what they did with every baby.

Jenna was healthy. Kathy was healthy. And Geno was fine.

What should he do now? He asked the doctors.

Go golfing, they said.

So he did.

When they had their second child, Alysa, he was an anxious mess. With their third, Michael, he passed out in the delivery room. Because by then he understood how much could go wrong during a pregnancy and childbirth.

And that’s where his mind lived for 40 weeks.

“That’s a basketball season. It’s a f—ing miracle when it actually works,” Auriemma says. “People take it for granted. We’ve got a great team, we’ve got all the best players, it should come out perfect. But those of us who are in it, we’re the only ones who know what a goddamn miracle it is when everything goes right and you actually win a national championship.

“Because we’re the only ones who know exactly how many things can go wrong during those six months.”

At least, he thought he did. Then came last season.

First, All-American Paige Bueckers tore her ACL in a pickup game in August 2022. During the third game of the year, Chris Dailey, the assistant who has been with him since he said yes to UConn in 1985, collapsed on the court during the national anthem. Freshman Ice Brady suffered a dislocated patella. Starter Azzi Fudd missed 22 games with a knee injury. Guard Caroline Ducharme and forward Ayanna Patterson were put in concussion protocol.

In December, his mom died. When his sister called to tell him the news, he asked if mother and daughter had watched the end of that day’s UConn-Princeton game together. Anna said yes; Marsiella died shortly after the Huskies won. “She was close,” he replied, “but if she watched that game tonight, I don’t blame her.”

A month later, UConn had to postpone a game against DePaul because it didn’t meet the threshold for the minimum number of players available. That same month, the team’s Husky mascot, Jonathan XIV, had to retire because he required spleen surgery.

“The dog,” Auriemma says. “Even the dog.”

With each subsequent injury, he’d pivot. Day-to-day, he had no idea if he’d have enough players to run a full practice. And no one felt bad for them, because he’s Geno and it’s UConn and when you’ve won that much, people think you deserve whatever you get.

You deserve a bad year. You deserve the hard. But Auriemma knew that even in the years when they made it look easy, it was so damn hard.

Auriemma’s own history in Storrs told him that all of this was leading to something — a championship, more greatness, another banner. But when he looked around, surrounded by all the regalia, he felt lost. At one point, he pondered if they should just take all the banners down, if that might assuage something within him and the team.

But he didn’t. Because for every national championship that UConn won, Auriemma could point to moments in the seasons before that led that team there. The bad moments, the heartbreaking moments, the galvanizing moments — they always led to greatness. He had always found ways to fix what had been broken.

The 1995 national title, the Huskies’ first, hadn’t felt all that removed from a decade earlier when UConn hired him from Virginia. UConn had only experienced one winning season when he accepted the job without even touring the gymnasium. When his brother, Ferruccio, helped him move to Storrs in 1985, he looked at Geno and said, “Really? Here? You kidding me?” Ten years later, even on the podium, hoisting the national championship trophy, Auriemma could still remember those words.

Really? Here? You kidding me?

Yes, even there. He had done it.

So, Auriemma celebrated that first title in 1995. Relished in it. The next 10? He recovered from those.

Because in 1995, he didn’t know what he didn’t know. And after holding that trophy, he knew too much. He knew the pitfalls that could’ve kept that group from winning it all, and he started backtracking and dissecting every point in the seasons before that championship when it could’ve gone in another direction. He imagined every worst-possible scenario that never happened and then concocted solutions as to how those could be avoided if they ever arose in the future. Then, he implemented all of that into his plans.

He became the firefighter whose job was to make sure the match was never lit in the first place.

After one of UConn’s six undefeated seasons, on the bus ride back from the airport to campus, Dailey remembered leaning over to Auriemma, who was seated in front of her, and seeing that he was analyzing new offensive sets. He turned and looked back at Dailey and said, “What are we going to do to be better next year?”

Because even in the midst of four consecutive national titles and an 111-game win streak, 14 consecutive Final Fours, Auriemma could most see the mistakes that could’ve derailed everything. Even when they didn’t. Even when the trophy was sitting with his players in the back of the bus.

“Only the painter knows where the smudges are on their painting,” he says. “If da Vinci is looking at the Mona Lisa and you’re looking at it with him, you’re saying, ‘That’s the greatest painting there ever was.’ In his mind, he’s going, ‘You know in how many places I f—ed that up? And nobody knows about it.’”

In early December 2022, when Auriemma traveled to the Philadelphia suburbs to see his mom, he hoped it wouldn’t be the last time. But Marsiella had been declining since the onset of the pandemic, and in recent months, her health had gotten significantly worse.

To him, she was still the 30-year-old who had boarded a ship in Italy with a 7-year-old Geno and his two younger siblings in 1961 and sailed for 13 days across the Atlantic. The woman who worked from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day at the rug factory in Norristown, braiding fibers until her fingers cramped. The mother who never complained and was always sharp. Who never attended a day of school, but was the smartest person Geno knew.

She always wanted Geno to strive for more and not make excuses, but in her later years, she just wanted him to relax.

“You don’t have to win all the time, you know,” she’d say, “That’s why nobody likes you Gene — because you win all the time.”

Rationally, he understood that. No one wins everything. But in the next moment, he thought, “But it’s the world we’ve created. We win every game, every year.”

In his final visit with her, it hit him hard. She was no longer the person she once was. Neither was he.

Time doesn’t ask permission to speed up and it doesn’t give fair warning when it’s going to completely stop and rock you off your foundation. Instead, at the least opportune moments, it pops up to remind you that you’re mortal and flawed like everyone. That for some of us, there are fewer days ahead than behind. That no one wins all the time.

Between breaks with his team and recruiting, Auriemma visited his mother in Philadelphia. When he wasn’t in the room, he heard her voice over the phone. But being there, and seeing pain and hurt and the end in sight with his own eyes, was so much harder. There is no option in that moment except to reflect. On her. On himself. On how far they’d all come.

“I think the buildup of all that, it just flooded into him,” Anna said. “You hold it together for so long and then there’s just one thing that will set it off. And you don’t expect it. You think you’re ready for it. You think you’ve got it under control. But no, you don’t.”

Anna saw it in his face, how it just dropped, but she heard it mostly in his silence. He had no words. No one-liner, no perfect plan, nothing could stop what they both knew was coming.

“He has always been a person who tries to be perfect and fix everything,” Anna said. “That just kind of made him realize you can’t control everything around you anymore.”

In a coaches meeting, he said it felt like he was on a plane, and no matter how many times the flight attendants told him to put on his oxygen mask before helping others, he just kept trying to find everyone else’s masks. He ignored his own mask until he couldn’t find it anymore.

And on the team’s road trip to Butler, he hit his breaking point. He couldn’t hide the weight of what he was carrying anymore.

During the pregame walkthrough, point guard Nika Mühl looked at him and said, “Coach, what are you doing here? Go home.”

He knew she was right. Auriemma pulled the coaches together and told them he needed to go home. He’d be back, but he wasn’t sure when.

“I think he finally realized if he wasn’t in a better place, then there was no way he’d be able to help the players,” Dailey said. “He wasn’t able to give them what he thought they would need from him. … It was hard to see him like that.”

Auriemma took the team plane from Indianapolis to Windsor Locks, Conn., and drove home by himself. For what felt like months, he hadn’t been able to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, his brain raced faster. But it felt different this time. He decided to step back and relax on his own terms. No doctor, no health crisis, no death had forced him here (though, they all played their parts).

He slept. He read. He didn’t try to solve anything except crossword puzzles.

He didn’t stay away completely. In conversations with Dailey, she emphasized that the team was fine. She was fine. But whenever Auriemma did come back, he needed to come back until the end of the season. He needed to stay away long enough to know that he could give what he knew he needed to give, because that was how Auriemma had always graded himself.

Eight days later, he was back.

He was different, but he also wasn’t. In meetings and on the bench, Auriemma was maybe a little softer around the edges. But in practices, Geno was still Geno. The perfectionist was still thriving. The mistakes still irritated him to no end.

And that, more than anything, made Auriemma confident that he truly was ready to be back. It was, in some ways, how he felt the most like himself, and how he knew he could push his players to where they needed to go.

“Am I different? Am I contemplative? Am I reflective? Of course. But does it show up in how I do my daily job?” Auriemma asks. “No.”

For UConn and coach Geno Auriemma, the Final Four is both a goal and a checkpoint. (G Fiume / Getty Images)

Central to Auriemma’s coaching philosophy is that he believes if he can understand what a player fears, he can get to the root of what motivates that player.

“I know it works,” Auriemma says, “because it’s the same for me.”

All the greats who’ve played in Gampel Pavilion know the experience of having Auriemma try to understand how their brains work. Because in Auriemma’s mind, fear and motivation are partners that might move in different directions, but ultimately are symbiotic, if only to understand how they both work in order to keep moving forward.

Because what does Auriemma fear most?

“You’re always afraid you’re not good enough,” Auriemma says. “That has always been the case.”

As a child, he thought that if his Catholic school uniform was spotless and ironed, no one would notice that he only had one sweater he wore on the weekends; if his grades and attendance were perfect, no one would notice his were the only parents who didn’t show up to the family nights at school.

And in coaching, he found a profession that publicly shows whether or not someone is good enough, and even on the nights when the scoreboard hasn’t given Auriemma a grade, he gave one to himself. And as he pushed the UConn program from good to great and into an echelon that might never be seen again in college basketball, it has still been Auriemma’s fear that drove him and Auriemma’s motivation for perfection that has been the lighthouse for this program.

He is both running and chasing, feeding off both fear and motivation, and he knows — mostly important — he needs all of those pieces to keep moving forward.

“People say, how long are you gonna keep doing this?” Auriemma says. “Well, when I go to practice, and I go, ‘You know, I’m just not gonna bitch and moan about the things that used to bother me. I’m not gonna let them bother me anymore.’”

That’s when he says he’ll be done — when perfection doesn’t feel like the bar for which he is reaching, that’s when he’ll stop reaching. When his fear and his motivation no longer work in tandem, that’s when he’ll know it’s time to walk away.

But right now, he feels nowhere close to that. He’s just still so damn irritated about that turnover and that missed layup and the botched defensive rotation to even think.

At his annual checkup this fall, his doctor told him he was in good health and asked if he was experiencing much stress lately. Auriemma laughed and gave him a look that said, You do know what I do? Right?

Even this season, as the injuries have persisted and his numbers dwindled, again, this time to eight available players, perfection has remained the goal.

No matter that he’s starting two freshmen and had to move Bueckers into a power forward spot; no matter that the only player who had been healthy every single game during the last three regular seasons — Aaliyah Edwards — broke her nose in the Big East tournament.

There is more that this team can do, Auriemma believes, if he can just get it out of them. UConn has a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and, in Auriemma’s eyes, a path to the Final Four.

For UConn, the Final Four is both a goal and a checkpoint. It’s where they want to be and where they’ve always been, the most basic sign of life for the program.

Their streak of 14 straight Final Fours came to an end last season when they lost in the Sweet 16 as the choruses of “UConn’s dynasty is over” grew louder.

But to get there with this group with what they’ve been through? After last year? Sure, Auriemma can admit, this team has constraints, and it won’t be perfect, but it’s possible.

Because the record books will show that UConn and Auriemma have had six perfect seasons (the rest of the teams in women’s college basketball? They have three combined), but Auriemma will correct you and say zero.

He hasn’t seen it yet. Not in Breanna Stewart’s four straight national titles. Not in Maya Moore’s dominance. Not in Diana Taurasi’s accomplishments.

At some point, perhaps they’ll reach it. And even then — that perfection, whatever it is and however it shows up, if it introduces itself by name and shakes Auriemma by the shoulders — would that finally be good enough for him?

Auriemma laughs.

“Maybe,” he says. “Maybe.”

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