Geno Auriemma: The Al Davis of Women’s Basketball

“They said you had to take what the defense gave you. No, we are going to take what we want.” – Al Davis, A Football Life.

“We don’t go into the tournament wanting to survive and advance. We want to beat our opponent so bad that the next round opponent doesn’t even want to play us.” – Geno Auriemma, 2014 NCAA Final pregame.

geno auriemma wins
When I started watching the “A Football Life” documentary on Al Davis a day after the UConn women had dismantled Notre Dame, I was not looking for some grand epiphany about Geno Auriemma’s standing the sports world. There just wasn’t anything good to watch – Wednesday is a brutal night for television.

Then the Al Davis quotes started coming, like the one above. The slogans he coined – Just Win, Baby and Commitment to Excellence – that were aimed at the singular goal of creating a winner. Davis said his goal in life was to create the perfect sports franchise, one that combined the greatness of the New York Yankees with the iconic brand of play that defined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Though Davis became a caricature late in his life, his impact on the game of pro football and the NFL is felt every single day. Heck, if it weren’t for him, who knows if the AFL and NFL merge or if the Super Bowl brand even exists.

On the field, he did things his way. He wanted the possibility of throwing it deep on every down – taken for granted in 2014, yet absolutely mind-blowing in 1964. He wanted his defense aggressive. He wanted to destroy other teams. He had zero issues with being the villain.

As I continued to watch the Davis documentary, the thoughts of Geno kept floating through because the defiance that Davis portrayed in interviews, even late in his life, are present in Geno. Davis operated his Raiders with a chip on his shoulder because he never felt like he got the respect he deserved, despite the championships.

Don’t you get the same feeling about Geno?

Prior to the Notre Dame final, UConn’s Breanna Stewart was named Player of the Year and Notre Dame’s head coach Muffet McGraw didn’t clap. She thought her player should have won – as if no other player in history had been snubbed for an award.

Some coaches would have deflected it. Some coaches would have alluded to a feud. Some coaches are not Geno Auriemma. He firebombed McGraw, Notre Dame and, by proxy, the entire women’s game.

“Nobody knows what it’s like being us. Nobody knows what we go through every day, what our players go through every time they win an award, everybody gets pissed off. Worst off, they act pissed off because our guys won an award because it’s Connecticut all the time, all Connecticut all the time. People are sick of it. It’s just natural. We live with it 365 days a year. So, if you’re going to come in and try to live in that air then you need to deal with it.”

When I wrote about the greatness of Kevin Ollie, I focused on the X’s and O’s of what he did with a team that appeared in several games to be in trouble. Against Kentucky, for example, they were facing a lineup of future NBA players. Against Florida and Michigan State, they played against teams with supposedly superior front lines. In each game, Ollie made an adjustment to allow his great, but thin, team to take over.

For Geno, he will usually have the more talented team. Now this is not to confirm the national narrative that Geno rolls out the balls and his group of stars simply dominates.

They are coached to perfection by a perfectionist – the “commitment to excellence” if you will.

geno auriemma mad
The prime example came late in UConn’s win over Notre Dame. They were up 20, about five minutes to go and they committed a terrible turnover. Who cares, right? The game and season are over – UConn is on its way to title #9. But no, that’s not how Geno operates. He got mad. He yelled. He gestured. You play for Geno for 40 minutes.

I wish people outside of Connecticut watched the women’s basketball team more often because they would see Geno’s drive and determination on a daily basis. No matter the opponent, he has the volume turned up to 11.

That’s why they are 9-0 in the championship games. That’s why they went 40-0 this year. As Geno said in the postgame, everything builds toward playing your best game in the biggest game.

Geno’s coaching has also led to a dramatic difference in how women’s college basketball is played. Much like how Al Davis wanted to throw the ball deep, Geno wants to speed the game up. He wants the game played fast. He likes up-tempo. He likes a good shot, whether that’s 1 second into the shot clock or 12. He likes pressure. Again, everything is turned up to 11.

It’s actually the reverse of the men’s game, which 20 to 25 years ago was all speed, whether it was UNLV, the 40 Minutes of Hell in Arkansas or the Fab Five. With a few outliers, the men’s coaches have deliberately slowed down the game, working for the best shot and milking the clock. Of course the coaches that actually win – the Roy Williams, the Bill Self, the John Calipari’s of the world – don’t subscribe to that. But the men’s game has slowed down.

The women’s game? It’s sped up because UConn sped it up. The first half of the UConn/Notre Dame final felt like a men’s game in 1992, with players taking open jumpers early in the shot clock and making them. Geno doesn’t overcoach the X’s and O’s – he coaches the players and ensures they make the right decisions.

The parallels with Davis include the fact that both are the villains of their sport, born out of jealously. No one likes Geno. He wins all the time. He’s arrogant. He lets you know about it. Al Davis was the same way.

They also both represented something new, something different, that changed the sport. Al Davis wasn’t Vince Lombardi and people didn’t like him for it. Geno Auriemma isn’t Pat Summitt and people don’t like him for it.

Ultimately, neither man really gave a damn what people thought. Davis won 3 Super Bowl titles in 7 years. Geno has won 9 national titles in 20. Both are absolute legends. Both are among the most legendary figures in their sport.

Both are the bad guys. Davis actually wore black to hammer home the analogy. UConn usually wears white.

They say you should win the right way. For fans of the 1970’s Raiders, and for fans of the UConn women, winning the “right way” means something different than it does for the opponents.

It means winning all the time. Just win, baby.

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