A day with UConn's Geno Auriemma: A lot of practice, basketball philosophy and banter with Paige Bueckers

STORRS — The wall-to-wall bank of windows on the far side of Geno Auriemma’s office provide him with a clear view of anyone passing through the shared spaces of the Werth Champions Center and headed toward the women’s basketball wing.

“She’s going to come over here,” Auriemma says, looking up from the seat behind his desk. “She’s going to come here and complain.”

No sign yet. Auriemma gets back to applying his autograph, the final blue-ink touches on thank-you cards to donors. There’s a stack of about 100 in front of him.

If you’ve come to appreciate even a portion of Auriemma’s personality in the 36 years he’s spent building and running one of the most successful college athletic programs in American history, you know he’s multitasking in that he’s storytelling.

“It used to be that to recruit a kid, you’d drive into Hartford, park your car, take a state car from the motor pool, drive to the high school — in New York, let’s say — drive back to the place in Hartford, return the car, get your car and drive home,” Auriemma says. “So you’re going to Christ The King [High School] to recruit a kid and Oklahoma just got there in a limo and you drive up in a Chevy Chevette with the seal that says State of Connecticut. Some of the stuff, man, was pretty hilarious. But, here we are.”

Auriemma, then 31, took this job in 1985, making $30,000 a year to coach a team without a winning tradition or a fan base. Now, at 67, he makes 100 times that — $3 million a year, with a contract that takes him through the 2024-25 season, his 40th. He is Connecticut’s highest paid state employee, the highest paid coach in women’s basketball, and his career record is 1,119-144.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats with his 11 national championship trophies displayed in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats with his 11 national championship trophies displayed in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

Olympic and world championship medals are displayed in a case to his right. Eleven national championship trophies are lined up to his left. Behind Auriemma are framed jerseys representing his 2006 Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame induction and his 1,000th victory at UConn, which came in 2017.

He looks out the window again, toward a balcony above the practice court. Still nothing.

“I hope she doesn’t have it on,” Auriemma says to no one in particular. He continues, now addressing the program’s director of operations, Sarah Darras. “Go check her out without her boot on. Say ‘Coach Auriemma sent me.’ She’ll be ticked off.”

The office is essentially a museum, with memorabilia to salute a program’s unprecedented success and even a sport’s evolution, hundreds of players, moments they’ve shared in the old Fieldhouse, at Gampel Pavilion and beyond. On the shelf above the window is a wooden bear holding a samovar, a Russian tea urn, carved by Oleg Abrosimov, the father of Svetlana Abrosimova, one of 17 UConn players named an Associated Press First-Team All-American over the years. Next to that is a blue custom-made pair of basketball shoes, with red lines signifying certain championships.

“Somebody thought I was actually going to wear those,” Auriemma says. “I’m surprised Paige or one of those guys hasn’t taken them.”

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

Paige Bueckers, rarely far from his mind … or his office. She will visit today. Eventually. Auriemma knows this. She probably isn’t wearing the protective boot she is supposed to, but she will definitely make an appearance because she does every day, cackling down the hallway, dipping into Auriemma’s office, starting conversation in a playfully confrontational and totally disarming way.

Auriemma looks up again. Still no sign. It’s about 3 p.m.

“She’ll come,” he says. “I guarantee it. And she’ll say something.”

The beauty of this relationship might be that Auriemma usually has no idea what Bueckers might say, and vice versa. The interplay between a 67-year-old male coach from suburban Philadelphia and Eastern Connecticut and a 19-year-old female player from suburban Minneapolis, each drawing from the same brazen personality, has lent fresh dialogue, and even perspective, to a program that adapts while staying true to its roots.

Windows For Players

More than two months have passed since UConn’s season ended with a national semifinal loss to Arizona in San Antonio. It was the Huskies’ 13th consecutive Final Four appearance, a streak outlasting the memory of most current players. The annual landing spot this time was the culmination of a season that Auriemma says changed the way he coached.

He was initially so frustrated with the 2020-21 group that he once walked out of a practice and was down and out, utterly exasperated, for the way he couldn’t find traction with what he was teaching and what he demanded. Ultimately, though, he was inspired by this innocently stubborn group, embracing who each player was and, therefore, what the team could be.

The season was a rewarding tip-toe and then charge through COVID-19 and into the minds of players whose constitution he seems to understand even in moments that leave him at a loss. Yet there are times for goofy exchanges that somehow bridge this generational gap, and times that aren’t.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma's 11 national championship trophies are displayed in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma's 11 national championship trophies are displayed in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

So here was Auriemma on this recent Monday morning, June 14. He granted Hearst Connecticut Media behind-the-scenes access to his workday, which essentially amounted to four-plus hours in the gym, a break for a workout and lunch, four-plus hours in his office. There wasn’t much going on — outside of Auriemma’s mind, anyway.

“There are windows for players,” he says, slowly pacing the gym. “When it is slammed shut, you’ll never get it back.”

The rest of the staff — associate head coach Chris Dailey, assistants Jamelle Elliott and Morgan Valley — push players through drills as Auriemma observes and makes an occasional comment. If he’s any more involved in the summer, Auriemma figures, players will tune him out by November. This aspect of the job hasn’t changed — the analysis, the teaching, Auriemma demanding of his players what he didn’t always demand of himself at their age: a relentless pursuit of perfection, complete dedication to a craft.

“Say you’re [a baseball player] working out with Joe Girardi or Jim Penders and you go, ‘I don’t see the curveball early enough,’ ” Auriemma says. “So you listen to Joe and Penders and they start you off with a couple breaking balls, up the speed a little, now five straight pitches, you rip it. ‘Thanks coach, I got it.’ You leave and you never practice anymore and the first game, you strike out on three straight curveballs and you go, ‘What the ...’ Well, you haven’t practiced hitting a curveball since the day you and I did it. You have to love the game.”

Auriemma’s job, he says, is to be hard on players until they become hard on themselves and each other. What sometimes irks him is what irks him about himself, looking back on his childhood and teenage years in Norristown, Pa. His father, Donato, worked a backbreaking job every day, creating cinder blocks. His mother, Marsiella, worked in near-sweat shop conditions making throw carpets and eventually on an unforgiving assembly line. Marsiella, who turned 90 on June 10, never learned to read, and she didn’t speak English at the time, but she figured out how never to make a mistake.

A 2016 Olympic gold medal is displayed among several rings in the office of UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

A 2016 Olympic gold medal is displayed among several rings in the office of UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

Marsiella had to get everything right. Geno has spent much of his adult life feeling the same way. That is what he expects from players — not for them to get everything right, but for them to feel it is important to try to. Just enough is never enough. It doesn’t take players who grasp that long to win him over.

“See, look at Nika,” Auriemma says of sophomore Nika Muhl, the guard from Croatia. “She works to exhaustion, like, ‘I didn’t come all the way over here to be just average.’ ”

Moments later, he’s yelling.

“Damn! Stop hitting the rim! Get that ball up on the glass, Nika! Get that ball up high!”

Softer, he says, “I have to be a [jerk]. All anybody sees is that you missed a layup. Nobody remembers how hard you worked to get that layup.”

I Talk To God

Coffee in hand around 9:30 a.m., Auriemma takes a sip and says, “Paige … there’s an ongoing issue with her.”

Bueckers underwent surgery April 30 to repair an osteochondral defect on her right ankle, the recovery from which will keep her sidelined throughout the summer. She just got off crutches June 10 and she is supposed to be wearing a protective boot or ankle brace, just about always. She does not.

Auriemma looks toward Bueckers, sitting against a wall after a session on a stationary bike. She picks up the brace and holds it in the air. She smiles.

“She said it’s my fault,” Auriemma says. “I said, ‘What’s my fault?’ She said, ‘That I had surgery. I didn’t need it.’ She says she talked to God. She said, ‘He’s going to heal me different than everybody else.’”

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats with sophomore guard Paige Bueckers in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats with sophomore guard Paige Bueckers in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

He shakes his head and repeats this to himself over and again.

I talked to God. I talked to God.

Auriemma is entertained.

“Yeah, I talk to God, too,” Auriemma says playfully. “He tells me what a dummy you are. It was either have the surgery or wait and hope the ankle gets better. Hope is not a plan. I like plans. I want you to be healthy next season and the season after that and 10 years from now.”

Bueckers, the national player of the year as a freshman, is one of nine underclassmen on the team.

“They come with a different enthusiasm that certainly has brought a different kind of enjoyment to us,” said Dailey, who has been with Auriemma since the beginning. “They're a piece of work. There are days where I scratch my head. There are days where they drive me crazy. Most of the days, they make me laugh. They can be challenging, but I wouldn’t trade them. It's an infectious spirit, a competitive spirit.

“They are not going to win a war of words with him. They may want to battle, but they're not going to win. They enjoy the sparring. As does he.”

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats with sophomore guards Nika Mühl, not pictured, and Paige Bueckers in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats with sophomore guards Nika Mühl, not pictured, and Paige Bueckers in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

Auriemma is chatting with sophomore Piath Gabriel, who has lost significant weight after a recent surgery (a genetic issue, stomach-related, Auriemma explains). Gabriel, like Bueckers, will need months to recover. Bueckers approaches.

“A hundred dollars says Piath is back before you,” Auriemma says. “Where’s your ankle boot?”

“I kill her,” Auriemma says moments later. “And she gives it right back to me. I said, ‘Steph Curry made 77 straight 3’s from that spot. She said, ‘I could make 700.’ I said, ‘I’ll give you my Manchester house, my beach house and one year’s salary.’ She said, ‘I can do it.’ ”

He shakes his head again — he does this a lot — and that faraway look sweeps over Auriemma’s face, the one that suggests he’s still comprehending the bane of his professional existence being a source of such professional joy.

Fantasy Land

UConn won its first national title in 1995, Auriemma’s 10th season, and its second five years later. The time in between was spent considering the program’s place in the sport. One-hit wonder?

Programs tend to rise and fall. Yet UConn climbed to join Tennessee at the top of the sport, eventually surpassed the Lady Vols, took us through the fascinating Geno-Pat sagas that fueled one of history’s best rivalries, never a dip, 25-plus years and counting. The Huskies are still on top, riding a coach’s approach established in 1985, through a changing world that has current players under the increasingly focused scrutiny of social media.

Everything is the same in Storrs, with one top recruiting class and 30-plus victory season after the next. Everything is different, too. Choosing to play at UConn means embracing impossible expectations.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

Auriemma calls his program’s track record something out of a fantasy land. There were 111 victories in a row at one point. Four consecutive national titles, too. That’s not reality, Auriemma likes to say, even though it was. The problem is, some expect that standard to be met, always, no hiccups. It is the monster the program created and now lives with.

“I prefer to have the best team and know we have the best team and have everybody know we have the best team,” Dailey said. “The pressure has never really come [from the outside], and that starts with Geno. Any pressure we've ever felt has been internal, and that pressure is to make sure we're getting the most out of each team. But I'm not immune to what is said. I'm just baffled by how little people know about how difficult what we've done has been, and how hard it is for 18-22 year-olds to try to achieve at a level that is almost impossible. I get a little frustrated sometimes for our players, or for Geno or our program, when it's ‘They haven't won in five years.’ Like we should disband the program.’ ”

The Huskies are 164-10 the past five seasons, with Final Four losses to Mississippi State in 2017 (at the overtime buzzer), Notre Dame in 2018 (also at the overtime buzzer), Notre Dame in 2019 and Arizona in 2021.

Public dissection has never been more intense than in this age of branding and influence. Players, more so than ever, are considering their image and a variety of voices. The forces that Auriemma cannot control are potentially overwhelming for teenagers he’s paid to develop as players and people. He tells stories of players breaking down in tears, inconsolable, after games … even games UConn had won.

“They are worried about what somebody might say about them,” Auriemma said. “Because in their world, they’re either great or they suck. You make the winning shot, you’re way better than Stefanie Dolson. You play [poorly], ‘Why does she even have a scholarship?’ So we have to create an environment here where, we have to coach you, but we have to make this a safe place.”

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

Freshman Azzi Fudd, like Bueckers one of the most celebrated amateur players in recent memory, has entered the gym. They are, by far, UConn’s two best players.

“Imagine being Paige and Azzi,” Auriemma says.

They’re as famous as many WNBA players. Fudd was the national high school player of the year in 2019, Bueckers in 2020. They are the closest of friends. Fudd is 18, Bueckers a year older. They are continually compared to one another. Who is better? It makes no sense, Auriemma says. They’re completely different. One is Gayle Sayers, he says, and one is Jim Brown.

“Put yourself back at their age, having to deal with what they deal with, where their only value as a human being is how they perform,” Auriemma says. “That’s how they’re made to feel sometimes. People say we love you no matter what. But there are very few people out there who have the kind of heart and compassion for kids that will not judge them. That’s the only side of them you see, those two hours. You don’t get to see the other side of these kids.

“I tell these guys, whatever [the public] says great about you, it ain’t true. Whatever they [criticize] you about, it ain’t true. You’re going to be exalted when you’re good. You’re going to be cut to pieces when you’re bad. The only thing that matters is, are you proud of your effort?”

Party Line

Auriemma’s first office at UConn, from 1985 until the 1991 opening of Gampel Pavilion, was on the second level of the Fieldhouse. He shared it with Dailey. There were two black rotary phones tied to a party line, and quite often when either picked up to dial it was occupied. Sometimes by Jim Calhoun’s secretary.

Only a wall separated the Auriemma/Dailey office from the office of Calhoun, who arrived in 1986, won three national championships, and retired as a Hall of Famer in 2012. The work in those offices were the building blocks to the greatest simultaneous rise in college basketball history. Auriemma and Calhoun got along fine for a while. That the relationship soured is well documented.

“We saw each other every day, and in the beginning he would walk in and sit in the chair against the wall and wouldn’t shut up,” Auriemma said. “We’d talk for hours. He wouldn’t leave. Then we started winning and people said ‘How come the women win and the men don’t?’ And that was it.”

Today Auriemma’s office is lined with national coach of the year trophies, basketballs from signature victories, framed newspaper covers, including one New York Times dated July 4, 2020, with the headline “GREAT IMMIGRANTS GREAT AMERICANS.” Auriemma, whose family came to the U.S. from Italy when he was eight, is on the list.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma putts a golf ball in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma putts a golf ball in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

There’s a 2011 picture of Auriemma, then coach of the U.S. National Team, walking and talking with Gen. Martin Dempsey, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There’s one of him with George W. Bush, another with Barack Obama.

Beneath the 11 championship trophies are rows of books but the two he is currently reading are on a tablet: Alexander Hamilton, the biography by Ron Chernow, and The Splendid and The Vile, in which author Erik Larson explores the leadership of Winston Churchill during a relentless bombing campaign by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. Much about World War II, pretty much anything about leaders showing no fear in the face of great odds, fascinates him.

Auriemma pulls out Pressure Basketball, published in 1964, when author Jack Ramsay was coach at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia.

“I know all these guys,” Auriemma says, flipping through pages, chuckling, nostalgic.

John Thompson, George Raveling, Mike Kempski, Jim Lynam and many others in black and white photos.

“This doesn’t go away,” Auriemma says. “These principles still exist. Some kids today might want to skip a step because they’re just so athletic, but the basic fundamentals are the very much the same.”

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats with Director of Operations Sarah Darras in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma chats with Director of Operations Sarah Darras in his office at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

From a desk drawer he pulls Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text of philosophy. Then he grabs another favorite — Crossing the Rubicon: Caesar's Decision and the Fate of Rome, about Julius Caesar and his army crossing the Rubicon River, leading to the Roman Civil War.

“There was no turning back,” Auriemma said. “Now you’re an enemy of Rome, so you had to go fight. I love that stuff.”

He thought for a moment, flashed a diabolical smile.

“I [mess] with people,” he said. “The reason I like this book — Marcus Aurelius, I’m related to him. I’m a descendant of his.”

That’s what Auriemma would say, anyway, explaining: “Yeah, A … U … R … and my cousins and aunts would look at me and go, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ ”

Twin Power

Auriemma looks up again. It’s 3:45.

“Here she comes. Look. I told you. Here they come.”

It’s warning, preparation. Bueckers enters the office. She is wearing the protective boot.

“You don’t need to put a scout on me,” she says.

Muhl is with her. “His eminence,” is her greeting.

There is back-and-forth about the boot before Bueckers and Muhl lead the type of discussion that made Auriemma mention several times last season that no one would believe the things his newest players say to him.

“Your sidekick isn’t here,” Muhl says. “Keep that in mind.”

Dailey had left campus.

UConn sophomore guards Nika Mühl, left, and Paige Bueckers laugh while stopping by head coach Geno Auriemma's office after practice at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

UConn sophomore guards Nika Mühl, left, and Paige Bueckers laugh while stopping by head coach Geno Auriemma's office after practice at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Monday, June 14, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

“Coach,” Muhl says. “Twin power is stronger …

“… than your power and CD’s power,” Bueckers interjects.

“Unmatchable, bro,” Muhl says.

“Our minds overpower yours and CD’s,” Bueckers says.

“The strength of our minds when we’re together is unmatchable in his universe,” Muhl said.

“The strength of your minds?” Auriemma says.

“We’re living proof,” Bueckers said.

“Of what?” Auriemma asks.

“Magic,” Bueckers said.

Auriemma: “That God creates all creatures big and small and God had to make people like you to give us somebody to take care of.”

Bueckers: “We’re taking care of the whole world.”

Auriemma: “On one foot?”

Bueckers: “I’ve got the weight of the world on my ankle. It’s healing.”

They discuss a lingering foot injury that Fudd has been dealing with, how she was particularly uncomfortable in the morning workout.

Fudd will work out with Bueckers the next day, they acknowledge.

“She wants to be just like me,” Bueckers says.

Auriemma starts to throw more jabs.

“Before Nika got in the starting lineup, she used to come in all the time. Paige, did you notice that?”

Muhl had left the office but turned back sharply. “What did he say? No. Remember we had a fight?”

Auriemma: “Before she was in the starting lineup she’d be up here every day, ‘Hi, Coach. How are you? How’s your day?’ Then she got in the starting lineup and …”

“Not true!” Muhl says. “We had a fight, so I didn’t come. I was pretty mad for a long time. He walked out of practice. Yes, that was it. Don’t act like you don’t remember. You remember when we had a talk? When we had to come to an agreement that you can’t leave? That you have to suffer and stay longer?”

“Actually,” Auriemma says, “I’ve got it figured out better this year. I’m going back to the old days. I’m just going to throw you guys out. Let me call a doctor for you. You guys are headcases.”

“OK,” Muhl says. “Bye, Coach.”

The players giggle as they leave. Auriemma is processing what just happened, though it’s not complicated.

“They love their life, man,” he says. “They love life.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com