AP Sports

Geno Auriemma is in his 39th season at UConn and near 1,200 wins. He ponders the end of his career

VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — The frame reserved for Geno Auriemma’s photo is empty — it rests atop two display cases of autographed UConn basketballs to the right of a collection of Joel Embiid memorabilia — inside a suburban Philadelphia sandwich shop.

Auriemma’s late mother, Marsiella — an Italian immigrant once praised by President Barack Obama at a White House visit — had lobbied the store owner to stick her son’s picture on the Bar of Fame.

And why not?

Auriemma was raised in Norristown, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles from the Collegeville Italian Bakery that was the family’s cheesesteak stop of choice. Auriemma places an order for his team so substantive when UConn plays each season at Villanova that owner Steve Carcarey is forced to decline the offer of free tickets to the game so he can assist his staff with the time-consuming task of prepping the cheesesteaks, pastas, breads and the rest of the takeout order headed for the Huskies.

Auriemma likes his cheesesteak with fried onions. Former AP Player of the Year Paige Bueckers cradled a loaf of crusty Italian bread like a football before she boarded the team bus back to Connecticut.

Thanks for the business, Geno.

But as for that photo, no dice.

“We have a spot for him,” Carcarey said, laughing. “It says, ‘Coming soon, Geno Auriemma.’”

The reason for the blank space: Auriemma has yet to visit the store — the No. 1 rule to earn a spot on the Bar of Fame, a seemingly tougher requirement than any stipulation the Huskies coach faced for his spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Maybe in retirement Auriemma can pop in for a leisurely lunch.

“You think it’s going to be his last time” coaching UConn at Villanova? Carcarey asked.

It’s the question of the day back in the quiet college town in Connecticut. If Auriemma, who turns 70 next month, knows the answer, he has kept his decision quiet. But until that moment, Auriemma’s basketball odometer keeps ticking, headed toward the top spot as the winningest coach of all time. Should No. 11 UConn beat Seton Hall on Wednesday, Auriemma will earn his 1,200th career victory — to go along with 11 national championships — all at the school that hired him in 1985.

Former Duke and Army coach Mike Krzyzewski is next with 1,203 wins. Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer set the mark last month when she passed Krzyzewski and currently has 1,206 wins.

Krzyzewski and VanDerveer combined for eight national titles.

Impressive, sure.

Consider, though, Auriemma won his eighth in 2013 and then churned out three more.

“It’s like LeBron,” Bueckers said. “It’s so hard to stay that great for that long.”

Auriemma is among the last of his breed of valued, empowered championship coaches still recruiting, still grinding out the work in hope of that next championship run. Krzyzewski retired in 2022. Former North Carolina coach Roy Williams retired in 2021.

Take a look at college football and the NFL, where Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll and Nick Saban all left their vice-like grip on jobs that came with championship expectations shrouded in the type of mystique not yet extinct in Storrs, where Auriemma is still revered and leading a team undefeated in the Big East and worthy of that 12th national title.

UConn isn’t exactly laying in the weeds — Bueckers put a torn ACL behind her and returned to All-American form — but the program hasn’t sparked the type of buzz it did when Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and others dominated the game. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark ignited a frenzy wherever she plays. LSU’s Kim Mulkey is perhaps the most divisive coach in college basketball and star player Angel Reese has taunted her way to the top. On the backs of those stars, the NCAA and ESPN announced last month a $920 million, eight-year agreement that included the rights to the women’s tournament.

So it goes in Storrs, where women’s hoops entered a popularity spike — even as transfer portal and name, image and likeness ( NIL) rules complicated the sport — all while the Huskies are spinning toward eight years since their last national championship.

DePaul coach Doug Bruno, who served under Auriemma as an assistant on the women’s national basketball team, said not even the title drought can dampen the indelible impact Auriemma and the Huskies made on college basketball.

“They’ve done the most of any intercollegiate basketball program in the history of basketball, men or women,” Bruno said.

UConn has the type of cachet where prickly transfers or NIL funds aren’t much of a headache. Bueckers signed a deal with Gatorade and Azzi Fudd has inked deals with fast food and clothing companies. Auriemma stood by comments from last month that caught him heat — from Reese and Mississippi State’s Lauren Park-Lane among others — for lamenting in the portal era that some players “feel like they owe you nothing and you owe them everything.”

“I think that’s why coaches get into coaching, is to have those kind of relationships with their players,” Auriemma said last week at Villanova. “As that’s disappearing somewhat, maybe, so is the fun of coaching, to be honest.”

So is Auriemma having less fun?

“Less fun? Different kind of fun,” Auriemma said. “It’s so different, man. It’s so, so different looking at it from a 40-year perspective. Right now, the beauty of coaching is trying to make them have a similar experience that those other players had. When you see it actually happening, it’s really, really rewarding. It just doesn’t happen enough.”

Auriemma teared up at last month’s celebration of past great teams during a highlight film of his 2003-04 Huskies that finished 31-4 and won a national title. Taurasi had told Auriemma that it wasn’t until she left the program that she gained the perspective needed to realize just how fantastic and meaningful those championship seasons are to her, how tight the connections with her teammates, that will stay with her for life.

The outlook resonated with Auriemma.

“If I had known how good they were, and appreciated it then, as much as I appreciate it now, I would have had a lot more fun when I was coaching them,” Auriemma said.

Auriemma insisted the fun — and yes, the stress — comes from chasing a championship and not the personal legacies largely associated with his own hefty win count. Auriemma feigned ignorance after a recent win put him four away from 1,200 — “Am I?” — and hoped VanDerveer has “got a lot more left in her” and bulks up her win total over her final seasons.

“He doesn’t care about 1,202 or 1,203 or 1,204,” Bruno said. “He cares about those 11 banners. He’d probably cut his head open trying to get his 12th.”

Auriemma’s arrival at 31 years old merited no more than a few paragraphs from local newspapers in 1985. The Day (of New London, Connecticut) placed his hiring story under Potpourri just above a brief on high school sports rainouts. He made the Philly File in a Daily News story that basically noted his local ties to Bishop Kenrick (Class of ’72) and West Chester University.

His retirement will make global headlines.

Auriemma envisions coaching a final season without the pomp of a farewell tour. All he needed to do last week to reinforce that idea was the right one was peek to his right at the retired coach watching the Big East matchup from his baseline seat.

Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright floored Villanova when he retired weeks after leading the Wildcats to a Final Four in 2022. Maybe that’s how Auriemma will call it quits.

“To be honest with you,” Auriemma said, “I like Jay’s way.”

UConn is in no rush for Auriemma to decide, and with a $15 million extension set to end after next season, he doesn’t have to make the call this summer. Auriemma, though, perhaps foreshadowed his future when he noted UConn likely would offer him another contract, but “at some point, you’re going to say no.”

He has grandchildren he’d like to spend more time with — including a 10-year-old grandson who cries when the Philadelphia Eagles lose — and enjoy the spoils of retirement. Let his successor worry about keeping the Huskies contenders among the massive demands of recruiting and NIL and the portal.

Auriemma has a visit due at a neighborhood cheesesteak joint.

___

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