I walked into the press conference to announce AP coach and player of the year Saturday, but I left with more questions than answers.
The presentation of the award winners occurred after a full day of open practices and interviews for all Final Four teams at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Most reporters, like myself, had already been there for many hours when we were ushered into the interview area for the announcement.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and forward Breanna Stewart sat at the long table on the dais, to no one’s surprise. But the 30-year head of the program didn’t look like his usual fiesty self. When he began talking, it was with a softer voice than usual.
A reporter asked him if this year’s Final Four team feels differently than previous Final Four squads, and Auriemma fumbled for an answer.
“I’ve been trying to figure it out. I don’t know why, it just feels different,” he said, his voice fading.
Then Auriemma got tears in his eyes and his voice trembled. He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes and was barely able to get out the words to associate head coach Chris Dailey, sitting in front of him:
“It’s because of you, CD,” he said, and then turned to Stewart, on his right. “Start talking, Stewie.”
It’s a good thing that the young All-American is so polished at professional speaking, because the room needed a moment to absorb the shock of what they’d just seen. Auriemma is known for his quick responses, blunt talk and occasional barbs than displays of emotion.
After the press conference, he was cornered by a handful of media. I waked up and squeezed in next to the wall on his right side, just in time to hear him make one of the most poignant statements of the entire season.
“It’s getting much much harder to connect with every kid on the team in the way that you need to, that they need you to,” Auriemma said. “Yet look at our record and where we are and what we’ve done. What we present to the general public is one thing; what we deal with internally is another.”
It’s a refrain I’m hearing more and more from the generation just before me, how difficult it is to relate to today’s young people, who would rather text someone sitting across from them than talk one-on-one. Hearing Auriemma say that he was having trouble relating, however, was an eye-opener. And possibly a sign.
Then he discussed the gap between Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck and the rest of the Huskies.
“The biggest struggle has been….trying to get the other eight to catch up to those three,” Auriemma said.
There has been much speculation that this marks the end of Connecticut’s era of dominance. Auriemma was quoted yesterday as saying next year’s team is “in for a rude awakening.” The “catch up” comment seems to support those theories.
A reporter asked Auriemma what made him emotional.
“There comes a time when you’re hit with the fact that it’s all about the people: the respect you have for each other, the love you have for each other. How rare it is to find that today, and when you have it, you never want to let it go. You don’t want to lose it,” he said.
“I don’t know how many times we’re going to be back here. Maybe never. The longer I’m at this, the more I have understood that….it’s about appreciating what these people do every day to make it work.”
He was then asked if it’s tough to adapt to new circumstances – most specifically, being put in the American Athletic Conference. He ended up talking about Connecticut’s high expectations:
“When the Big East Conference broke up, it was the equivalent of a basketball tragedy,” Auriemma said. “But that’s America. So where everybody ended up, you’ve got to look around….and manage this.”
“For us at Connecticut, it’s made us focus on: the most important thing is those three weekends in March….right now everything we do from the time we show up when school starts is: what do we do to get ready for those three weekends in March?”
I jumped in at that point and asked Auriemma if it was hard to stay on top.
“If I would say yeah, it’s unbelievably hard, you’d say, ‘really?'” he said.
I elaborated: “I’ve always heard it’s harder to stay on top than to get there.”
Still soft-spoken, Auriemma nodded.
“Yeah, because the inclination when you get to the top – at some point you have to get back down,” he said. “Because once you go to the top of the mountain, what are you going to do when you’ve taken in all the sights. After you’ve seen things that no other person can see, maybe. Then what are you going to do?”
“So at some point you’ve go to come back down, tell everybody about it and take other people with you and see if you can do it again. You go up to the top, you get there in April, you climb back down, start back in September, and it repeats itself. That’s why you try to celebrate all the time is you know it’s hard to keep making that climb every year, every year, when you know the only thing that’s going to satisfy you and your players is winning that championship.”
“That’s hard. It’s hard because it puts a lot of pressure on the kids. And they’re not robots – they’re 18, 19, 20, 21-year-old kids, and you’re asking them to do something every day, and do it in front of 18,000 people. With the whole world watching, and you’re asking them to be great. That’s a lot to ask.”
“It’s pretty amazing we’ve been able to do it as often as we have, and as well as we’ve been able to do it. That’s what happens when people come out of the woodwork and talk about what it means. Ask these guys what it means, and you’ll get a different perspective on it.”
I then stepped over to Dailey and asked her if she knew what prompted Auriemma’s display of emotion. She was as baffled as anyone else.
“I have no idea, I’m as surprised as you are,” Dailey said. “A lot of times when people accept awards they thank their coaching staff, and as a member of the staff you know they’re appreciative ad you understand your role. But to have him get emotional about that it means a lot. It’s not something we do on a regular basis.”
“I know even when I annoy him he appreciates it at some level. It’s heart felt and genuine and it’s much appreciated. It showed a different side he’s usually not speechless at a loss for words.”
When I was standing next to Auriemma, I was dying to ask him if he was about to retire. He has two years left on his current contract, and he has arguably broken every record possible for a college coach at this point in his career.
But like every other reporter there, including some big names, I was afraid to ask. The implications are certainly there.
We will see what happens.