Geno Auriemma talks tourney cancellation, NCAA and the future

UConn coach Geno Auriemma and Tennessee coach Kellie Harper talked before their teams faced each other in January for the first time in 13 years. AP photo.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma and Tennessee coach Kellie Harper talked before their teams faced each other in January for the first time in 13 years. AP photo.

In a teleconference yesterday, Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma discussed his disappointment for athletes of the cancelled NCAA tournament, his frustration with the 24-hour sports media cycle, some actions the NCAA could take for student-athletes, and the future of his program.

The full transcript of the interview follows:

Question: (Pat Eaton-Robb, AP) Can you talk about what’s happening with your players, especially like Anna [Makurat ,from Poland], who lives out of the country? Are people staying on campus? Are they going back home? Are you guys making things available to them?

Auriemma: Well, Spring Break is scheduled for Monday. So there wouldn’t be any classes next week either way. Those players that can go home, I’m sure are gonna go home. Those players that have to stay on campus, for whatever reason, there’s going to be accommodations made for them to stay on campus. It will be difficult for Anna to go home because if they say, ‘hey school’s gonna reopen on April 1 or April 3 or whatever,’ and you’re not here and can’t get back to the country, that causes some issues going forward. So, those that can go home are going to, those that have to stay for various reasons, whether it be rehab, they need to do some work academically, or in Anna’s case they can’t travel realistically, they’ll be on campus.

Question: (Alexa Philippou, Hartford Courant): Could you address the situation over the days, starting with when, initially, the tournament would be without fans, and up to yesterday when obviously they decided to cancel it. Just how you talked with them about this unprecedented situation, especially with the seniors?

Auriemma: Well, when we got together yesterday for practice, I brought up the scenario that was unfolding in terms of what was happening in the NBA and other sports around the country, especially major league sports. And I said we have no control over what might happen, so all we can do is try to get ready today, which was yesterday, take the precautions we need to take individually and as a team, being cognizant of the fact that once one of the players was involved in the NBA, don’t believe all the stories that this is an old people’s problem. That was pretty much the extent of our conversation about it, then obviously when it was canceled, everybody was already gone out of the building. So, we contacted everybody, everybody knew about it, everybody contacted us and we’re meeting in a little bit to go over exactly what happened, why it happened, what it means and what we’re going to do going forward.

Question: (Howard Megdal, High Post Hoops): I’m curious for you – I mean this is reasonably uncharted territory – this is a total change in your routine. I’m just wondering if you thought through How are you going to spend your next few weeks? What your plans are, and how you deal with ending a little bit earlier in the season?

Auriemma: Well it’s not as if, ‘hey we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament so now we have three weeks, we don’t know what to do with them,’ ‘Hey, let’s get on a plane and go on vacation,’ ‘hey let’s do this, let’s do that.’ We as coaches are just as affected by this as the average person is out there that isn’t a coach. So we’re trying to take the same mindset, what’s prudent, what’s responsible. So I don’t plan to be anywhere, do anything. I’ll probably just go to work and do what I’ve been doing, even though there’s no practice. It’s not normal, but then again, what is anymore? It is what it is.

Question: (Carl Adamec, Journal Inquirer): You’ve been to 30 NCAA tournaments, or whatever it is. What are your feelings for coaches and players that might have been playing in their first one? Carla Berube would have been coaching in her first Division I Tournament? Marisa Moseley was in the Patriot League semi-finals, hosting for the first time. Just your feelings for the people that are missing out on what would have been for them, once in a lifetime?

Auriemma: Absolutely. That is quite different than the experience of someone who’s coached for as long as I have and has been to as many NCAA Tournaments as I have. The reaction is obviously quite different. When you don’t get an opportunity to go to your first one. I certainly remember vividly what it was like when we made the NCAA tournament for the very first time, and I can only imagine what I would have felt like, what my players would have felt like if at that time, someone would have said, ‘Hey, congratulations for winning the Big East but the Tournament is canceled.’ So I can sympathize with them, I can certainly feel what they’re going through and what their team is going through. How do you deal with that, how do you come to grips with that, you and your team? There’s no blueprint for this, there’s no manual that tells you, ‘hey this is what you do in this situation.’ So we just try to do the best we can and put ourselves in position to be in the same exact spot we’re in next year.

Question: (Joe D’Ambrosio, WTIC radio): How close do you think you were with these guys to really making a solid run?

Auriemma: The players all certainly felt that way. The attitude and the feeling on the team was we’re playing our best basketball. We talked about that. Realistically, how many teams do we actually think could win a national championship? It’s not 20, it may not even be 10, but whatever number it was, we felt like we put ourselves in a position where we were certainly going to have an opportunity to play our way into it. It wasn’t as it was two months ago where we felt like we just don’t have it, we just don’t possess the things you need, we’re not doing the things you have to be doing at this time to consider yourself a true Final Four contender. But what’s transpired over the last month had made it clear and obvious to everyone that, ‘Yeah, yeah we are.’ And it’s just ironic that just when you put yourself in that space, it’s not gonna be possible for you to prove it.

Question: (Doug Bonjour, Hearst) : I was just wondering what your conversations with,  like with the seniors, especially Crystal [Dangerfield], and how they handle this?

Auriemma: My conversation with Crystal initially was, ‘when something happens that you just never gave any thought to, you never suspected would ever come to pass.’ And it had to do with, ‘I don’t believe that it’s actually happening.’ Crystal said ‘it’s very difficult for me to sit here and think about there’s no practice, there’s no NCAA Tournament.’ That’s just inconceivable a week ago, Monday night, Monday night when we won the conference tournament and Crystal said this is not really the trophy that I’m playing for this year. So, not an easy conversation and adults are having a hard time trying to figure this one out, much less the young people that are directly affected by this.

Question: (Unknown Speaker): Do you know whether the Werth Center [UConn’s basketball practice facility] is going to be open for these kids, or is that going to be part of the closures? And do you know when people might be able to start working out again? Especially like Crystal getting ready for the WNBA draft or anything like that?

Auriemma: Absolutely. Even had we played in the NCAA Tournament, as soon as the season ends, everybody pretty much steps away from the game. And it’s ended early so who’s gonna step away from the game? I would envision that everyone is. For how long? The normal time that we would normally take away. And when it’s time for them, whoever it is, to say, ‘Hey, I need to start working out again,’ it’ll be available. No question about it. As will the coaches if they want to work out.

Question: (Michelle Voepel, ESPN): Can you reflect on the fact that this was such an exciting season, across the board for women’s basketball? In some ways it makes it even more difficult for to not have a regular ending for this season. Where we had a lot of different candidates that could have won this.

Auriemma: I’ve been in so many of these scenarios. I guess old age gives you an opportunity to say that. I’ve been in scenarios where you go into the NCAA Tournament and nobody knows who’s gonna win. I’ve been in scenarios where everybody knows, it’s assumed, that Connecticut’s gonna win. And you’re absolutely right. This was one of those years where a lot of people thought ‘we have a chance.’ And there wasn’t a clear-cut ‘everybody knows that this team is far and away the runaway favorite.’ Even as far as getting to the Final Four, was going to be an incredible journey for a lot of teams. The amount of upsets this year, way different than in the past. With each question that you guys ask or that anybody asks, the answers are even more surreal than anything we’ve ever dreamed up of saying.

Question: (Jeff Jacobs, Hartford Courant): Kind of a philosophical question. Our country’s so addicted to sports. We think about sports. It’s such a big part of our lives. What are we going to do with our time? How do you think we can best use our time in the next month? What should we do?

Auriemma: Over the last 24 hours, I’ve tried to rationalize all this. Sports is a huge part of the American fabric. It has been for 100 years and then some. And sports is what we use in every local community to bring people together. The local high school teams. Sports is what separates people from worrying about color, religion, race. Sports is the one thing that makes people come together and rally around my team versus your team.

And now the one thing that sports does, bringing people together in one place to share that experience, the sharing of the experience is what causes people to get sick and some people to eventually die from this disease. All the great things that sports brings us are a negative at this point in time, which is totally, incredibly mind-boggling. And then to add insult to injury, ‘Okay, well you can’t go to the game.’ Well, not only that, now I can’t sit at home and watch it. What are we left with? I don’t know.

You know me, I’ve always talked in terms of people make too much of a big deal over winning and losing. People treat winning and losing as if it’s life and death. “I’m going to war with my team. Hey we were just in a big battle, we were fighting for our lives.” Like all the crazy stuff that sports fans, coaches, players have talked about for years and years and years. And maybe, I don’t know, in some philosophical way that you’re asking, maybe this is a reminder that, ‘Hey guys, this is a game, man.’ You didn’t treat your travel team, because you didn’t have a travel team when you were 10, 11, 12, you played in your local neighborhood. It was a game. You played, you won, you lost, you go home, play again tomorrow. And then somewhere along the line, it became something completely different than that.

It became all about everything except the product on the field or on the court or on the ice. Maybe this is a reminder, ‘Hey guys, it’s a game.’ We don’t need TV stations, radio stations devoting 24 hours to talking about nonsense involving the game, people to play the game, what they should have done in the game. That’s the way I’m choosing to look at it. Like, ‘shut up, get off the air. Nobody cares anymore what you think.’ And maybe it should be like that when the games come back. Shut up, watch the game, go to the game and leave it at that. God wouldn’t that be a godsend? Wouldn’t that be worth it to get all this nonsense out of the space of the games, and let’s turn it back over to the athletes? That’s how I’m choosing to look at it.

[Pause] As I do interviews, and TV spots. Stupid, right?

You know, what it’s going to do? All these miserable people that all they want to do is complain about a kid missing a free throw, a kid throwing the ball away, what are you going to complain about now? And all those happy people that missed the enjoyment of watching a game, I feel for them. I feel good for all those guys out there that complain about everything. Every miss, every missed pass, every missed touchdown, every strikeout. Find something else to be miserable about. Then when the games do come back, maybe you’ll enjoy it more.

Question: (Roger Cleaveland, Republican-American): What do you think about your team’s progression this year, and the strides that you’ve made?

Auriemma: I’ll be the first to tell you, a month ago or two months ago, I’m sitting there every day in practice and going home and going, ‘Man, we’re in for a load of disappointment at the end of the season because there’s just no way that this team could reach the goals that they have. We’re just not prepared for that, we just don’t function like that, we don’t operate like that, we don’t conduct ourselves like that every day of practice.’

And me as a coach, I’m responsible for that, and I felt that weight, I felt that responsibility. And then all of a sudden this last month, it all turned around. It all became what we wanted it to be. It all started to look like, and we started to act like, and we started to carry ourselves like, a team that could compete for a championship. I’m really proud of our team and I’m really, really proud of the way they were able to turn it around.

Question: (Voepel): To follow up on that. About your younger kids, the one’s that are coming back. There was a growth process all year for them. But for Megan, for Liv [Nelson-Ododa], can you talk particularly about them and what you see going forward for them?

Auriemma: There came a point in time during the season where I really challenged Crystal and Megan to step up and take responsibility for what happens in our program. There was a point where I said, ‘other people did it when you were younger and it’s your turn now to do it for the younger players on our team and for yourself, because you’ve never proven that you can do it.’ And to their credit, they really responded.

Crystal responded with probably the best season she’s had since she’s been at Connecticut. Megan went from last year being an option to becoming the option, to becoming the go-to person. And Liv went from not being a starter, being a part-time contributor to being someone that was crucial that if we don’t have you on the floor, we can’t win. That’s very rewarding for us as a coaching staff, and a credit to them and how hard they worked to put themselves in that situation so we’re probably like every other team that has some really good players coming back. Even though this ended prematurely, we’re excited about next season and we can’t wait to get started.

Question: (Eaton-Robb): Are you confident that everybody who can come back is going to come back? Are you confident that no one’s leaving early or transferring out?

Auriemma: I don’t think any coach can really be confident of anything anymore. I was confident Azura was coming back and it didn’t work out that way. So, I’m sure everything will shake out in the next week or so, when some of these decisions are going to have to be made. But, as I’m talking to you right now I have no reason to think that anybody that’s able to come back won’t be coming back.

Question: (Philippou): You had said yesterday on Sports Center, that you thought the NCAA should extend eligibility to basketball seniors who weren’t able to finish their careers, you’d be for them maybe coming back? I wonder if you could elaborate on that, how you see that playing out? Why you think they should be able to just finish out their careers if it just comes down to the tournament rather than already having played the regular season?

Auriemma: I was lumping everybody together. You know all the seniors. And I was reminded after the fact that if you were already knocked out of the NCAA Tournament, should those seniors be able to come back? And if you didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament but your tournament got canceled and you’ve never had a chance to compete in your conference tournament, to give yourself a chance to get into the NCAA Tournament because you were on the bubble, should those seniors be able to come back? I don’t know if that will even be addressed or if it is, how that will be rectified.

I do know in my heart that every single student athlete in the country whose sport was canceled and never had a chance to play this spring, no question they should be allowed to have an extra year of eligibility. And if that screws up people’s rosters then there should be an exception. Make an exception, ‘okay you can only have X number of people on scholarship.’ Well, these are exceptional times so let’s make an exception. ‘Well the school can’t afford it.’ Fine, let the NCAA pay for it. I just think that if you never had a chance to play the entire season, that’s different. So I don’t know how the basketball part would work, maybe people feel like ‘hey you’ve played the entire season, that’s it.’ I don’t know. I don’t know. Whichever way they come out of this, I’ll understand. They say, ‘Hey the seniors have an opportunity to come back if they want to,’ I’m all for it. If they say, ‘look, you played a year already,’ I understand. But for those sports that never got off the ground, that’s a whole different story.

(Phillippou): Thanks for clarifying.

(Anna Labonte, UConn Sports information) All right, thanks coach Thanks for getting on.

Auriemma: Thank you.