You don’t have to be a women’s basketball fan to appreciate UConn and coach Geno Auriemma.
You just have to appreciate impressive accomplishments, sustained excellence and remarkable success.
The sport or level of competition doesn’t matter … unless a team’s opponents are playing a different game at a lower classification. If one squad is dominant under the same rules against peers in the same division, league or association, that team is worthy of praise. Period.
We readily acknowledge greatness on the most well-lit stages. Mike Krzyzewski is lauded at Duke like John Wooden was extolled at UCLA. Bill Belichick is celebrated in the NFL like Phil Jackson was revered in the NBA. Nick Saban has been immortalized at Alabama.
Lance Leipold doesn’t enjoy nearly the same acclaim because he coached football at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater until leaving for Buffalo in December. But few runs are as stunning as the one he left behind: six national titles in eight seasons, a 32-game winning streak and an overall record of 109-6.
Or consider Anson Dorrance, the North Carolina women’s soccer coach who built an incomprehensible dynasty when the program was founded in 1979. All he’s done is win 21 of the 33 national titles since the NCAA began bestowing them. His career record is 625-28-20, a brisk .943 winning percentage.
Only the incredibly dim-witted and thickheaded wouldn’t consider Dorrance and Leipold – and Auriemma – among the coaching profession’s best and brightest, regardless of sport, gender or level.
Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of the incredibly dim-witted and thickheaded.
They’re ones who say Wooden’s 10 titles with UCLA trump Auriemma’s 10 titles with UConn because the latter involves women players. The Huskies’ coach is weary of evaluating the evaluations and placing UConn in historical perspective.
“Whichever way people want to mention it, whichever way they want to acknowledge it,” he told reporters Tuesday night after the Huskies three-peated with a 63-53 victory against Notre Dame. “Whichever way anybody wants to put it on a pedestal or keep it somewhere else.
“We’re not real good in this country about appreciating just people that are good,” he said. “We don’t appreciate Stewy (three-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player Breanna Stewart). We have to compare her to somebody playing in the NBA or somebody playing college basketball. I go through that with our Olympic team. … Because we travel with the greatest basketball players in the world, when you make a comparison, you always come up short. So you have to appreciate it in its own element and say, ‘OK, relative to their peers, those guys are really, really good.’”
We can never leave it right there. That can’t be the end of the discussion, not when another hour of sports talk or half a column needs to be filled.
The really good must be separated from the truly great. All-time legends must be quantified and sorted into a list, even though differences in eras can’t be reconciled. Such contrasts make the exercise futile, but it’s carried out repeatedly nonetheless.
Gauging coaches is even trickier. Players generally get credit for their accomplishments as well as their coach’s. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton were driving forces behind Wooden’s 10 titles in 12 seasons. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant fueled Phil Jackson’s run of 11 rings in 20 seasons.
Likewise, Auriemma has enjoyed a plethora of stellar ballers en route to 10 titles in the last 19 seasons, including Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Stewart. UConn usually lands the nation’s best players, which makes the school a favorite choice for the next wave of top recruits.
“None of those other coaches (Wooden or Jackson) coached any bad teams with bad players on them,” Auriemma said. “So we all have that in common. We all coached some of the most iconic players to play the game of basketball. So I think that thread runs through all three. Anytime you’re in a championship situation, anytime you’re trying to win any tournament, but especially the national championship, so many things have to go right. You have to have players that make those plays that make it go right.
“To do that 10 times in a row, to win 10 and be 10‑0 in national championship games is too big for me to think about it. It’s too much.”
It’s probably not over. Stewart, the two-time Associated Press Player of the Year, will have a shot at her stated goal as an incoming freshman (winning four national titles). She returns along with three other starters and another top-notch recruiting class.
Auriemma’s 11th championship would move him past Wooden. But Auriemma already is in a class by himself, no matter what neanderthals might believe.
“How people want to compare you to anybody else, that’s their prerogative,” he said. “Some people are going to say this is really, really great and historic, an unbelievable achievement. And some people will pooh‑pooh it.
“As you can tell by some of my comments in the last couple of weeks, I’ve lost the ability to care or give a (darn) what people think.”
If you think the feat is anything less than phenomenal, you can’t be much of a thinker.