NEW ORLEANS — Geno Auriemma didn’t want to make much of Connecticut potentially tying Tennessee for the most NCAA women’s basketball championships at eight.
Why should he? Nos. 9, 10 and who knows how many more are looming as Auriemma begins a new contract that will pay him in excess of $10 million for the next five years.
Tuesday’s 93-60 victory against Louisville was proof that, even in a “down” season for the Huskies, UConn is the game’s Roman Empire, and Auriemma, born in Montella, Italy, is Caesar.
Everybody else is the Carthaginians — game but ultimately without the resources found in the unlikely outpost of Storrs, Conn.
Especially when Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, whose mark Auriemma equaled Tuesday, has unfortunately been forced into retirement by early onset dementia.
The Lady Vols did reach the Elite Eight this year, where they were beaten by Louisville, the upstart that also knocked off Baylor in the Sweet 16. But for Tennessee to sustain the level the Huskies are at will be a test.
“A lot of teams can get there maybe once or twice,” said LSU coach Nikki Caldwell, who played for and coached with Summitt. “But sustaining it year in and year out — I don’t know if anybody else can get to that level and stay there.”
That’s because UConn has been able to incorporate the usual vital pieces of success in the women’s game — a first-rate education, the chance to compete for the national title every year and solid administrative support — along with an added element, Auriemma’s ability to prepare his players for the next level.
The financial rewards are not much when limited to the WNBA, where the top salaries are in the $100,000 range, but there is good money overseas.
“It reminds me a lot of Stanford, with maybe a little less academic cachet,” said Debbie Corum, a former Stanford, LSU and SEC administrator who is in her first year as senior women’s administrator at UConn. “Our girls do come for the education, and they know that there are careers out there for them after basketball. But they also know that Geno will develop them for the pros, and that makes it that much sweeter for them.”
Auriemma doesn’t get them all. Baylor’s Kim Mulkey managed to keep Brittney Griner in Texas.
But year after year, many of the nation’s best choose the Huskies. And, unlike the men’s game, the women stick around for four years.
Not that Auriemma doesn’t make it tough on them. Playing for Geno is not for tender flowers.
“The thing I’ve noticed, though,” Corum said, “is that Geno will tear into someone, but then, instead of putting her on the bench, he sends her right back in the game. It’s like, ‘Now go out and do it right because I know you can.’ That’s great coaching.”
And it’s why even Rick Pitino, in attendance Tuesday after his Louisville men had cut down the nets Monday in Atlanta, had to stand in admiration of his paisan.