There he was at the end again, Geno, the hair already knocked slightly out of place, Holly Rowe of ESPN stuffing a microphone in his face. The kids were putting on those championship hats, championship shirts, doing their impromptu championship dance steps, everything new, wonderful, a buzz, and there he was again last night in the New Orleans Arena, going through the familiar last busywork of closing out a champion season.
Talk to Holly Rowe. Accept that trophy. Help cut down those nets.
He knew the routine.
"You were pretty hard on yourself this year," Holly Rowe said, referring to earlier quotes from Geno Auriemma that detailed his troubles in punching the right buttons this year to get his University of Connecticut women's basketball team to listen, react, learn. "You said this was one of your worst jobs coaching."
"Yes," he replied, surrounded by the appropriate bedlam after UConn's 93-60 demolition of underdog Louisville to capture the 2013 NCAA Women's title. "But I think I was pretty good in the last month."
This was accompanied by an appropriate smile.
Pretty good? Very good. Excellent. In his 28th year at the school, as he won his record-tying eighth NCAA championship, he was the grand puppet master at the end, equal parts Jim Henson and John Wooden and, oh, Tony Robbins, as he pulled the appropriate strings at the right time, brought the disparate pieces of his operation together, made everything work when it was supposed to work.
"They played as well as I've seen them play all year," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said about Geno's Huskies. "We went into the game saying 'We're going to make them take some three-point shots.' Well, they took them and they made them."
Louisville, with its plucky back story that included upsets of No. 1 ranked Baylor and then Tennessee in the regionals and then California in the Final Four, not to mention the national championship won by the men's team a night earlier, hung around for the first six-plus minutes, actually had a 14-10 lead. Then the doors were blown off. UConn scored the next 19 points on the way to a 48-29 lead at the half that expanded to a 33-point margin at the end, the biggest rout in finals history.
"It feels good when you see the reaction on the kids' faces," Geno said. "This is something they'll remember for the rest of their lives. Me? I've been thrilled by what I've seen for the past month."
This was not one of his powerhouse operations of the past that stormed through an undefeated season or two or three, that put together record winning streaks of 70 and then 90 in a row, that accepted championship hardware mostly as a dignified formality on way. This was a team that stuttered and stalled, clinked and clanked, that lost two times to Notre Dame in the regular season, then lost to Notre Dame again in the Big East Tournament final. There also had been a loss in a celebrated confrontation with Baylor and Ms. Brittney Griner.
Nothing seemed natural, easy. Geno did not like this. Natural and easy are his favorite ways to play the game.
"Girls don't learn how to play basketball the way guys do," he told writer Pat Jordan in a 2012 article in Deadspin. "Guys learn in an empty gym in 3-on-3 games. There's 20 other guys waiting to play if you lose, so you've got to learn to read the floor, see things, and react or else you lose and sit down for an hour. That's hard to teach, and that's basically what I'm teaching my 'guys,' how to be instinctive players. From early on, girls learn basketball on organized teams, not in pick-up, three-man games. They want to be told by me what to do. I want them to know what to do on their own. I don't want to be too much the Padrone so they're always looking to the sidelines for me to tell them something. I tell them, 'Yo, Dude, Christ, you figure it out.'"
The strange part was that the one player who did seem to come straight from three-on-three games, 6-feet-4 freshman Breanna Stewart, who learned her basketball from her father in Syracuse, NY, a girl who played with a man's rhythm and ease while becoming the No. 1 prospect in the country a year ago, struggled the most. This was the player Geno had proclaimed 'has a chance to be the best player ever to play for Connecticut.'
For the entire regular season, she seemed unsure in her movements, tentative, waiting for someone to tell her what to do. She had scored 42 points, grabbed 23 rebounds in a playoff game in high school, had been the only high school girl named to both the Under-19 team and Pan Am teams. Now she seemed to question whether she belonged on the floor.
Somewhere in the climb through the Big East tournament, definitely before the NCAA regionals, she dropped her angst. She relaxed. The words from Geno all year, molded into encouragement at the end, the Geno way, suddenly took hold.
"I just decided not to think," she said. "Just play."
The change was startling. She took control of the stage at the moment when normal logic would say a freshman might lose control. She was exactly what she was supposed to be. She blocked shots. She grabbed rebounds, She took graceful, lethal jump shots for three pointers. In the semifinal against Notre Dame, she scored 29 points. In the final, she had 23 points, 18 in the first half when UConn pulled away. She was the easy choice as Most Outstanding Player, the first freshman to win the trophy since 1987.
"I was really worried about her," Geno said, adding that the part that worried him most was that she had lost her smile. "Then she got it back and got it back just in time and here we are."
The eighth championship puts the coach in a tie with retired Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for most titles in the women's game. With a $10.3 million contract extension for the next five years and Breanna Stewart around for the first three of them, not to mention the usual additions from the high school All-America rosters and a nucleus back from this year, he has a solid chance to match or pass John Wooden's 10 titles at UCLA in the men's game.
If that happens, well, he will know what to do.