In regard to UConn’s game Saturday with Syracuse, and the postgame hijinx …
I understand a coach like UConn’s Geno Auriemma being concerned about rough play and feeling the need to protect his players. But let’s try to look at this from both sides’ perspective.
To compete with a program, you need to feel like you’re at least somewhat on equal ground. While it’s important for anybody in the Big East (or any conference for that matter) to understand how good UConn is and have respect for the Huskies, it’s still their job to try to beat them.
One of the things Auriemma prides himself on is that his program, while respecting Tennessee, never genuflected in the direction of Knoxville. He basically said to Tennessee, “We’re after the same thing, and we’re going to battle you for it.”
So at least on an intellectual level, he has to understand that for other programs like Syracuse to really challenge UConn, they have to think that, too. There is no way women’s basketball can keep growing if more and more programs don’t develop that mindset. It’s Auriemma’s job to keep knocking them down, but it’s their job to keep saying, “We’re going to come after you.”
Now, if Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman told his players to play as dirty as they could to try to rattle the Huskies, that’s unacceptable. But if he told them to be very physical and see where the referees would set the bar, well … that’s the kind of subtle difference that is often a part of sports, isn’t it?
I’ve always thought it was hard for an outsider – fan or journalist – to really determine what’s “too rough” and what isn’t during a game. That has to be decided by the participants, and players have ways of policing themselves with or without the refs.
If Syracuse was really pushing the envelope and the officials weren’t doing enough to control it, the Huskies are more than big and strong enough to send a message back to them. And they did that, pouring it on the Orange in a 107-53 victory.
The Syracuse players, if they really understand the so-called “law of the jungle” that’s universal in sports, have to accept that if you want to fight the lion, don’t expect her not to use her claws. If Nicole Michael wants to say beforehand that she thinks Syracuse can compete with UConn, that’s fine … but then she has to deal with it when that’s proven not to be the case on the court. As for her apparent tripping of Auriemma … that’s straight out of the second grade, isn’t it? Pretty silly.
Further, Hillsman often seems to represent an issue that my friend Helen at the Women’s Basketball Blog has frequently pointed out: Sometimes, coaches get too caught up in griping and rolling their eyes about nearly every single call the officials make.
All that said, Auriemma didn’t need to say a word to Michael in the handshake line (which led to the later tripping incident). His team had already made his point for him. It’s just not a good idea for coaches to confront opposing players. If Auriemma had things to say, he’d have been best-served to say them to Hillsman and to the Big East brass.
But he’s human, and understandably was upset over Caroline Doty’s injury. He’s a competitor, and I’m sure a lot of what was going on in that game got his blood boiling.
There are fans of the women’s game, of course, who don’t like Auriemma because they think he’s an arrogant jerk. I can understand that if you just take bits and pieces of what you might see from him, you could get that impression. It’s not true, though.
He’s really not arrogant … to the contrary, he’s someone who constantly feels like he’s not good enough no matter how many games he wins. He’ll go to his grave convinced that he should have done better. Super-high achievers in many endeavors have this curse.
He’s also not a jerk. He wants women’s basketball to be played at a high level all the time. To that I say, “Thank goodness.” He never thinks, “Oh, they’re just girls, it’s the best they can do.”
He can’t stand junky basketball, sloppiness, not fulfilling your obligations or not working hard. He has good relationships with his players because they know that all his cajoling is for one purpose: To bring the best out of them. I can’t claim to have had conversations with everyone who’s ever played for him, but I don’t know any of his past players who didn’t like him or didn’t think they could count on him.
Now, that’s not to say that those fans who are irritated by Auriemma are just totally wrong. They have the right to their opinion and I get where it comes from, even if I don’t share that view. He has his moments where he acts bullet-proof and says more than he probably should say. But ultimately, you can’t expect someone with such a big personality to never make a misstep.
There are so many boring people in the sports world – at least they are boring (to a sports writer) in their public personas _ that the Auriemma-types stand out even more. It’s done a world of good for women’s basketball that Auriemma is as vibrant and electric a personality as he is.
Ultimately, the incident with Syracuse spurred three pretty different feelings in me. Part of me said, “Oh, who cares? Stuff happens in the heat of competition.”
But part of me said, “I wish he wouldn’t have done this because it really was enough to have just pounded the crap out of Syracuse on the scoreboard, and by yacking in the handshake line (even if provoked) he feeds that negative image that some people have of him.”
And then to be really, really honest _ and this will probably make some readers mad at me, so sorry in advance _ but part of me just laughed. Geno is nothing if not entertaining.