If he ever broke free, there are other things he might do with the rest of his life. He's got a fantasy about becoming an NBA assistant coach -- Gregg Popovich sent him a huge bottle of his private label wine Rock & Hammer after career win 1,000 -- but that would mean walking away from the Huskies without ever finding that perfect game. He's got three children and three grandkids who are always around. Every Christmas, the family gathers to watch "It's a Wonderful Life," and he sees something of himself in the character of George Bailey, who has left so many dreams undone while carving out a good life for his family.
"Do you go to church and think, 'I wanna pray for my husband?'" he asks.
"Not every Sunday," she says.
He is laughing too. It's hard sometimes to tell whether he's joking or serious, since one can be a smokescreen for the other. "Please pray for George," he says. "Has there ever been anyone more disappointed in their life than George Bailey?"
"You're not entirely George Bailey," she says.
"You don't think I'm George Bailey?" he says. "What was George Bailey really good at?"
"Pretending to be okay," she says.
AT TONIGHT'S GAME, the Tulane center doesn't even jump for the opening tip.
The onslaught begins.
During timeouts, Auriemma screams over the pep band and the T-shirt giveaway. He's in such a zone that he only high-fives the young fans waiting by the tunnel after halftime because Dailey physically points him toward them. The Huskies win by 44 and neither freshman plays. The team does all three things he asked and he's happy. There's this warm, nostalgic mood in the cramped hallway outside the locker room. In the cluster of people mingling, Auriemma sees former star Morgan Tuck, who's doing radio tonight during a break from her international career. His eyes light up. They hug and he asks about her life. An older well-dressed man comes over to say hello, the local who was the team host at UConn's first Final Four in New Orleans in 1991. He's still part of the circle, and he and Geno lean up against the wall to talk.
People on the outside always see the Huskies' dominance but few people ever glimpse far enough inside to see how the coaches and players -- current and former -- live in this sprawling, weird village. During the Final Four every year, former players always come to the games. When the team wins and takes a photo with the trophy, there can be dozens of celebrating former stars behind the camera. The best players in the gym are always in street clothes, a few cocktails deep, cheering on yet another generation of Huskies, because they alone understand. In the hotel after the last title in 2016, a group of former players, including Auriemma's son Mike and Sue Bird, played flip cup in a suite.
Outside the Tulane gym, the bus is running, the interior bright as players stow their gear. They've got a late-night flight to Dallas. Auriemma is already imagining dinner at the Italian restaurant he loves there, where everyone will gather the night before the SMU game.
“Everyone else thinks you have a flawless team, and you're the only one who's miserable.”
There's something about the bonds at Connecticut that don't exist in many other places -- perhaps only Dean Smith's North Carolina -- and somehow that seems as important to the team's success as Auriemma's perfectionism. These are the terrains of the heart, as the writer Willie Morris said, and harder to map. This isn't Auriemma's team as much as it's his family, with all the good and bad that comes with a family, the ability to lift and to cut, to hurt and to heal. Auriemma has quietly paid for the funeral of a member of a former player's family. He has loaned an ex-player money, and helped more find jobs. The love goes both ways. When some of his championship rings got stolen, former players chipped in to buy him replacements.
The first time he ever returned to his Italian village was a decade or so ago on a tour of the country with his Huskies. Citizens lined the streets to welcome them. The team stood with him in this stark town where the people put on a celebration and a modest dinner for the prodigal son. The players felt it. His hometown occupies a complicated place inside him. When his mother, Marsiella Auriemma, was a child, she hid in the mountains from the Germans during World War II. Her own mother hid in the basement of their home, like the opening scene from Inglorious Basterds, guarding a family possession, a fattened pig. The Nazis never found her just beneath their feet. She survived and so did the pig. Marsiella's family couldn't afford her so they gave her away. She began her working life early, making homemade pasta for field hands. She has steadfastly refused to return to Montella, preferring to keep those memories in the past. Geno's father felt the exact opposite. Donato Auriemma never wanted to leave Italy and never involved himself in anything American, including Geno's basketball success. The two parts of Geno seem born from this divide.
In the village, with so much of that unspoken, his players understood.
"I got on the bus and got choked up," says his wife, Kathy Auriemma.
She told them, "Thank you so much for getting this day."
These are the ties formed traveling their strange road, which never seems to end, season to season, city to city. In Dallas the Huskies just flatten SMU. It's ridiculous. For nearly 14 minutes, they hold the Mustangs scoreless, going on a 43-0 run, a school record. Yeah, but: Geno sees the 8-7 fourth quarter. He says they played 25 minutes of dominating, nearly perfect basketball. That means for 15 minutes, they fell short. They get back on the bus which takes them back to the plane. One regular season game remains, senior night in Storrs, before attention can turn finally to Mississippi State Bulldogs, who ended the Huskies season a year ago. A few hours later Auriemma lands with his team in Connecticut.
He heads back to his house, on a hill backed by 700 acres of New England woods.
AURIEMMA STANDS IN his big kitchen where his 86-year-old mother still makes gnocchi when she's in town. Drop in on any day, in any year, and the scene is the same. Unlike the homes of many coaches, which can feel heavy and staged for recruits, the Auriemma home is full of laughter and light and art with saccharine quotes about love. An actual family lives here.
"He's never brought it home," Kathy says. "Never. Ever."
The part of him that's deeply satisfied in his kitchen is as strong as the part of him that can't be satisfied with anything other than a perfect game. These desires live in competition and concert. He needs both parts of himself to sustain his dynasty. On this late afternoon, he digs through the pantry and finds homemade salami, which a stagehand at the XL Center in Hartford makes. There's a bottle of wine open and some good bread. He's free here from whatever he's looking for with his basketball team. Geno takes out a sharp knife to slice the sausage thin -- like in "Goodfellas where Paulie is shaving the garlic."
"Grab a cutting board," Kathy says.
"I am," he says. "Relax."
"Sometimes he just cuts it on there," she says, pointing toward her marble counters. They are both whip-smart and from working-class Philadelphia, which means the verbal jousting around the house is not for the weak. They debate politics while he does the dishes. They read and debate the news and whatever show they're currently binging.
His happy place is the light brown leather recliner just a few feet away in the den. When he's dead and gone, and his kids try to hold a picture of him in their head, he'll almost certainly be frozen forever in this chair: reading the New York Times on a Sunday morning or drinking a glass of wine and watching Downton Abbey with mom, or snoring away in it, exhausted. They often don't recognize the public image of him as an egomaniac who thrives on his whip hand, because at home he's simply dad: cooking smelts on Christmas Eve and making bad jokes. They make fun of his reputation and he takes digs at himself too, joking about how he was born in a stable -- which is true, by the way -- and then grins and cackles and says, "Like Jesus."
"When I'm home," he says, "I'm not the UConn women's basketball coach."
He did coach his son's AAU team, once starting practice two days after winning a national championship. He tells a funny story about a tournament where they dominated several flashy, poorly coached squads with future NBA players but then ran into a team who started the game pass-pass-pass-backdoor layup, then on their next possession, a flare screen and a knock-down 3. This is what Auriemma had done to opponents for decades. He turned to his assistant.
"Tom," he said, "we're f---ed."
There's no overt basketball memorabilia in the house, just some pictures and inside jokes in the basement. Downstairs is where teams hang when they're over, playing pool or ping pong. There's a wall everyone signs, Husky legends and recruits alike. Kathy has song lyrics and quotes painted on the other walls -- "No Retreat, No Surrender," for instance, or a "Veni, Vidi, Vici" over a picture of an Olympic team -- and there's a photo of Geno with Frankie Valli on the piano. He's real proud of that photo. His wine cellar is kept at 57 degrees. It's his "pharmacy," he jokes.
He likes the drive home from the arena, especially at night, winding through darkened New England turnpikes, past farms and little towns, with almost no light coming from anywhere. There's something soulfully familiar about it. When he comes in the house through the garage, there's a drawing of Montella's town square hanging on the first wall he sees. It's not an accident that the greatest women's basketball coach who ever lived is a man raised by a strong woman, who was herself raised by a village of strong women. In Marsiella's world -- and therefore Geno's -- the men were off fighting a war and the women ran everything. When Geno pictures his boyhood home in Norristown, Pennsylvania, he remembers a silent father who didn't want to be here and a mother determined that her children would have a better life. His mom was the alpha of the house.
He built the Connecticut program in her image. Nobody is as good at anything as she is at being a mother, he'll tell you. He has yet to live up to her standard. Her meals are legendary and if you ask the coaches he started with decades ago, the best Italian restaurant in the world remains her kitchen. She is a perfectionist too. Once he and some friends came over and she made lasagna or eggplant parmigiana. As the guys raved, Geno could tell she wasn't pleased.
"Little bit of a hurry today, huh," he cracked.
She smacked him in the back of the head.
Standing in his kitchen, he and Kathy do spot-on impersonations of Marsiella Auriemma. Kathy will be making gnocchi and something won't seem right so she'll call Nonna to ask her a question.
"It depend," Nonna will answer in her sing-song broken English.
She watches every game on television and calls with opinions.
Geno can really do his mom's voice. She calls him G.
"G ... your team, you-a got-a good girls. No get mad. I no know why you get mad. They good girls."
"Ma, they drive me crazy!"
"No, G. They-a good girls. No get mad."
THE FINAL REGULAR season game is set to tip.
A near sell-out crowd packs into Gampel Pavilion on a Monday night in Storrs. Game of Thrones music plays in the background, and Geno stands on the court to present framed jerseys to Nurse and Williams, his two seniors. The announcer says their record over the past four years: 140-2. The number surprises Auriemma, who will later ask his wife if it's accurate.
Dailey wipes lint or something off the shoulder of his jacket. The players take the court. There's a recruit in the building seeing the madness. South Florida, the overmatched opponent, has only lost five games this season. The Huskies are this final win from turning toward the postseason. The way Geno's been feeling about this current team is how he felt last year, even as that 111-game streak rolled along. He'd come home and asked Kathy, "How did we win that game?" Truth is, he'd hoped they'd lose one of four tough games scheduled before January. The team didn't have the animal instinct of some of the past Huskies, and he wanted the wakeup call of a loss. And yet they kept finding a way to win, which was gratifying but left him anxious. "We're not fixing the problem," he said. "We're just winning. If the perfect storm comes up, we are gonna get smacked."
In the 2017 Final Four against Mississippi State, he knew the day had arrived.
He said to his assistants midway through the first half, "We're in big trouble."
They've had a year to think about a rematch and the time is almost at hand. Toward the end of the first quarter, South Florida is done. It's quite a show. The Connecticut women's basketball team, even for ardent skeptics of women's basketball, remains astonishing to see live -- perhaps most of all to a skeptic. The team plays with a ferocity that doesn't translate on television. It looks like a coaching video, closing out angles, filling the lane, swarming. That's what the fans see on senior night: a textbook fast break, like something the Showtime Lakers might have run, matched with a 40 Minutes of Hell defensive suffocation. Auriemma, with the one-loss Bulldogs looming, sees something else. Only two of the five players have their hands up on defense. An assistant coach yells at the Huskies from the bench. The next time it's one of five. He reminds them twice more. It doesn't seem to make a difference and he walks down near the baseline and doesn't say a word. He looks disgusted. He stands there with his hands raised in the air.
THE NEXT NIGHT Geno and Kathy are home from dinner with friends and he's struggling to get the switch to ignite his gas-fed fire pit. He goes out to see if he can diagnose the problem. Kathy feels certain this is a bad idea.
"Oh my god," she says, "don't do that! You're stupid!"
He cackles. His laugh is distinctive, starting with a sputter like an engine trying to turn over and then rising an octave until everyone around him is laughing too. Whatever he does with the pit works, and the fire sparks and comes to life.
"I am the god of hellfire!" he bellows with a grin.
They sit by the flames. Six long days stretch out before the postseason begins. Other than two quick recruiting trips, and visiting with the recruit who's come to visit, Geno spends that time with Kathy and their friends. He seems proud of the 10th undefeated regular season, trying to follow his own advice about celebrating all their achievements. He opens a bottle of wine and lights a cigar.
Kathy goes inside but he bundles a blue Huskies winter coat and stays. The heat from the fire warms his hands and feet. He's thinking about his mother. She grew up in a house that didn't have a clock, so the only way to tell time was by listening for the church bells. That's how she knew when to go to work: Lying there in the dark and counting the tolls. Then in the middle of his story, he drifts away, his mind somewhere else. He stops talking and the silence lingers. The only noise comes from the fire. He leans close to the flames.
"When I was 2 or 3," he says. "I fell into a fire."
There's more silence. He's almost whispering.
"And now I'm 63 and I'm staring at a fire, drinking a glass of wine and having a cigar, and that moment is so, so far away. How could one of my kids ever fall into a fire? It's not possible. How could one of my kids ever fall into a fire? And I'm sitting here staring at a fire, drinking a glass of wine, smoking a cigar."
For a moment he feels satisfied, proud of how far he's taken his family and team in a generation. He knows he's earned every feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction but there's still something more he needs. His voice gets softer.
"And yet, you know what?" he says. "I feel in some ways so unfulfilled."
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi; he currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Previously, he worked at The Kansas City Star and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In 2001, he graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.