Pretending To Be Okay

Pretending To Be Okay

Geno Auriemma judges his teams and his career against an unattainable ideal. Wright Thompson rides shotgun with the Huskies as they go for title No. 12 and discovers the coach's lone enemy: Auriemma himself.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 2 issue, The Dominant 20. Subscribe today!

With three games to win for his 10th undefeated regular season, Geno Auriemma turns an empty $700 bottle of French wine upside down on a sterling silver coaster. He's explaining to me and his video guy how a steel mill works, specifically the one where he worked in college. He points at the neck, which represents the ground floor where he spent his days. The molten metal once set his shoes on fire. Tonight feels about as far away from burning shoes as a man can travel. He's relaxed. The Connecticut team charter landed in New Orleans two hours ago. Auriemma and Ben Kantor, the video coordinator, dropped their bags and walked to the French Quarter. It's past 10 p.m. now in Brennan's on Royal Street. Old boards creak under foot. Mack the Knife plays on the stereo. Waiters cook Steak Diane and Bananas Foster tableside. Ben and I are laughing, and Geno is laughing, because using $700 wine to break down the physics of a factory is ridiculous and hilarious and yet somehow makes sense.

Auriemma was born in an Italian village named Montella and has scars on his chest from accidentally rolling into hot coals as a toddler. That's how they kept babies warm in his old life, laying them close to a fire. He arrived in America at 7 on a boat with his mother, who didn't speak a word of English. Neither she nor Geno's father ever learned to read or write, and at 8, he paid the family's bills. He's wholly self-made and is so successful he goes entire seasons without losing and appreciates really expensive wine, like the empty, upside-down Chateau Rayas bottle on the table, soon to be replaced by a full one, right side up. He's happy and yet tonight he's nursing a feeling he can't quite shake, one that builds with each undefeated day. The lopsided victories breed complacency and he's worried about a meltdown.

"We are heading towards one," he says.

Ben starts laughing.

"He doesn't believe it," Geno says.

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma shares his views on success and his role as a leader.

A bowl of turtle soup arrives. The waiter offers to pour a shot of sherry in it. "Please," Geno says before turning back toward Ben. He's talking about the first title in 1995 and how that felt so satisfying. "I gotta say," he says, "It's been all downhill from there. Unless we win a national championship, it's a bad year."

All coaches face stress but Auriemma's personal grinder -- annihilate all comers during the regular season and let everything ride on six NCAA tournament games -- is a crucible his former star Sue Bird calls "a mind f---." The need for perfection, in conflict with the human inability to ever actually achieve it, seems like a recipe for a one-way ticket to a loony bin. Auriemma laughs and smiles.

"I got a bag of pills in my briefcase," he says. "I got issues."

Geno Auriemma logged his first perfect season in 1994-95. He has since led the Huskies to five more. Bob Child/AP Photo

TWELVE HOURS LATER, he's pissed.

It's the early afternoon in New Orleans, and his players filter inside the Tulane arena for shoot-around. Geno walks slow behind them, a shuffle almost. His steps look heavy. He's mad at his team for lots of things, like not keeping their hands up on defense, which is really just a symptom of a larger disease. He's mad at two freshmen, Megan Walker and Mikayla Coombs, for nearly everything. He's mad at his two seniors, Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, for not taking more responsibility for the freshmen. He's mad at himself for not making them play like some of his other great teams, who walked into opposing arenas like wolves. While the team stretches, Auriemma talks to the television crew who'll broadcast tonight's game, complaining with his wry sense of humor about his team's lack of basketball sense and fundamentals. He's been on a "kids these days" rant.

"You know what they say now?" Geno says to the television folks. "He's just an old guy who's angry and bitter. I'm not angry and bitter. I'm just sayin' ... ."

No team in the history of sports has faced the UConn Huskies' ongoing problem. Only a perfect or nearly perfect record is a success. In all, they've won 11 national titles in the past 23 years, including a run of four in a row. They've had a 90-game winning streak and a 111-game winning streak. For most of the past 33 years, the enemy of the Connecticut basketball team hasn't been the opponent. It's been themselves.

For the Huskies, the greatest obstacles to a championship are their own worst impulses. To believe the praise. To feel entitled to 30-point wins. To not grind over the small details that make up a perfect game. Recently he railed against a player who couldn't or wouldn't box out: What if we need one rebound to win a national title? A memory from the 2012 semifinal against Notre Dame fueled his anger. "The kids look at me," he says his voice rising to a scream. "I go, 'Yeah, you know why I said that? That happened to us. We had to get one f------ rebound. If we do, we win. The kid didn't get it. And we lost.'"

Auriemma has a curious, creative basketball mind but his greatest talent is understanding and preventing self-destruction. Practices and shoot-arounds like this one in New Orleans are where he does his work. He loves it when a highly touted freshman starts in her first fall and realizes the intensity at UConn practice is something new and animalistic.

He'll stare and say, "You just realized you came to the wrong school, huh?"

A few years ago, Rebecca Lobo texted him a jab typical in the Husky family.

Go see Whiplash.

That guy reminds me of you.

All this winning has left them mostly numb to success. Once they celebrated. Back when the team flew commercial, everyone would go out for big dinners and toast each win. Now they're moving fast across the country, landing in town like the circus and blowing some poor opponent out before getting back on the plane. Nine years ago, Auriemma took USA Basketball to play in Russia against teams with international stars. He didn't have his main roster. Nobody expected his team to win, which it ultimately did. Sitting on the bench, an assistant coach asked him the last time he'd been an underdog.

Those coached by Auriemma include basketball greats Maya Moore, Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Diana Taurasi. Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

"I don't remember," Geno said.

Two years ago, the Huskies blew out highly touted Ohio State in the season opener. Afterward, he walked into the locker room and wrote "Veni, Vidi, Vici" on the board and told his team they were going to be like the Roman legions: roll into town, conquer everything and go back home. Now he regrets being so businesslike. They've lost the ability to celebrate anything other than a ring. The only available emotion at the end of a year is relief. "Everyone else thinks you have a flawless team," he says, "and you're the only one who's miserable. Before you know it, the season is over and you didn't have any fun. I have to keep reminding everybody, myself included, we have to celebrate every little thing we do." He's given the Huskies three specific goals for their final three regular season games against Tulane, SMU and South Florida.

1. Play more suffocating defense

2. Run their fast break more ruthlessly

3. Get smarter at the little stuff that decides close games

March is approaching and he'd like to have tangible victories to celebrate. In the Tulane gym at walk-through, his longtime assistant Chris Dailey starts running their usual drills. He walks out to the court to watch.

He shakes his head and curses silently to himself.

Nobody has their hands up.

Auriemma wears his emotions -- particularly anger at his team's mistakes -- on his sleeve. Jessica Hill/AP Photo

THE PROGRAM COULD not perpetuate itself without his unrelenting recognition of his player's flaws, day after day, no matter their record. It comes naturally. He knows his own worst enemy, like his team, has always been himself. Since childhood, he's spent so much time trying to see himself clearly that it's given him deep insight into others. Despite his frequent raging, empathy is his strongest trait; the ability to peer into people's most private, insecure selves and make their weak places strong. His success comes from seeking to fix in others what he longs to fix in himself. The teams are proxies. Nothing as extreme as the Huskies dynasty ever springs from a normal place. As he and his wife hang out one afternoon, I tell them I didn't think he was joking about the pills in his briefcase.

"You want me to show them to you?" he says.

Kathy Auriemma steps in.

"No," she says.

He wears his anger at the Huskies' mistakes on the outside -- anger which seems closely tied to his own insecurity and desire to improve -- and former players have stories of epic freak-outs. Sue Bird says one day he hid beneath the bleachers, despondent, refusing to come back out. The team wasn't grasping some simple basketball concept and it broke something in him. He told them that maybe he'd lost the ability to teach, and that he was having a nervous breakdown. The terrified team finally went home. A former player who happened to be visiting, Nykesha Sales, tried to coax him back onto the court.

"You've got to come out," she said.

"Leave me alone," he said.

"You're making us a little concerned. Are you okay?"

He didn't answer and stayed hidden until he felt like seeing people again. The root cause of what's now viewed as a funny story was his own self-doubt. It's his greatest burden. He says he can never shake this feeling of "yeah ... but."

Yeah, he's won 1,000 games ... but part of him internalizes the common criticism that he's not coaching D-1 men or in the NBA. It's a criticism he levels at himself from time to time, as he fights the urge to diminish his own accomplishments. When Connecticut fires its men's coach in early March and rumors start circulating about Geno moving across the hall, his first thought is, "I wish I was younger." He wonders what his life might be like if he'd aimed higher; with 11 national titles in men's basketball, he says one night, he'd be a senator. This "yeah, but" -- the desire to find clouds among his silver linings -- exists in his earliest memories. Growing up, he never felt like the best version of himself, working to learn a new language and find his place, caught between worlds. He wishes he'd gone to better schools or studied harder in the schools he did attend. He wishes many things for himself, but the closest he can come to grasping them is when he helps his players avoid his mistakes. Since he can't actually go back in time, the best he can do is fix his past through them. He gives them the attention he always craved.

Yeah, he's undefeated ... but those wins don't mean a thing without a title.

"I have to fight the urge to constantly look to March," he says.

He pauses in his kitchen.

"I think my worst impulse might be to rail at every ... ," he says, searching for the right word.

"Imperfection," Kathy says softly, trying to help.

"... Injustice," he says finally. "Every injustice against the game, I go crazy."

The stress and expectations have been unrelenting since that first title in 1995 and have been at a particular crushing peak for the past nine years. In 2009, Connecticut won a national title and he was named the head coach of USA Basketball. In 2010, he won a title with UConn and a World Championship with USA. Those seasons bled into one another. In 2011 he lost in the Final Four. In 2012 he lost in the Final Four and then went straight to London to win the gold medal. In 2013-2016, the Huskies won four national championships and he capped the seven-year manic run with a second gold medal in Rio. It's a lot for a person to bear: expecting to win every game, and to get everyone's best shot, with either a championship or an embarrassing defeat as binary endings. "That's not healthy," he says. "It's awful to carry that around with you all the time."

Auriemma coached Team USA basketball to two Olympic gold medals, at the 2012 Games in London and at the 2016 Rio Games. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

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.

Kathy laughs.

"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.

Auriemma's wife, Kathy, says her husband doesn't bring the drama of the basketball court home with him. Jessica Hill/AP Photo

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.”

Geno Auriemma

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.

After UConn won the 2016 NCAA tournament, President Barack Obama joked that, because Auriemma had visited so often, the White House would prepare a room for him when he arrived: "It's a small room, with a cot. He doesn't get the Lincoln Bedroom." Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

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."

It's no accident that Auriemma, the greatest women's basketball coach of all time, was raised by a strong woman, his mother, Marsiella. John Woike/Hartford Courant/MCT/Getty Images

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.

Auriemma reached 1,000 career wins in December 2017, a feat only four other NCAA coaches have achieved. Jessica Hill/AP Photo

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 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.