When I first met Geno Auriemma, he was wearing a sport coat with the lapels turned up like ear muffs and Italian loafers with no socks. It was snowing sideways in Norman, Oklahoma -- a typically atypical weather day in the middle of October, which made a gym full of high school athletes as giddy as the reigning national championship coach was confused.
I welcomed him, then told him to follow us as we drove through the blizzard to our offsite practice facility: an old airplane hanger (where they filmed the movie "Twister") we used when the volleyball team was in season in our gym. It was freezing in there, the floor was slick, the lights were lousy, the roof was leaking in a couple places, and the hottest star in the world of women's basketball was sitting discreetly on an aluminum bleacher watching too many girls for one court go through Fast Break in Twos. Oddly enough, he looked perfectly at home.
He told me afterward that I ran a great practice. "You are really good at what you do," he said.
Nineteen years later, I can still hear it in my head. What he said mattered because of who he was and what he had done, but how he said it mattered more. He just knew the entry point -- kind of like a great nurse who can find the vein on the first try. He gets in, and he gets you to hear him. I knew then what it must feel like to play for him. You're immediately on his terms. And his terms are in another stratosphere, a place where the cords are cut and the air is impossibly thin, but there is no lid on the sky.
Several months later, when I readied myself to apply for the head-coaching position at the University of Oklahoma, I asked him for some advice, and he told me he was certain I could do the job. The question was: Could I get it? An answer real enough to make me simultaneously bold and irritated. His response was just what the doctor ordered: fuel for my competitive fire and validation of my youth and collegiate inexperience. The man can stick a wooden spoon inside you and subsequently stir your soul.
The following fall, as my Oklahoma team flipped and flopped while we toiled desperately to build a program, I called him one evening. I was overwhelmed, frustrated and in dire need of a soft place to land. Much to my chagrin, what I got was anything but that. Geno listened as I whined and cried and cited all the things everybody needed me to do for them. When I finally took a breath, he said: "Do you know what your job is?"
"Your job is to be whatever they need for you to be," he said. "If that's a teacher, then teach. If it's a cheerleader, then cheer. If it's a counselor, then counsel. That's it. Period. Do your job."
Uh, thank you? Stunned, I simply hung up the phone as quickly as I could. I was shocked and, I think, more than a little embarrassed, and I was mad. I remember, specifically, being mad -- and oh-so-determined to do my job.
Ah, his magic: the ability to give you what you need -- not so much what you want -- and package it in a way that you feel it in the marrow of your bones.
Years later, I served as Geno's assistant for USA Basketball, which allowed me a peek into his genius as a coach. It was there that I discovered it's not all roses being him. He sees the game with seasoned eyes and feels it like a blind man. Lesser levels of understanding create a chaos for him that is almost intolerable. When he can't get buy-in from all ports, it pains him in a way most folks can't even feel. It doesn't matter what's at stake. It could just as easily be for bragging rights at the YMCA as for the pursuit of a gold medal.
With Geno, it's always about how you do it -- not what you get for it. Unfortunately, even though he wins way, way, way more than he loses, because of what he sees and how he sees it, he lives many days a tortured soul. His genius is, at once, his blessing and his curse.
In 2002, as witty fate would have it, Oklahoma played UConn for the national title. It couldn't have been more surreal. The whole game is still like slow-drip molasses in my mind. We got them on an offensive counter, and I couldn't help but smirk, then he got us on a flash and back cut as he grinned full-teethed while clapping and looking directly at me as I fumed. It was the most fun I've ever had in a loss -- mainly because competing against him and his team made me and mine better than we ever could have been without the experience.
I don't know that my perspective on the guy is any truer than anyone else's, but it is certainly unique. He recruited one of my high school players, I was his assistant coach, and we coached against one another in the national championship game.
We've been friends for more than 20 years, and I might not know much, but I do know this for sure: As keen as his gift is for X's and O's, Geno's gift for affecting people is greater. The masses want to say he wins because he has the best players. He definitely has the best players.
But Geno wins because he makes the best players better versions of themselves.
Sherri Coale is in her 18th season as head coach of the Oklahoma women's college basketball team. She has guided the Sooners to three Final Four appearances, nine trips to the Sweet 16 and 14 consecutive NCAA tournaments.