INDIANAPOLIS -- Never afraid to speak his mind in this or any other setting, and on any topic, University of Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma instead offered a less familiar show of emotions as he accepted an award Saturday as the Associated Press' coach of the year.
Instead of quips or sound bites, the moment moved Auriemma to tears.
Which meant that on a day that three teams went through the Final Four experience for the first time, the most surprising development came from the man who has been through this 17 times.
"Maybe it just dawned on me these last three weeks, this is something like we'll never see again." UConn coach Geno Auriemma
The weekend might prove Connecticut is invincible in the moment, but the coach who built the dynasty seems painfully aware that there is no such thing as immortality in sports.
"The longer I'm at this, the more I'm starting to understand it might not happen again," Auriemma said. "And you really need to appreciate what these people do every day, to make it work."
Auriemma was presented with the AP award at the same time UConn senior Breanna Stewart was recognized as the AP player of the year for a record third time. With UConn players and coaches looking on from the first few rows in front of the dais on which the honorees sat, Auriemma first began to look and sound uncharacteristically pensive and emotional as he spoke upon accepting the award.
He said this week, as UConn is both seeking an unprecedented fourth consecutive title and fending off suggestions that its dominance hurts the sport, felt different than past Final Fours. Cutting himself off as he rubbed his eyes, the emcee quickly moved on to introducing Stewart.
Subsequently asked to expand on why this week felt different, Auriemma referenced his time as an assistant coach with the women's basketball team at the University of Virginia that coincided with the playing career of men's basketball standout Ralph Sampson. Auriemma talked about the way in which the 7-foot-4 Sampson, an athletic giant who was also a three-time player of the year, changed the sport. The comparison to Stewart, a 6-4 forward who plays the game with a versatility and athleticism rarely seen before in someone her size, was obvious.
"Maybe it's because you realize how fortunate you are to be here," Auriemma said. "It's not something that you can ever take for granted. I don't know. I don't know why. It just feels different. It just feels ..."
At that point, Auriemma paused, removed his glasses, wiped a reddening face, and with an audible catch in his voice continued, "It's because of you, CD,'" in apparent reference to longtime UConn associate coach Chris Dailey. Unable to continue, he told Stewart to start talking.
Away from the dais, Auriemma later attempted to explain a public show of emotions unlike anything even longtime members of the sizable UConn media contingent could recall. It was not so much an emotional connection with this particular team, something that he said gets harder to forge as he gets older and the players get younger. It was about the passage of time.
"I probably didn't appreciate it as much when we had Asjha [Jones], Tamika [Williams], Swin [Cash] and Sue [Bird]," Auriemma said of seniors who formed the core of what many consider the best team in women's basketball history when the Huskies went undefeated in 2001-02. "Those four were playing in the NCAA tournament, it's almost like there's nothing that could get in our way. The team was going to win a national championship.
"And I remember when we did, it was unbelievable."
Without trying to compare the merits of the current senior class of Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck relative to that prior quartet, he suggested that the scale of their accomplishment is similar -- and similarly imposing. The Huskies make it look easy, but it is not.
"I don't know," Auriemma continued, "maybe it just dawned on me these last three weeks, this is something like we'll never see again."
There have been lulls in UConn's reign, though they are often overlooked. After Diana Taurasi completed her run for the Huskies, the program missed three consecutive Final Fours. That wouldn't qualify as an extended drought at most places, but it did at UConn. Only with the arrival of Tina Charles, Maya Moore and then Stewart did the dominance return. Massive though the margins of victory now are, that is a thin margin on which to run a dynasty. If the next Stewart signs with one of the ever-expanding number of elite, committed programs, the world changes.
It will not elicit any sympathy, nor should it. But being UConn is not easy.
That might have been at the root of his particularly poignant verbal nod to Dailey, who has been with him for all 30 of his seasons at Connecticut.
"Like it's this massive ship crossing the Atlantic that just goes by itself," Auriemma said of the perception of the program. "You don't even realize that there are people on it, driving this thing. And there are people making it happen. And there's people that, you know, year after year after year after year, are just making this thing work."
"Like it's this massive ship crossing the Atlantic that just goes by itself. You don't even realize that there are people on it, driving this thing. And there are people making it happen." Auriemma, on the perception of the UConn program
That is true of no one more than his associate coach, widely viewed as the balancing force that works to dull his abrasive edges with everyone from players to recruits to fans. That is one more perception he has always enjoyed prodding, and that did not change even in this moment.
"Oh, I got a lot more things wrong with me than she does," Auriemma said. "But she thinks she's Mary Poppins, 'practically perfect in every way.' She has just enough things that are just god-awful about her that I know I can work with, and I can fix. And it's made for a great relationship."
And with that, the moment was gone. Surrounded by the familiar retinue of reporters, sly grin a placeholder on his face until the next quip arrived, Auriemma sauntered out of the arena.
The familiar Auriemma was back.
Even so, while most outside the game complain or make jokes about UConn's dominance, and even as many of those who hold the sport dear quietly lament a tournament that has offered abundant drama is marred by a foregone conclusion, Auriemma appears intent on appreciating that what might be inevitable this weekend will also inevitably end.
Perhaps at the hands of another program. Perhaps at the hands of Father Time. But end it will.
When Auriemma speaks, we listen. Perhaps it should speak equally loudly when words fail him.