TAMPA, Fla. -- Geno Auriemma now has as many titles as John Wooden.
We saw this coming, of course. The UConn Huskies have been the favorite (a mortal lock?) to win this year's NCAA title for months. So even though Notre Dame stayed with them for a bit Tuesday night, it's no surprise that here we are, in early April, deconstructing yet another UConn championship, its third consecutive.
But this title is a little different because this one comes with a piece of history: Auriemma now shares space with former UCLA legend John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, the most revered men's college basketball coach in history -- and, many would argue, the best.
Both men won 10 NCAA titles. Wooden won his in the 1960s and '70s; Auriemma has won all 10 of his since 1995 and likely will tack on a few more before he's done coaching.
The number, by itself, is simple to comprehend: Ten titles? OK, yeah, that's a lot -- most programs would be ecstatic to win even one.
What's trickier to do is put that number, that achievement, into context. Wooden and Auriemma: This is an apples-to-oranges comparison, right?
Because on the surface, only one similarity seems to exist between Wooden and Auriemma: Both coach, or coached, college basketball. Actually, make that two similarities: Both also had great players. Wooden coached, among others, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton; Auriemma coached, among others, Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore.
"We do have that in common," Auriemma said. "We coached some of the most iconic players to play the game of basketball. I think that's one thread."
But after that, not much seems the same. Auriemma is from Philly and possesses a sardonic wit; Wooden was from Indiana and was known for his thoughtful, philosophical quotes. One coaches women; the other coached men. Each coached at a different time in history.
"John Wooden was one of the reasons the men's college game became what it became. And I hope that we at Connecticut have done our part to grow our game." Geno Auriemma
So how do we even compare? Can we -- should we -- compare?
Auriemma doesn't much care how sports fans view his place in history. "Put it on a pedestal or keep it somewhere else," he said of winning those 10 titles. "Truth is we're not real good in this country about appreciating people who are good. We always have to compare. When you make a comparison, you always come up short. You have to appreciate it in its own element. And you have to say, 'Relative to their peers, they're really, really good.' When you accomplish something that's really hard to accomplish, you should be proud of yourself. How people compare you, that's their prerogative."
Some want to diminish Auriemma's achievement because he coaches women's basketball, which some perceive as less competitive than the men's game -- easier to compile championships, they say. By this logic, men's college basketball is a regulation-size track, women's basketball a shortened indoor track, and one completed lap is not the same distance.
But what if dismissing Auriemma's 10 titles really is equivalent to dismissing those won by Wooden? What if there is one other, very important, similarity between the two coaches: that they essentially coached in the same era?
Stay with me here -- it might sound outlandish, but when you look at history, a pattern emerges.
The first NCAA men's championship was played in 1939. Exactly 25 years later, Wooden won his first title. Over the next 11 years, the Bruins would win nine more, beating North Carolina by 23 points one year, Purdue by 20 points the year after. The Bruins finished undefeated four different times and, during this stretch, never finished with more than two losses. Wooden won his final title in 1975, exactly 36 years after the first championship game.
The first women's championship game (AIAW) was played in 1972. Exactly 23 years later, Auriemma won his first title with UConn. Beginning in 2000, for the next 15 years, the Huskies would win nine titles, beating Louisville by 33 points one year, Notre Dame by 21 points the year after. UConn went undefeated four times and never finished with more than four losses. Auriemma won his 10th title exactly 43 years after the first championship game.
This happened in Major League Baseball, too; exactly 33 years after the first World Series, the Yankees won the first of four consecutive titles -- they would win six of eight. In those eight series, the Yankees swept their opponent twice and never lost more than two games. In the NBA, exactly 33 years after the first championship, the Los Angeles Lakers started a title run that would see them win five of the next eight titles.
Translation: As sports mature into adulthood, dynasties aren't unusual, they're expected.
And even more important: Auriemma and Wooden are actually contemporaries -- not in relation to each other, of course, but in relation to their sport. They each excelled at nearly the exact same moment in their sport's history, and each also played a crucial part in the evolution of their sport.
"I think John Wooden was one of the reasons the men's college game became what it became," Auriemma said. "And I hope that we at Connecticut have done our part to grow our game."
The Huskies have. Auriemma has taken women's basketball to new heights, introducing a smoothness and stylishness that is the envy of the rest of the women's game. He has consistently recruited the most talented players in the country and demanded of them the absolute best, year after year leading them to the pinnacle of the sport. In fact, UConn is, right now, so much better than everyone else that it has made the game almost boring.
But don't worry, we've seen that kind of dominance before, too, and it never lasts. (Just ask UCLA, the Yankees and the Lakers.) Auriemma knows it, too: "Just like it ended at UCLA -- they're not what they used to be anymore. Well, yeah, history has a way of reminding you that history is going to do the same to us."
On Sunday night, Auriemma earned himself a place alongside a coaching legend.
And to truly appreciate the achievement, you have to understand the context -- all of it.