He’s back: Auriemma to coach 2016 Olympic team

September 6, 2013 - 10:57pm
Geno Auriemma cheers on the US Women's National team during a scrimmage against Brazil. (File photo by Kelly Kline)

Geno Auriemma cheers on the US Women's National team during a scrimmage against Brazil. (File photo by Kelly Kline)

Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma will return as the head coach of the United States’ Senior Women’s National Team through the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  Friday's announcement, made by USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo at press conference at UConn’s Gampel Pavilion, marks the first time in USA Basketball history that a coach has been tapped to lead the program in back-to-back Olympics.

Auriemma led the U.S. women to gold at both the 2010 FIBA Women’s World Championships in the Czech Republic, returning the program to the top of the podium after a demoralizing bronze-medal finish at the 2006 Worlds in Brazil, and at last summer’s London Olympics, where the Americans earned an unprecedented fifth consecutive Olympic gold. Mike Krzyzewski has served three terms as head coach of the men’s senior national team, but Auriemma will be the first to repeat as head coach on the women’s side.

If there was ever a coach with a résumé warranting a break with tradition, it would have to be Auriemma. A 28-year coaching veteran, the Naismith and Women’s Basketball Hall-of-Famer has coached the Huskies to eight NCAA National Championships (1995, 2000, 2002-04, 2009-10, 2013), recorded four undefeated seasons (1994-95, 2001-02, 2008-10), and most recently led his 2012-13 Huskies to a 35-4 record, marking an NCAA record eight-consecutive 30-win seasons, and the 2013 NCAA title.

Auriemma said he had had no expectations of being the first repeat national team head coach and had been prepared to allow someone else to have a turn, but succumbed to a lobbying campaign by USA Basketball’s Steering Committee and board of directors to persuade him to return.

“When people asked me if I was going to do this again, throughout the course of the spring and the summer, I said exactly how I was feeling.  I had done it, it was great and it was unbelievable but I felt like it was time to move on to something different,” said Auriemma, who was also an assistant coach to the gold medalist 2000 U.S. Olympic Team. “But between Mr. Colangelo, Carol [Callan, USA Basketball Women’s National Team Director and chair of the USA Women’s National Team Steering Committee], Jim [Tooley, USA Basketball Executive Director and CEO), and I have to give a nod to General [Martin E.] Dempsey, [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has addressed the men’s and women’s national basketball teams on the importance of representing their country and the morale boost the teams’ basketball dominance provides to American troops], and his wife Deanie -- they were a very persuasive bunch on what it means to our country. When these people tell you that they admire what you have done and they want you to do it again, it means a lot. I took a long time to make this decision from the time I was asked to the time I decided to say yes; longer than I have ever taken to make a decision. But in the end, I was reminded that the opportunity to represent your country is one you don’t take lightly. This is not an opportunity that comes along too often.  I was humbled by the request and I’m honored to do it again.”

“I don’t need it,” in terms of material things or legacy, Auriemma continued. “I want to do it. … When I really sat down and was forced to make a decision, I want to do it. That’s what it came down to.”

“I don’t think you can … ever underestimate the value of continuity,” in international women’s basketball, said Callan. “You might think we’ve sailed through it, but it’s never as easy as it looks.” Callan noted the continuity USA Basketball has had in fielding many of the world’s top players, among them Hall-of-Famer and five-time Olympian Teresa Edwards and four-time consecutive Olympic gold-medalist Lisa Leslie, as well as current three-time gold-medalists Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, who Callan said she hoped would soon become four-timers. The decision to establish continuity in coaches made sense, added Callan, particularly in light of the difficulties the year-round playing season that has become the norm among professional women’s basketball’s elite players poses in carving out training time for the national team. “We find success when we have our players repeat,” and we felt continuity was important in the coaching ranks too.

First up for Auriemma and the national team will be the 2014 FIBA World Championships for Women to be held in Turkey from September 27 through October 5, 2014. By virtue of having taken the Olympic gold in London, the United States has already qualified for one of the 16 berths at the 2014 Worlds. Also qualified are the host nation, Turkey; five of the other top six finishers at FIBA’s 2013 Eurobasket for Women – Spain, France, Serbia, Belarus, and the Czech Republic, and Sweden, who finished sixth at Eurobasket but will fill the spot that would otherwise have gone to bronze-medalist Turkey; and Australia, as the Oceania zone champions. The top three finishers at both the FIBA Americas and the FIBA Asia championships, and the top two teams from the FIBA Africa championship, all to be played this autumn, will also qualify for the 2014 World Championships.

If, as most expect but history tells us cannot be guaranteed, the United States successfully defends its title at the 2014 Worlds, the national team will automatically qualify for the 2016 Olympics. If not, the Americans will get two more opportunities to play their way into an Olympic berth in Rio – either by winning the 2015 FIBA Americas championship or by beating out other geographic zone runners-up at an Olympic Qualifying Tournament held shortly before the Olympics themselves.

The top priority for Auriemma and the Women’s National Team Selection Committee will be achieving the right balance between veteran experience and talented young blood.

“I think that’s going to be the key,” said Auriemma. “There is always a transition period.  There was one from Dawn Staley and Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoops, etc.  Obviously Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird and Tamika Catching were an incredible part of that transition and I’m sure those players will step aside at some point and there will be a new transition. To who, I don’t know. But there are so many good young players, so a challenge for the selection committee will be getting enough veterans to make sure that you have the experience you need to win a gold medal and at the same time try to infuse that with some young talent that will allow you to have some experience going into 2020. So that’s going to be pretty important for the committee and I’m looking forward to being part of that process.”