Was it just part of the hype or is an indication of some serious chasm between the two of the greatest coaches in college women's basketball history? We may never know the answer with respect to Monday's press conference sniping session between Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw and Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma in which McGraw described the relationship between the two coaches as nonexistent and the two programs as being beyond the point of civility, and Auriemma retorted that it was "nonsense" to think after playing each other, trying to "bat each other's brains in, trying to win a National Championship and compete like hell, Muffet and Geno" are then "supposed to get together afterwards and go have a bottle of wine.
Either way, the bared-fang comments between the two will help ESPN's ratings, as it pitches the rivalry spin on the upcoming national championship game between the first two undefeated teams ever to play for the NCAA Division I women's basketball title. It probably didn't need it: This game is history in the making.
Neither was this a game where either team needed any additional motivation in the form of coaching trash talk. They know each other too well. They've played each other too often. And while the players for both teams express nothing but respect and admiration for their opponents, and will even admit to liking one another on a personal level, once on the court, the rivalry reaches the level of hatred.
This game is being played by the two best teams in the nation, led by two of the sport's top coaches. And one question we can answer is whether Auriemma and McGraw are alike or dissimilar in their coaching styles. The answer: Though these two teams have each produced a perfect season to date, they are led by two entirely different management techniques.
This article is designed to look at each coach from a management viewpoint. But, before we get started, here a few disclaimers.
Disclaimer 1: Both coaches are among the best coaches I have ever seen, so take any of my comments below as a form of admiration and not as a negative “shot.”
Disclaimer 2: I have covered the Notre Dame program for years and am on a first name basis with Muffet McGraw. In fact, I wrote the book Nice Girls Finish First about the 2001 Irish National Championship team. I do not know Geno Auriemma other than through a few interviews and by watching his team play in person and on television.
Disclaimer 3: Even though I am close to Notre Dame, I do not consider myself a “fan.” I have been writing sports for 35 years and learned very early on not to be a “fan” of any team, unless my kids are playing on it. I view this incredible Tuesday night encounter for the national championship as one dripping in storylines, but I will not be cheering for either team. In fact, I tend to pull for the underdog in any encounter and neither of these two has been an underdog for at least four years.
Fact: I am a Professor at Indiana University (South Bend Campus) and I teach real-world management and leadership techniques. This article is simply an opinion of the different coaching styles that I have watched develop through the 15 years that I have followed the sport.
So, here we go:
Tuesday, April 8, will be an historic night for sports. Not just for women’s basketball. Not just for women’s sports, and not just for college sports. This will be one for the ages. Two undefeated teams. Two teams with a decided dislike for each other hidden only by a thin veneer of on-camera politeness. Two coaches who would just as soon beat you by 100 and not apologize for it than give in to the temptation to be nice.
The similarity in background between these two coaches is almost mind-blowing. On some levels, the biggest difference between the two is that one is male and the other female. Without going into the backgrounds too deeply, both grew up in Philly and incorporate some of its "take-no-prisoners" mentality into their approach to the game. Both are East Coast perfectionists who started their programs when there were no fans and even less media coverage. Auriemma practiced the first few years on a basketball court that was inside a running track, while McGraw played under the radar in front of tiny crowds because of the giant shadow cast by the media monster that is Notre Dame football. Both have built programs that play in front of sold-out arenas not only at home, but also frequently on the road.
Both have huge recruiting advantages, similar to what Pat Summit had for years in the heyday of Tennessee. If you wanted to play at the highest level at that time you chose Tennessee because, well, there really was no other choice. Now, that mantle has clearly passed to UConn, where according to many coaches, Geno gets to pick his players, while other coaches recruit. The best players in the nation naturally want to come to the place that has the best coaching and the best chance to win a national championship. UConn has proven to be that place.
Notre Dame is in the process of attaining that pick-and-choose status. For all its pros and cons, the culture at Notre Dame is all about marketing its brand. In the end, sports is simply a huge opportunity for Notre Dame to gather donations to further its cause, even if that particular cause is to build lavish facilities to entice yet more funding. That brand is all about becoming part of the Notre Dame family. “We are ND” is a way of life at Notre Dame, and that image is very enticing to the female student-athlete who wants the Notre Dame degree to help her get through life after basketball.
Two great instiutions. But what about the coaches?
Perhaps trying to pour a little oil on the simmering waters between the two coaches, Irish guard Kayla McBride, who has played for McGraw for four years and for Auriemma for a few days at last fall's national team traininig camp where the two made a favorable impression on each other, described the two as "actually the same coach" in terms of their demand for excellence and precision. But though the two are certainly alike in those respects, in other ways they are quite different.
How are they different?
It is a fun idea to ask, if Geno and Muffet were not coaches, what would they be? And this is where my opinion comes in.
Having taught leadership and management for many years, it is my opinion that Auriemma exhibits the attributes of a leader mentality, and Muffet is more of a manager.
Before the reader starts howling, let me add that each exhibit attributes of both at various times. Muffet is a leader in her own way; Geno is a manager in his own way. We're talking here about the predominant coaching/management style in each case.
A leader is the kind of person who says, “Hey, we are going to Chicago to watch a Cubs game. Who wants to go?”
Leaders tend to be more creative and focused on inspiring others, and the really good ones have that natural “it” factor -- the magnetism, the charisma. Leaders are very much the dominant alphas in the pack, and while often surrounded by fans and admirers, many tend not to have a lot of close personal friends, simply because they don’t need them.
Auriemma is a natural leader. While certain people would have you believe he is a bully, he is simply fulfilling his personality traits. Quite honestly, if he wasn’t a basketball coach, Auriemma would be the successful head of a small company. The company would have to be small enough so that he could rule without the interference of other influences such as boards and committees. (In fact, even while coaching, Auriemma has launched two such businesses with his chain of Geno's Fast Break restaurants and Geno's Grille.)
The public persona of Auriemma is that of the dominant male in the pack. He says what he wants and pretty much does what he wants. The key point of his initial job interview those many years ago (according to an ESPN special) was when the Connecticut athletic director asked Geno if he could trust him. Auriemma replied, “Yes,” and it has been pretty much the “Geno Show” in Storrs ever since. It took him a while, but he caught up to Summit’s legacy, and should he win Tuesday night, will surpass her with nine national titles. Next stop: Having already surpassed the legendary John Wooden's historic winning streak, Auriemma is on course to match his storied 10 national titles.
While his dominating persona can rub people the wrong way (especially Notre Dame people), Auriemma shares a lot of Wooden’s personal characteristics and coaching philosophies. Ask any coach if there is a difference between coaching men and coaching women and the response is always a resounding yes. Auriemma leads, coaches, teaches, coerces, rips, uplifts, etc., intelligent young women with a unique and demanding style which breaks down to: “This is where we are going. Do you want to go or not? If not, then go find somewhere else to play.”
It is a tough-love approach to coaching. Show them the goal, expect total dedication/hard work, and throw out the weaklings (even if they will eventually start for other great teams) or relegate them to the bench.
As Auriemma pointed out during Monday's press conference flap, where he even joked about himself taking the "high road," that there are many who assume an attitude of arrogance or bravado, where there is nothing more than well-earned self-confidence.
"We think we're the best basketball program in America," Auriemma told reporters Monday, "but we don't flaunt it, we don't go around talking about it all the time. We're not out there all the time."
That's true. I've never once heard Auriemma or any of his players -- whether at UConn or on the even more dominant U.S. Senior Women's National Team -- refer to an opponent with anything other than respect.
Of course, it is dangerous territory when the coach becomes the public face of the university. Fortunately for Auriemma, the “bad-boy” image of the UConn men’s basketball team has been a shield for the less popular women’s sport. Don’t look for a Joe Paterno-like collapse of Auriemma's program. The women’s basketball game is still dominated by student-athletes, unlike the NBA-machine driven men’s game, and Auriemma’s squad is built around model American citizens who work hard, play harder, and exemplify all that is good about the new vision for how women can live successful lives.
McGraw, on the other hand, is more of a manager. A manager is the one who figures out just how the group is going to get to Chicago. She is detail-driven, which is an absolute necessity when working for Notre Dame.
McGraw and Notre Dame are the perfect fit. McGraw is not a publicity hound. In fact, she is quite introverted once steps off the dais of a press conference and gets outside of her small group of close friends. She is a wonderful example of surface acting. When the cameras are on, or when she is in the public eye, she can turn on the charm, say the right things and impress all the right people.
But when the cameras are off, McGraw becomes a basketball nerd. When seen in private settings, such as grocery stores or places “normal people” go, she does not draw attention to herself. Fortunately for her, she married a man (Matt) who takes all the pressure off her socially. Matt knows no strangers and goes out of his way to be friends with just about anyone. In non-basketball situations, it is Matt who takes the lead, and Muffet who is in the background.
On the court, however, Muffet is in control. If she were not a coach, she would be the best math teacher ever. She hates to lose -- at anything -- and is the only coach who has been able to defeat Auriemma on a regular basis since Tennessee. Five against five, Notre Dame rarely, if ever, has had better players than Connecticut. But when McGraw was able to keep Skylar Diggins in South Bend, it turned her program into a perennial, not an occasional, contender. Diggins’ four years at Notre Dame opened the gates to four national finals appearances, which in turn led to the top student-athletes looking at South Bend as a place to play and get national notice.
McGraw manages. She leaves the outgoing leadership role to others, which led to Diggins becoming the face of the program for much of her tenure. McGraw sat in the background, managing, analyzing, implementing and winning.
Watching her on the sidelines is not that much fun. She has about three positions (standing with arms crossed, kneeling, and turning to say something to her assistant coaches/players) that she uses and she rarely is going to be found on-camera screaming at anyone.
This season, the of the post-Diggins era, was the ultimate test of McGraw’s management technique and she passed with flying colors. The team leadership went to the seniors (Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa) and Notre Dame took what was perceived as a rebuilding year and made it their first undefeated season ever.
In similar fashion to Auriemma, McGraw is an acquired taste. She can be very hard on freshmen, and has a one-mistake-and-you-sit-the-bench training program. However, as the player matures, McGraw gives them more control. Her program now has high quality players in nearly every class and that yields consistent team leaders who understand what it takes to be successful at the highest level.
I love watching both of these people coach. And I suspect if I knew Auriemma outside the basketball court I would have as much respect for him there as I do for McGraw.
Their two different approaches to winning is producing similar results.
Two great programs. Two great coaches. Two great teams.
I can’t wait for Twosday night.