STORRS, Conn. — After missing four games over the past month, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said he’s feeling good, rested and “better than I felt in the last month,” he said Saturday.
Auriemma, 68, missed a pair of games in mid-December, returning to coach two more at the end of the year before being sidelined for another two in early January. At the time, he attributed it to “feeling under the weather and run down” and needing a little more time to “focus on my health.” He returned to the bench Wednesday against St. John’s, guiding the Huskies to a 82-52 victory in Elmont, New York.
The Hall of Fame coach lost his mother on Dec. 8 and also got “the flu or whatever it was that was going around our team,” he said Saturday, leaving him both physically and mentally drained.
Simultaneously, the Huskies (14-2) have also been injury-riddled, most notably with star Azzi Fudd — who also returned Wednesday — missing five weeks due to a knee injury she suffered on Dec. 4. Last week’s game against DePaul had to be postponed because UConn didn’t have enough healthy players to meet conference requirements.
Auriemma said that when he first had to step away in December, he was “supposed” to rest for a “couple of weeks” but he only did so for five days, returning when the Huskies reconvened after the holidays. “Needless to say it backfired,” Auriemma admitted Saturday, adding that things have improved since he regrouped and was able to get his medication right.
Associate head coach Chris Dailey went 4-0 in games filling in for Auriemma this season, improving her all-time record as acting head coach to 17-0.
The time away didn’t just restore Auriemma physically, but allowed him to shift his mindset towards life and coaching, he said, as he grappled with the loss of his mother, Marsiella, at 91.
“It probably isn’t until you get home… you can’t lay down and close your eyes. You can’t sit there and do anything without that image popping into your head,” Auriemma said. “You try to fill it by going to work and doing things and you’re not really present. You’re not in the moment. So you’re not really doing anything to help the people on your team because your mind isn’t there and you’re not present. So then you’re mad, you’re really mad at yourself, because you can’t compartmentalize the two things, and then the team’s practicing and it’s not going good, then you take it out on them, when really they have nothing to do with it. It’s all because you personally don’t feel comfortable in your skin right now. And it just escalates and that was the sign that you have to walk away.”
Auriemma said being able to clear his mind allowed him to realize “nothing is as hard and nothing is as complicated as we make it. There’s a very simple answer to most things. You’ve just got to be willing to accept that you don’t have any control over that, you can’t dictate how it’s going to go,” all the way down to the decisions his players make on the court to even game outcomes.
“After all these years, believe it or not, I take every pass, every dribble, every cut, every box out, every single thing personally to heart, like I didn’t do a good enough job coaching that I should have done a better job of teaching that box out, I should have done a better job of how to make that pass so we wouldn’t have 28 turnovers,” Auriemma continued. “It’s debilitating at times for coaches, and the only thing that I found to be truly liberating is you don’t have the ability to control it. And once you relinquish control of it, you do feel a sense of calm and peace.”
Auriemma — who built his storied legacy largely on the quest for and oftentimes achievement of perfection — explained this is a massive departure in his thinking given he spent the last 35-plus years in Storrs “thinking that if we don’t win the national championship I’m going to get fired, and that’s not a healthy way to live.” The Huskies boast a record 11 national championships, last winning one in 2016, and have been to 14 consecutive Final Fours.
As he moves forward with this year’s squad — which has the talent to compete for a national title — Auriemma is trying to remember what older Italian men whom he used to work with would tell him when he always tried to ask why things were the way they were.
“The answer was pretty simple in Italian. Perché è così. Because it is. That’s the only explanation. Why’d she just throw that? Because she did, and what are you going to do about it? Nothing. Why did that kid foul a 3-point shooter with one minute left? It is what it is. And if you understand that, you don’t have to ask ‘Why did it happen?’ Because you’d be asking you all the time, why did it happen, and you’re driving yourself crazy.”
The Huskies next take the court Sunday at 4 p.m. in Hartford when they face Georgetown.