The Auriemmas and the UConn dynasty: Its Philly roots, and why they stayed

Geno Auriemma and Kathy Auriemma at game
Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma (right) and his wife Kathy share a moment together at the end of a second-round game against Syracuse in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Monday, March 20, 2017, in Storrs, Conn.

STORRS, Conn. - Kathy Auriemma leaned in to make herself heard. A section over, the Connecticut Huskies band had begun playing, and Gampel Pavilion was starting to fill up for the greatest show in the state. Before Auriemma took her seat across from the UConn bench, second row on the aisle, a gray-haired man with an American flag on his sweater stopped to talk of a friend, a man "named Yo . . . "

"Tell Geno," the man said, and Geno Auriemma's wife assured him she would.

"It wasn't always like this," Kathy Auriemma said, referring to the whole scene, before the 11 NCAA titles, including the last four years, and this current perfect season, that Hall of Fame induction up in Springfield, and the last two Olympics, in which her husband coached the USA women. She can tell you about how UConn administrators didn't even show her husband the old leaky gym when they were talking the young University of Virginia assistant into becoming UConn's women's basketball coach in 1985.

She goes back farther, to an empty gym, at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, just the sound of a basketball. You can guess who was bouncing the ball.

She remembers later, after their wedding, teaching at Our Lady of Holy Souls at 19th and Tioga, and at a technical school on Spring Garden Street, and then packing up a U-Haul to leave Philly for Charlottesville, Va. - those broken plates - and all the forks in the road, how Geno's not finishing up his degree at West Chester right away while he was working overnight shifts and coaching hoops actually set them on a path to all this.

More forks, like how Geno could have left UConn after half the titles, maybe chasing the expectations of others, how Kathy Auriemma pointed out to her husband that they had what most coaches never get. They'd built a life here. What was he chasing?

How they met? "It's kind of a convoluted story," she said.

And the road away from home no less so, yet it all remains relevant.

"We're not big planners," Kathy Auriemma said, sitting in that second row across from the bench because she likes to see the whole show. "We're kind of instinctive people. If it feels right, you go with it."

Geno Auriemma had moved to Norristown from Italy when he was 7 and found this new sport where he fit in, playing basketball at Bishop Kenrick in Norristown for Buddy Gardler and, after being a second-stringer at Montco, moving on to classes at West Chester and to coaching jobs. He joined friend Phil Martelli's staff at Kenrick, went to St. Joseph's University as a women's assistant under Jim Foster.

It was the rest of it that let him coach, stocking shelves on a graveyard shift at a supermarket in Glenside, driving a truck for Fiore's, working at a paint store, selling insurance, working briefly at a steel mill.

But he hadn't finished his degree.

"My mother was horrified because she says he's got to get that degree," said Kathy Auriemma, who, already married, remembers telling her mom, "It's this basketball thing."

Its importance at that point wasn't monetary.

"It paid him enough to buy one sports coat," his wife said.

The summer time was everything, Cathy Rush camp and other camps, all these young guys trying to make it in the sport. One of them got a job out at New Mexico coaching women. Doug Hoselton and Geno were close. He wanted to bring Geno with him. First, the school didn't want two men.

"I'll never forget it," said Kathy Auriemma, how Geno was about to leave for an evening bartending up in Doylestown. "He picks up the phone. Doug says, 'Great news. I got it, buddy, I can hire you.' "

There was one thing: "On your resumé, it didn't say when you graduated college."

"Because I didn't," Geno said.

That was that. He wasn't going to New Mexico.

"One of the few times I saw this weight of, 'What did I do?' " Kathy Auriemma said, and she remembers telling him not to worry about it. That was maybe March, and he enrolled back in West Chester for night classes. The following year, Virginia coach Debbie Ryan contacted Martelli for a job. Not for him, Martelli said, but Geno? He was close enough to his degree by then that he could finish it before heading to Charlottesville. The diploma arrived down there in the mail.

And who knows the path if he'd already had the degree? His buddy Doug, settled out there, was head coach at both New Mexico and New Mexico State. He's in sales now in Phoenix.

Kathy Auriemma goes back to another gym, at the community college in Blue Bell, where she also was taking classes.

"Met at our first basketball game. I was a cheerleader. He was a basketball player," the former Kathy Osler said.

Except the story starts earlier.

"I had come to the first cheerleading practice in October. I was the only person in the gym, but I heard a ball bouncing in the other gym. So I went over . . . "

A movie might start that way. The sound of a ball bouncing. Checking it out. Seeing this guy.

"I thought, 'Jeez, he's awfully cute,' " Kathy Auriemma said.

But that was it. She ducked back out of the gym, didn't see the guy for six more weeks.

"We were cheerleaders for soccer. One of the soccer guys - this was a Wednesday, Dec. 6 - I remember it because a big party was supposed to happen Dec. 9."

The soccer player wanted to know if she was going. She was selling bake sale items in the lobby, trying to ignore the soccer player.

"I see that guy," she said, and the soccer player noticed. "You want to go to the party with Geno?"

"Who is Geno?" she remembers saying.

"That guy you were just looking at," the soccer player said.

She did not, she said.

"I don't know that he goes in and tells Geno," she said.

She didn't know Geno was even on the basketball team. She went to the first game to cheer.

"He comes out with the team. Next thing I know my best friend, my ride, leaves me there, says the guy Geno is going to take me home," Kathy Auriemma said. "I'm like, 'How embarrassing.' Now we're the only two people left in the gym."

She explains why it worked. Geno came around the corner and made "some wiseass comment," and she thought, OK, this is going to be fine. A wise guy, but the tone was warm.

"He actually thought he had won the lottery because I lived in Elkins Park," Kathy said.

Which big house was her house? She told him, no, the apartment on top of the drug store. Just her and her mother.

Things got started against Syracuse, which had lost to UConn in last year's national title game. Kathy Auriemma stood with the rest of the Huskies faithful until the first basket. She pointed in the direction of the possession arrow when there was a tie-up on the first possession. UConn ball.

Just when you think there are no more mountains to see, let alone climb, another peak pushes to the sky. With one returning starter, after four straight NCAA titles, this was supposed to be a season to take a breath. Geno told a coaching friend he was looking forward to coaching after a loss. It never happened. If UConn loses now, there will be no practice the next day.

The lone returning starter, Kia Nurse, who had struggled with her shot early in the season, owned this game. When Nurse hit her fourth three-pointer in five tries, UConn's lead was up to 31-11.

The noteworthy numbers, however, weren't anybody's points. When UConn scored its 17th basket, the Huskies had 16 assists. It kept on like that, through 20 assists on 21 baskets at halftime, to 30 assists on 33 baskets by the end. Nurse had 29 points, making 9 of 12 threes, most-ever threes by a UConn player in the NCAA tournament. Every UConn player who got in for at least 20 minutes had at least three assists.

Watching UConn in a game like this, put the score down as meaningless. This kind of game could be judged rather than scored, history as the marker. Auriemma talked later about how his center Gabby Williams is his fastest player and how he has 41/2 point guards out there. Napheesa Collier, he joked, likes passes too, she just likes catching them. (She'd made 8 of 9 shots, and had three assists and no turnovers).

It's true he's built a dynasty that allows him to have his pick of high school blue-chippers. Also true that getting them to play this selflessly is an entirely different skill.

Very involved but also separate from UConn women's hoops, Kathy Auriemma said it helps to be a true sports fan, to enjoy the game.

"Maybe it just takes me back - back in Cheltenham. I was always a sports fan," Kathy had said before the game. "I remember getting cut from the basketball team at Ogontz Junior High, but I was fat and slow, so I should have been. I walk home. I bawled my eyes out. Before I went in to see my mom, I said, 'OK, so what am I going to do now? I'm going to have to be a cheerleader.' "

She tells about how in eighth grade, the high school boys, coached by a man named Paul Westhead, went to the PIAA title game. (The same Westhead who went on to coach La Salle and Loyola Marymount and also the Lakers to the 1980 NBA title.)

"They're playing in the state championship in some godforsaken place in the middle of Pennsylvania and I have my mother's transistor [radio], middle of winter," Kathy said. "I have the window open and the antenna out the window, listening. And they lost. I'm bawling. None of my friends were listening. Who could I talk to about it?"

She didn't meet Westhead until years later, when Westhead coached former UConn great Diana Taurasi with Phoenix in the WNBA, winning a title there, too. Kathy, who has a smart aleck streak of her own, gave Westhead a hard time about leaving Cheltenham for La Salle just when she was getting to the school. He calls her Cheltenham when he sees her now.

Game ended, 94-64 final, 109th straight, NCAA record extended, her husband started across the court. Kathy Auriemma took some steps toward Geno, but saw somebody else reach him first and that person was holding an ESPN microphone. She stopped on a dime.

A man came down the stairs. Would she take a photo with his daughter?

"What's your name?"

"Sophia."

Geno came over for a hug. "How about Kia?" he said to his wife.

She's never asked him about staying here, she had said before the game, but she hopes he feels the same way she does about it. To her, the evidence of making the right decision is all around them.

"We stayed on the same path," she said, "and we got rewarded for it."

She noted her husband, 63, is an "expansive" person.

"If you notice, he doesn't just coach basketball - he . . . has . . . all . . . these . . . other . . . entities," she said, giving emphasis to each word. "And he likes that. He's always filling his cup up, which is good. So why should we give all of that up?"

He likes to do new things and he wants these new adventures, she said, but staying in Storrs gave him that opportunity, to opening restaurants, his own wine, a leadership conference, up to the Olympics.

"This career has allowed him to fill his life up with a lot of things that he's also very proud of," she said. "It's kind of like when he was doing all those back in Norristown. It wasn't just one thing."

That reminded her of the time when they were dating, when she said why don't you try ice skating? He'd never done it.

"So I took him to the York rink, I don't know if it's still there, off of York Road in Elkins Park," she said. "Next thing you know, he's playing hockey. We're going to 1 a.m. games. Are you kidding me?"

Kathy Auriemma remembers her late mother, a single mom, giving her blessing - "the generosity of a parent" - for the big move to Charlottesville in 1981. The last night, their friends went to their apartment in Plymouth Meeting. At some point, the guys gave her a present, a big box of dishes. What did she need new dishes for? Packing the U-Haul, they'd broken her dishes an hour before.

"When everybody left, he and I just lay on the floor and sobbed," she said. "I'll never forget that. Plymouth Rock apartments. We just cried our eyes out - got that out of the way. We were leaving our family, our life, all that we had known.''

Just that one time, she said of letting the emotion out. Not out of fear. After that, no more tears. What's the worst that could happen?

"We could always come home," Kathy Auriemma said.

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus