In Geno's Mind, Ollie Is No. 1 When It Comes To Seeding

Kevin Ollie and Geno Auriemma

UConn head basketball coaches Geno Auriemma and Kevin Ollie address the fans at First Night at Gampel Pavilion in October. (Cloe Poisson / Hartford Couant / October 18, 2013)

STORRS — Geno Auriemma gets a kick out of it. He clicks on the television, he picks up the paper and there is Kevin Ollie, that noted farmer from South Central LA, talking about planting seeds.

He's talking about planting seeds for player growth and team growth. He's talking about planting seeds for seeds in the NCAA Tournament. The UConn men's coach even asked what better place to plant seeds than in the Garden this Friday night against Iowa State.

"He is Johnny Appleseed," Auriemma said Monday as the UConn women prepared for their NCAA game Tuesday against St. Joseph's at Gampel Pavilion. "He has crisscrossed the country dropping seeds everywhere he goes.

"The important thing is whether they germinate in his players. Judging by his record the last two years, they have."

With the men heading to New York for the Sweet 16 and the No. 1 women on their inexorable roll toward national title No. 9, these are sweet times in Storrs. The UConn men and women, of course, won national championships on back-to-back nights in 2004. They have been to the mountaintop together before, although there are no known photographs of the two Hall of Fame coaches embracing at the summit. But enough of that.

Auriemma likes the Ollie-isms. He likes Ollie even more. Asked about Ollie's saying about taking the stairs and not the escalators, Auriemma responded: "If we had [an escalator] I would take one, because I have a bad hip right now. Kevin doesn't have as many years coaching as I do, but he has a lot more witty sayings."

What seems to have profoundly impressed Auriemma, however, is not the punch line on the Ollie-isms, it's the punch line in his games.

"The one thing that has been so remarkable is when you see how many close games, down-to-the-wire games he has been in his two years and what their record is in those games … remarkable.

"You think he hasn't coached long enough to really handle those situations. He has handled almost every one of them in textbook style. It helps when almost every guy on your staff has been head coach, but he has really been impressive."

One of the great things about being in a college environment, Auriemma said, is the interaction a coach can have not just with his or her own players, but with players from other teams on campus.

"That interaction is one of my fondest memories of being here at Connecticut," Auriemma said. "It goes back to when we were playing in the field house and Matt DeGennaro was our scorekeeper. I'd challenge anybody to say that the starting quarterback on the football team was the scorekeeper at their women's basketball games. But he was.

"Dan Orlovsky probably only looked up to one person in his whole career here and that was probably Diana Taurasi. When we won the national championship in 1995, the first person that we met when we entered the building, waiting outside the locker room, was Ray Allen."

Auriemma thinks about when Ollie arrived from Los Angeles for his recruiting visit in 1991. He has watched Ollie for better than 20 years. Through his college career, bouncing around pro basketball for a decade and a half — the most resilient yo-yo in NBA history — before returning to Storrs.

"He has been the same person," Auriemma said. "I have a chance to play golf with him a lot. The No. 1 thing that sticks out is just what a really, really good man he is, what a genuine person. How much he loves what he is doing, how much he loves UConn and how it hurt so bad to have the kind of year they had last year and not be able to play in the NCAA Tournament. That's why I'm so happy for him and the guys.

"My daughter [Alysa] teaches a class here and she has a couple of the guys in her class. You can tell how much they love playing here, love going to school here, being student-athletes here. I think that is a huge credit to him. We have talked a lot about a lot of things since he got the job and we still talk after every game as much as we can. When you think about it," he said, "that's the way it's supposed to be."

Auriemma has grown himself through the years because he's always planting seeds, always exploring different angles to view the prism of coaching.

Before leaving for Sochi, Kevin Dineen spoke with Auriemma. Remember, Dineen was one of the greatest Whalers. He knows what the UConn women mean to Connecticut. He knows about the eight national titles. He knows about Auriemma's enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

He also knew Auriemma coached a group of elite women athletes to the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Dineen, a dual U.S.-Canada citizen, had coached his daughter at the youth level, but he was making the leap from coaching in the NHL, where he had just been fired by the Florida Panthers, to coaching the Canadian Olympic women's hockey team. Dineen had to patch together a team with some problems all in two months.

Auriemma, in turn, admired the ferocity Dineen played with for the Whalers and his hometown Philadelphia Flyers.

"Put yourself in his position, in November you're coaching NHL players, in February you're coaching women players in the Olympics," Auriemma said. "The contrast is unbelievable. It's not like the NHL and then you're coaching juniors. He went 180 degrees almost overnight.

"He wanted to talk about mind-set, to bounce some ideas. My only real advice was coach them like they are NHL guys. Same thing you ask of the NHL guys, ask of them, with the understanding they're not going to be able to do all those things. But do not treat them like women hockey players. Treat them like hockey players."

Canada, of course, dramatically erased the Americans' 2-0 lead in the final four minutes and won the gold medal in overtime.

"Believe me, I was rooting for the U.S.," Auriemma said. "When we were up 2-0, I was like, 'Sorry Kevin.' For them to come back like that and win, oh man."

For a piece in The Courant, Dineen talked about discussing with his team the need to shorten shifts. One of his players in a pre-Olympic game unselfishly came off during a 5-on-3 power play with the team in offensive-zone possession. Dineen said he'd never seen anything in his career like it.

"Amazing, isn't it? Auriemma said. "Women athletes listen."

Not surprisingly, mind-sets form much of the base of Auriemma's discussions with Ollie.

"I don't want to say never, because there are occasions when it's X's and O's," Auriemma said. "But most of the time it is philosophical stuff, situations that come up. There are things about the NCAA Tournament Kevin has asked me about, because he has never coached in one up to this year. There is a lot of me asking questions about how in his experience in the pros how did they deal with a certain situation. About what the NBA does that I find really intriguing, that I know nothing about.

"A lot of times, it's just about mind-set. How do you get players in the right frame of mind. To me [a conversation between coaches] is nothing special. I understand what is different [from the past]. I understand why it is what it is."

He also understands about planting seeds.

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