"I don't know if I can adequately describe my feelings and my emotions when I was asked to do this and how I felt ever since," said Geno Auriemma, in a statement released by USA Basketball announcing his appointment as head coach of the Senior Women's Team. "It's an opportunity that if you're very fortunate comes once in your life and I never thought I would ever have this opportunity. It's just overwhelming, the emotions that run through you. What an incredible honor it is to be selected."
Auriemma served USA Basketball previously as an assistant coach to Nell Fortner during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where the US team took the gold medal.
Fortner served as an assistant to Stanford's Tara Van Derveer starting in 1995, during the USA Basketball's rebuilding program in the run-up to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She was subsequently appointed as head coach for the 1998 Women's World Championships and the 2000 Sydney Olympics, leading the team to a 101-14 record during the period between 1997 and 2000.
Fortner was head coach at Purdue when she was appointed to the USA Basketball head coaching position in April 1997; she left Purdue after just one year (in which she led the team to the Big Ten regular season conference title), after being named to the USA Basketball post. Though the WNBA was founded in 1996, league play had not commenced as of the time of Fortner's appointment, which was the last time a serving college coach, rather than a WNBA head coach, was named to the head coaching spot at USA Basketball. However, Fortner, who was named head coach of the WNBA's Indiana Fever in 1999, was in fact a WNBA head coach by the time of the Sydney Olympics. (Anne Donovan served as acting coach of the Fever, while Fortner was occupied with the Sydney Olympics.) Fortner has since returned to the collegiate coaching ranks as head coach at Auburn.
Van Chancellor, who led the now-defunct Houston Comets to the first four championships of the WNBA's existence, was tapped to head USA Basketball's Senior Women's National Team in the 2002 Women's World Championships and the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Chancellor, the first, and until now the only, male head coach of the Senior Women's team, led the US team to an undefeated record and to gold medals in both events.
Anne Donovan, then coach of the Seattle Storm which she led to the WNBA title in 2004 (the first female coach to achieve that distinction), had been Chancellor's assistant coach with USA Basketball during the previous quadrennial cycle, and was the next to be tapped to head the USA Basketball women's team. Donovan also brought to the task her own experience as a USA Basketball player, having played on the 1980, 1984 and 1988 U.S. Olympic teams and the 1983 and 1986 Women's World Championship teams, as well as a number of USA Basketball squads in lesser international competitions from the age of 15 onward. Donovan also served as an athlete representative on USA Basketball's Executive Commitee and chair of the USA Basketball Women's Select Team Committee from 1996-2000.
Donovan, whose 2006 Women's World Championship team was plagued with last-minute withdrawals of major stars such as Lisa Leslie and Yolanda Griffith, suffered the ignominy of being the first USA Basketball Women's coach since 1996 to come home from a major international event without the gold. Her team settled for bronze after falling to Russia in the semifinals.
Donovan placed a renewed emphasis on defense and redeemed herself, sailing undefeated to the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, in the process becoming the first person in USA Basketball history to earn Olympic gold medals as both a player (1984 and 1988) and a head coach.
The impressive vitae of Chancellor and Donovan led some to believe that a WNBA championship was a prerequisite to selection as head coach of the US Women's team. While such distinctions no doubt played a role in the minds of the voters on the USA Basketball Board of Directors as the voted on the nominations of proposed head coaches, in fact, the written selection criteria then in force required only that, at the time of selection, the head coach must have:
- Had five years of experience as either an assistant or head coach at any level at the time of selection;
- Had three years experience as a head coach in the WNBA or any professional league;
- and coached two of the last three years in the WNBA.
The rules also prohibited conflicts of interest and imposed character and other intangible personal requirements.
Still, those rules would have precluded the appointment of Auriemma, despite his 24 years of coaching experience (19 of them as a collegiate head coach) and six NCAA Division I national championships. Like Chancellor and Donovan, Auriemma is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; like Donovan he is also a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. Neither honor would have been enough to land him the USA Basketball head coaching gig. Not even his experience as head coach of the 2000 USA Basketball's Junior World Championship (U-1) qualifying team, or the bronze medal to which he led the USA Basketball Junior World Cup (U-19) team in 2001 would have sufficed. (Auriemma also coached the 1996 USA Basketball Women's Select Team and the West Team at the 1993 U.S. Olympic Fest.
In late February, however, USA Basketball adopted a rules change that eliminated the barrier to Auriemma's candidacy. Under the newly revised selection criteria, the head coach must have had five years experience as head or assistant coach at any level at the time of selection. Gone is the requirement that the head coach have had any experience in the WNBA or at the professional level.
In addition to the head coach, up to three assistant coaches are selected "from the professional or collegiate ranks as determined by USA Basketball." The professional coach must have been a head coach in the WNBA for two of the last three years. The collegiate coach or coaches must have had at least five years coaching experience at the NCAA Division I or professional level and "must be an employed college head coach at the time of selection and service."
The rules change sets up the anomalous possibility of the selection of a USA head coach who has never had head coaching experience at any level, while requiring head coaching experience of the USA basketball assistant coaches. But as applied to Auriemma's selection, the USA Basketball Board of Directors would have had to search hard to find a greater wealth of winning experience.
Auriemma holds a 696-122 win record (85.1%) at the collegiate level, heading teams that took NCAA national championships in 1995, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2009. He has also coached his UConn teams to a combined 32 regular season and Big East Conference Tournament championships.
In addition to the 12 gold medalists on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team (which included former Husky Kara Wolters), Auriemma has coached Olympic gold medalists Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi (2004, 2008), Swin Cash (2004), and Rebecca Lobo (1996) at UConn. His Connecticut teams have also been home to international Olympians Svetlana Abrosimova (Russia - 2000, 2008), Jess McCormack (New Zealand - 2008) and Rashidat Sadiq (Nigeria -2004).
"It's amazing for Coach Auriemma," said Taurasi, in the USA Basketball statement. "I know as a player this is a lifetime opportunity to play for the best coach in basketball. It's a dream come true for me. I always knew I would be his player again. I'm very happy. Coach has the passion and smarts to be a successful coach. He knows how to make talented players into a dominant unit and challenges players in ways no one can."
No one is saying whether USA Basketball changed its rules specifically to enable Auriemma to serve. "Our Olympic selection procedures aren't necessarily the same from Olympics to Olympics," said spokeswoman Caroline Williams. The new rules were adopted, she added, "because of the fact that most of our players compete overseas and therefore our training time is limited to the spring and fall. ... Therefore, we're able to consider more coaches."
Still, many of the USA Basketball players were likewise competing in the European leagues during the last Olympic cycle when the head coach was required to have had three years WNBA head coaching experience. Indeed, the economic necessity for so many members of the National Women's Team to compete in Europe has been one of the factors that has limited the ability of the team to train together.
It was also true that in 2008, the collegiate coaching responsibilities of assistant coaches Dawn Staley and Gail Goestenkoers prevented them from participating in a number of the team's training activities. The USA Basketball head coaching job placed heavy demands on Tara Van Derveer, the USA Basketball head coach to hold the position while actively serving as a college head coach, though in fairness, the nearly full-time year-round training time demanded of Van Derveer in 1995-1996 was far more than any USA Basketball coach is likely to be expected to commit again -- at least for as long as the WNBA continues in existence.
A more likely factor is the relative paucity of successful WNBA head coaches who have much international basketball experience. Apart from Chancellor and Donovan, who have already served, the only WNBA head coaches to have won the league's championship are Michael Cooper (Los Angeles Sparks - 2001, 2002), Bill Laimbeer (Detroit Shock - 2003, 2006, 2008), John Whisenant (Sacramento Monarchs - 2005) and Paul Westhead (Phoenix Mercury - 2007). "Whiz" resigned as coach of the Monarchs at the end of the 2006 season, and so would not have been eligible himself for selection as USA Basketball head coach without a rules change.
Westhead has international basketball experience, having spent time with USA Basketball, most recently as a guest clinician for the 2005 USA women's youth development festival teams; he also coached in the Japanese Pro League from 2001-2004. However, Westhead left the Mercury in 2007, moving on to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder, and ecently took up the head coaching job for the women's program at the University of Oregon. So he, too, would have needed a rules change to capture the USA Basketball head coaching job.
Though Cooper played for a year in Italy (1990-1991), he has no known experience with USA Basketball. Neither has Laimbeer, who would also carry along his rep as a member of the Pistons' "Bad Boys," not exactly the media profile USA Basketball hopes to cultivate.
USA Basketball is a fairly tight-knit group, which places heavy emphasis on participation in and loyalty to its programs over the course of one's youth and professional careers. Given the choice between (a) pro coaches with little or no USA Basketball and/or international experience; (b) WNBA coaches with no proven record of winning; or (c) expanding the pool to include winning college coaches, the decision to change the rules makes perfect sense.
The other factor was the success of Mike Krzyzewski, who shared USA Basketball Coach-of-the-Year honors with Donovan after leading the US Men's Senior National Team to "redemption" with a gold medal performance in Beijing. "Coach K," who has led the Duke Blue Devils to three NCAA championships, 10 Final Fours, and 11 ACC Championships in his 28 seasons since taking the reins there in 1980, is, like Auriemma, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
How much sense does it make to appoint a college "Hall of Famer" coach as head of the US men's program, but to preclude his contemporaries from serving as head coach of the US women's team? Someone at USA Basketball must have asked themselves that question and gotten the answer right.
"There is no better coach in America than Geno Auriemma and we are delighted to be able to have a coach of his caliber lead our women's national team program through the 2012 Olympic Games," said USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo in the organization's announcement of the appointment. "The USA Basketball women's national team has achieved tremendous success over the years and as winners of the last four Olympic gold medals, the expectations remain very high. Geno's success at UConn, both his win-loss record and the development of his players, speaks for itself and makes him a perfect choice to take hold of the reins."
There's no real question about Auriemma's ability to successfully coach the US women's team. The question is what toll the job will take on the UConn program. Our strong suspicion is that unlike Van Derveer's more demanding tenure in 1995-96 the detrimental effects will be negligible, since UConn's proven history of winning has put its recruiting process on near-auto-pilot.
The other questions are what will become of Connecticut Sun head coach Mike Thibault, Donovan's assistant and heir apparent when the rules required WNBA coaching status, as well as Gail Goestenkoers, who has served as an assistant coach to the women's team for the last eight years. Goestenkoers, who compiled an impressive record as head coach at Duke before moving on to take the head spot at the University of Texas, also became eligible once the rules were changed to open the USA Basketball head coaching job to college coaches, but was passed over for the job in favor of Auriemma.
Dawn Staley, a three-time gold Olympic gold medalist who is extremely popular within both the USA Basketball and the US Olympic movements, having been chosen to serve as flag bearer for the US team at the Athens Olympics, is also now eligible for the USA Basketball head coaching spot. Look for this former head coach at Temple and current boss at University of South Carolina to have her hat in the ring for the 2016 Olympics.