While Jim Calhoun ponders his future and decides whether he'll return as the UConn men's basketball coach, a related question was swirling in my head as the final seconds ticked off the clock in women's NCAA title game last night: Does an elite women's coach need to coach men to garner the respect he or she really deserves?
Now I'm not trying to be sexist here. I'm really not. I certainly respect Auriemma as a great coach, and he has nothing to prove to those who've watched his teams over the years. But I wonder if he feels there's something to prove to the casual basketball fan who doesn't pay much attention to the women's game?
For more than a couple of reasons, if I'm Auriemma, I'd give serious consideration to making the jump and coaching the UConn men.
Before we talk philosophically about men's vs. women's basketball, let's focus on Auriemma for a bit. Last night, he won his sixth national title. This year's team was undefeated. They beat every single opponent by at least 10 points. If you're Auriemma and you've been coaching the same team since you were 31 years old, don't you look around at some point and ask yourself, "What else is there?"
Why should Auriemma stick around? To chase after Pat Summitt's name in the record books?
Auriemma's place in the women's basketball world is already secure. His legacy is already golden. It's time for a new challenge.
Calhoun arrived on campus in 1986, one year after Auriemma. This type of opportunity has never arisen. (And even among other top-shelf programs, there's virtually no precedent in modern-day basketball world for a women's coach to take over the men's program.)
You can't tell me that Auriemma hasn't felt the itch. Sure, his program is wildly successful, but Calhoun has still cast a shadow. It'd be completely natural for Auriemma to look across the hall and wonder how he'd fare with the bigger office. Oh yeah, and a slightly bigger paycheck.
But then we'll never know. And he'll never know.
At a press conference before the title game, he was asked what's different since 1995, his first title team. Auriemma said, in part: "I probably don't enjoy doing what I do as much as I did back then. But at the same time I probably appreciate it even more because I know how hard it is now. ...So I am a better coach in some ways. But anybody who gets the best players every year like I do is always a good coach."
Part of what makes Auriemma such a great women's coach are his abilities as a recruiter. He knows how to get the top players on campus. That'd be a strike against him crossing over, as it would be for any coach who's spent years establishing relationships in the women's basketball world that don't help one iota among men's AAU coaches. But UConn has a lot to sell, and Auriemma is a charmer. It might not take too long to establish new contacts. And he still has a great resume to take into a recruit's home.
What about the X's and O's? Auriemma's bread-and-butter is the triangle offense. It's something you don't see much in the men's game. I don't know whether he'd find success with it (who has?) but you can bet it'd force other Big East coaches to adjust.
There is risk, of course. If Auriemma fails, it could hurt the women's game. It could taint Auriemma's own legacy. It could lead many to revel in the gap that separates women's basketball from men's. But every barrier that's ever been broken has involved risk.
I'm probably thinking way too optimistically here, but I actually see a safety net. If Auriemma struggles, it doesn't necessarily mean he can't coach males. It just means the inherent obstacles are too tough to overcome, that he was too engrained in the women's game to make the necessary contacts on the recruiting trail. Sometimes, simply making a giant leap is all that matters. Do we talk about Annika Sorenstam missing the cut, or do we focus on the fact that she played with the men?
Auriemma signed a contract extension last summer that puts him in the ballpark of $1.5 million a year. Calhoun reportedly earned $1.6 million this season, so we might not be talking about a giant pay raise. It'd be about ego. It'd be about the challenge. It'd be about providing a basketball world of skeptics (and a handful of sexists) an answer to the question: Can a women's coach find success leading a men's program?
Photos: Hartford Courant; Associated Press