ncaa women’s basketball Auriemma reflects on Tennessee’s open coaching position

March 29, 2019

ALBANY, N.Y. — Geno Auriemma arrived at the podium inside the Times Union Center around 10:45 a.m. Thursday, apparently in a jovial mood as UConn prepares for its 26th straight appearance in the Sweet 16.

His first words?

“Just want to let everyone know that I’m still the coach at UConn, and I intend to be the coach at UConn next year in case anybody had any questions about that.”

Auriemma, the master of banter, was referring to the women’s basketball job at Tennessee.

Holly Warlick, a Tennessee alumna who played and coached under the late legendary Pat Summit, before ultimately replacing her, was fired Wednesday. Warlick went 172-67 over seven seasons on Rocky Top, reaching the Elite Eight three times.

Yet she never came close to replicating the success of her mentor, who won 1,098 games, eight national titles and helped build UConn-Tennessee into the sport’s fiercest rivalry. Summit stepped down in 2012 after she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and died June 28, 2016, at the age of 64.

“If you look at any great program that had kind of an iconic leader, you know, and that leader kind of defined the program, and then all of a sudden you’re trying to replace that and you’re replacing it with someone who’s been part of that staff for the longest time,” Auriemma said, “that’s already not an easy transition because the specter of the former coach — you know, Pat left a big shadow.”

With 1,060 wins and a record 11 national titles, Auriemma has built an iconic profile. UConn’s quest for a 12th straight Final Four will continue Friday (7 p.m.) against No. 6 UCLA at the Times Union Center.

As someone who knows the rigorous demands of coaching, particularly at a program with incredibly steep expectations, Auriemma knows the challenge Tennessee faces to find its next coach.

“I think if they make the right decision and the right person gets in that job, it won’t take long for them to be back where they are,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to be very difficult at all. But their fan base is a lot like ours. They’re impatient. They want everything right now. There’s not going to be a lot of patience for whoever the next person is, so they’re going to have to be great right away.

“But when you have the tradition that they have, and you have the fan base that they have and the resources that are available to them, I don’t think it’s going to take very long at all.”

Multiple reports out of Tennessee have tied Louisville coach Jeff Walz to the job. However, Walz, whose Cardinals are the No. 1 seed in the Albany Regional, seemed to throw cold water on those rumors in his presser.

“I’m the head coach of the University of Louisville,” he said.

He continued: “Geno would be a wonderful candidate for the position that’s open.”

Apparently, Walz was in a joking mood as well.

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour