AP NEWS

UCONN WOMEN’S BASKETBALL Auriemma allowed players to decide offseason workout schedule

October 13, 2018

STORRS — One day during the offseason some 20-plus years ago, Rebecca Lobo, the star of UConn’s first of 11 national championship teams, popped into Geno Auriemma’s office to tell him just how excited she was for practice to begin.

And Auriemma remembers this moment, why? Well, for one, it was unique.

“The last time somebody said that to me? Rebecca Lobo,” Auriemma joked Friday before First Night festivities at Gampel Pavilion.

Back then, college basketball teams were not allowed to practice before Oct. 15. There was always a palpable build-up to that date among players and coaches because it marked the unofficial start of a new season.

“People forget, we used to not be able to talk to our players on the court, involved with them, until Oct. 15,” Auriemma, now in his 34th season as the UConn women’s coach, explained. “All of September and half of October, we weren’t able to do anything with them. Now, all of a sudden, people are starting practice in the middle of September. And they’re doing two hours a week and stuff in the summer.

“We had some pretty good teams when we weren’t allowed to do anything until Oct. 15. Players, I think, appreciated it.”

This year, Auriemma conducted his first practice Oct. 10, albeit with a catch. The players who participated had already spent weeks — if not longer — in the gym honing their craft. And they were away from Auriemma while doing so.

Instead of dictating a plan for the offseason, Auriemma left it up to his players to choose when they wanted to practice. It was his way of loosening the reins, so to speak.

“We just said, ‘Listen, you guys are in charge. Whatever you guys want to do, it’s on you,’” Auriemma said.

In explaining the decision to reporters, Auriemma, a venerable basketball mind, bemoaned how student-athletes’ schedules — from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep — have become too rigid. He said that their lives are structured almost to a fault.

“It’s almost like it’s too easy. … After a while, it’s like, when do you get to decide anything? You don’t,” he said.

This offseason’s schedule fell squarely on the shoulders of one of the Huskies’ two seniors, Katie Lou Samuelson. Though she was limited in what she could do on the court because of an ankle surgery, Samuelson played an important role during workouts, acting as a leader. It’s a role that Auriemma expects her — and hopefully others — to take into the regular season.

“She’s really taken to it,” Auriemma said. “I see her every day. I see the effects of what happened in the spring. She was involved with them then, during the summer, and into September.”

Players welcomed the change. In fact, senior forward Napheesa Collier — who was away for a few weeks with the U.S. National Team — believes that players ended up training more than they would have under a stricter schedule.

“It was a lot different,” Collier said. “We usually do have a lot of structure, so making it ourselves, I think, really held us accountable.”

That’s exactly what Auriemma had in mind when he decided to give players more freedom. He wants them to be responsible for themselves and their teammates. The programs with winning cultures, he explained, have players who want to practice — even when they have the option to do otherwise.

“I did it differently because I want players to take ownership,” he said. “I want them to feel like this is my team, this is our team,” he said. “I think too many times today, kids are directed to play. From a young age, ‘Come on, get in a car, we’re going to go play.’ …Today, it’s more of a culture of, ‘Let’s go play. Let’s go in a gym — there has to be lights, it can’t be cold, the air conditioning has to be on.’

“You kind of lose that feeling of playing for the joy of playing. I wanted them to get that back.”

The players believe they have that back.

“By Coach doing that, I think it made us closer as a team,” sophomore Megan Walker said. “It just made us have that love for the game. I think we were missing that a little bit last year. It just gives us some energy. We can come together whenever we want.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour

AP RADIO
Update hourly