Legendary University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma has won 11 NCAA titles, three Olympic gold medals and has won two FIBA world championships.
He first took notice of Lindsay Whalen in 2004, when his UConn team met the University of Minnesota in the national semifinal game. Since then? Whalen was a guard on both of those FIBA title teams and two of those three Olympic champions. Auriemma took some time Friday to talk to the Star Tribune about Whalen, the Gophers’ new women’s basketball coach.
Q: When the news broke about Whalen taking over the Gophers team, what was your first thought?
A: Well, I spoke to Mark [Coyle, the Gophers athletic director]. And when he brought up Lindsay’s name, it was pretty much, “Yeah, wow. That’s kind of thinking out of the box.” My first thought was, “Wow, that’s a great thought.” She’s a great person. I really, really, really enjoyed coaching her. And I’ve always admired the way she plays. I got to know her more as a person than I had before [with Team USA], obviously. She knew what her role was on the team, and she played it perfectly. I’m a big fan of hers.
Q: Was that 2004 national semifinal the first time you’d really seen her play?
A: That was the first time. I’d watched ’em play on film. I knew it was going to be a struggle, watching her play, Janel McCarville play, the way they played off each other on that team. But I’ll tell you, I think their Final Four run, I think that opened a lot of eyes around the country. If people didn’t know who she was, they did after that.
Q: From what you know of Whalen, what do you see about the way she plays that will translate into coaching?
A: Well, one of the things I talked to Mark about was, if you go out and hire an assistant coach, that person has never been in that seat either. It’s always a risk, you know, when you bring somebody new in. You hope you brought the right kind of person in. The other stuff is not going to be a problem. She’ll surround herself with a pretty good staff. She certainly knows enough basketball. She’s certainly been well-coached the last 15 years. It’s not like what basketball looks like is foreign to her. Now it’s a matter of getting a staff. It will take them a while, obviously. I’m sure her goal is to win at the highest level. You won’t do that right away. But, with the right coaching staff, I don’t see why it can’t happen.
Q: Will the “business” side of running a Division I program be the biggest challenge for Whalen?
A: You can get caught up in all that, and forget it’s still about coaching kids coming out of high school. You can get caught up in other stuff. And yes, there are some things you obviously have to do. She’ll have to get out in the community, promote the program. She’ll do all that. As I said, when you hire the right staff, there are so many that can be taken off your plate, and that lets you concentrate on what you do best. Everything begins and ends with the head coach. But at the same time, I think if a young coach is smart enough to hire the right people, and actually listen — work with them rather than have them just work for you — it won’t be an easy transition. But it won’t be as hard as they make it out to be.
Q: To what extent do you think her fame as a player will translate into her ability to recruit top talent?
A: Well, everyone has their own style. Just because you’re a good coach doesn’t mean kids will want to play with you. There are a lot of good players who have gone into coaching and failed. They tried to have the fact that they were good players carry them. “I did this, I did this, and you should come play for me.” OK, why? Will you help me do that? Are you going to make me into that kind of player?
So, I think Lindsay being from Minnesota, being in that community all those years as a pro, she earned the respect of everyone in the basketball world up there. It’s a matter of finding the right fit, recruiting-wise. Finding the kids who fit. I’m sure there are enough players up there, not only in Minnesota, but not far from there. It’s not like she’s taking over a program that’s in big trouble. She’s taking over at a team that was in the NCAA tournament. She won’t have to just sell herself.
Q: Will she be able to hit the ground running as a coach when she’s playing for the Lynx?
A: I hate to keep coming back to this, but it depends on who she brings in. If she has three experienced people on the staff, and they’re able to do a lot of the leg work and lay the foundation? Yeah. It’s been done before. Jen Rizzotti did it. She played for me. She was playing in the WNBA, got offered a job, never been a coach. It didn’t take long. [Rizotti was hired at Hartford, which she led to the NCAA tournament six times. She currently coaches at George Washington]. I don’t know that you can do it long-term. But I don’t know that somebody wants to coach all winter and jump right into playing pro basketball. I can’t imagine her playing much longer if she wants to continue coaching.
Q: What’s your strongest memory of coaching Whalen?
A: The intensity level she plays at. The physicality she brings to the game. The relentless approach. I always say, she plays like a hockey player. She’s just a tremendous competitor, and she’s smart. She’s got a good way with people. She’s got a great way with her teammates. Does that translate into winning games as a coach? I don’t know. But it’s better than getting somebody and worrying about whether they’ll do the right things. Lindsay will always do the right thing.