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Geno keeps his sport in spotlight

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published April 09. 2014 4:00AM

Nashville, Tenn.

Stefanie Dolson was first, bearhugging her coach for a good 10 seconds. Next came Bria Hartley, the other senior, who cried in Geno Auriemma's arms. They love him. He loves them. This is where it begins. This is where it ends.

They were part of history again, the UConn Huskies were, the kind of history only UConn knows. The men Monday night. The women Tuesday night. The only school in the country with contenders of two genders who have become champions.

And in the middle was the masterful maestro, who turned the anticipated Geno vs. Muffet storyline into Geno vs. Charlie Weis. The Irish, who played the kind of defense they usually do in bowl games, wore a look of arrogance humbled by the night's end. UConn's night.

Maybe President Obama should just come to Storrs now, since, you know, he's going to meet both teams from the same school. It would save time.

For now, though, all hail the night Notre Dame was left to whimper "nein," while the Huskies won number nine. Another one. Nine titles in 19 years. Makes you rethink the lyrics to "Seasons of Love" from "Rent:"

"Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes how do you measure a year? In daylights, sunsets, cups of coffee, inches, miles, laughs and strifes "

Nah. We measure years here in national championships.

All of which leads to the following question: Has any coach in the history of sports done more to elevate his or her game than Geno Auriemma?

Not to sound like Auriemma's short order biographer here, but did Lombardi, Wooden, Auerbach or Summitt ever do it like this? This goes beyond nine titles in 19 years, accomplished from the wilderness of Storrs, Conn. This is about what Geno Auriemma has done for the industry of women's basketball.

He created it.

It's never been more popular. This is for two reasons: Geno and ESPN. And since ESPN lives on Auriemma sound bites, this is the conclusion: Auriemma is the most important figure in the game's history. It's gone national because of him. Again: Has any other coach in sports history done more to elevate his or her game?

Nobody will ever deny Pat Summitt's immovable perch as the game's de facto creator. The pioneer. She established women's basketball. Yet Summitt to Auriemma is like the Volkswagen Beetle to the Maserati. Both are iconic. But only one turns heads.

That's Geno. He's made people turn heads to women's basketball more than anyone else ever has. ESPN's promotion of Tuesday's game became a kaleidoscope of sound bites from Auriemma. Just as in 2003 when the Auriemma/Summitt feud percolated. Common denominator: Auriemma.

Seriously. Did you watch ESPN at all Tuesday? The top story was women's basketball. You know when that's happened in the past? Never. That's when. It might rankle some of the game's protectors that ESPN sought opinions about the Geno/Muffet feud from people who might otherwise think "Madison Cable" is Comcast and not a Notre Dame junior, but that's the point. The game was exposed to more people Tuesday than ever.

Because of Geno Auriemma.

Love him, hate him, but you are drawn to him. And then you are drawn to the game. You have no choice. Everyone knows Geno.

"He's a polarizing figure in so many ways and I understand that," associate head coach Chris Dailey said Tuesday night. "He is very open and tells it the way he sees it. That doesn't make it right, which is what I tell him all the time. He's willing to not be politically correct. It's from the heart. When he's wrong he'll say that too.

"I don't know that he get the credit he deserves. It's that we get the best players and roll the balls out. I don't think he gets the credit for his vision, his offensive vision of basketball and how he sees the game being played. And than having the ability to get our players to play that way."

The sad part is that Auriemma's significance to the industry is lost on the folks who would rather subject him to the old Vaudeville cane when he starts soundbiting. While we giggle and understand venom begets drama and drama begets interest, others would rather the game stand on its merit. As one journalist said Monday night, "It's another women's sporting event about a guy."

That's the kind of thinking, sadly, that always rendered women's basketball to page four, if it ever even made the papers. Now it's all over ESPN. Why? Because ESPN buys what Auriemma sells.

Many of us will weep the day he leaves.

Happily, he's not going anywhere.

And now it's on to 2015.

Or as we know it: the year of another championship.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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