Historic success breeds historic pressure, and perhaps nobody understands that paradox better than Luigi “Geno” Auriemma.
Since taking charge of University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball program in 1985, he has led the Huskies to 804 victories, seven national championships and four undefeated seasons. And with each passing championship comes an even higher set of expectations.
National titles are no longer celebrated as they once were. Making the Final Four has become an afterthought. Even an undefeated season doesn’t seem as impressive since the Huskies had two of them back-to-back in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
The pressure is always on at UConn, but Auriemma said Saturday that pressure is nothing compared to the expectations surrounding the 2012 U.S. women’s Olympic team that will compete in London beginning at the end of July.
“It’s UConn on steroids,” he said after leading a clinic for military daughters at the D.C. Armory in northeast Washington. “If we win, well you didn’t win by enough. If we lose — God forbid — it’s how the hell could you lose?”
The United States has dominated the international basketball scene since 1936, when the men’s team won its first of seven consecutive Olympic gold medals. It’s home to the Dream Team, the Redeem Team and a current squad poised to continue those sterling traditions.
But as of late, it’s been the American women who truly deserve the title of dynasty. The numbers speak for themselves: eight World Championships, four straight Olympic golds and 33 consecutive wins in Olympic play dating back to Aug. 7, 1992.
“We might be the most dominant team of any team since the Russian Red Army,” Auriemma said, referring to the Soviet men’s hockey side that won 18 World Championships from 1963 to 1990. “Every time we play, everybody thinks we’re supposed to win — and we’re supposed to win by a lot. And that’s a lot for these players to carry around, I know that. But at the same time, that’s what you sign up for: when you play USA Basketball, it’s pressure.”
Every player handles the pressure in a different way. The Atlanta Dream’s Angel McCoughtry admonished the fact that some fans now consider wins by less than 10 points to be losses. The Los Angeles Sparks’ Candace Parker explained that it comes with the sport, that putting on a basketball uniform always brings a certain degree of pressure.
Twenty-three-year-old Maya Moore, one of the team’s youngest members, said the pressure is something the United States women place upon themselves.
“The highest expectations come from us, and that’s how it should be,” the Minnesota Lynx forward said. “We want to play well, we want to dominate, we want to make sure that we’re getting the most out of each of the individual players and put it together on the court as a unit. It’s not like we haven’t been preparing for this moment.”
Auriemma said the pressure is a good challenge to have, but a challenge nonetheless. The United States will play with a target on its back in every game throughout the Olympics, and it’s easy to get complacent when you’re the best team in the world.
“It only takes one bad night and you’re home,” Auriemma said. “It’s like in the NFL — you’ve got the best team, so what? You have a bad Sunday, it doesn’t matter what you did the rest of the year.”
The U.S. on Monday will welcome little-known Brazil to Verizon Center. From a practical standpoint, the Americans are simply excited to play together — something the ongoing WNBA season has prevented them from doing recently — and begin to figure out this team’s identity.
But realistically, the team knows it still has to come away with a win in the process. As with every game for the red, white and blue, winning is not just expected — it’s practically assumed.
“We’re like Spain soccer or Italy soccer: just getting to the gold medal game, that’s what we pay you for,” Auriemma said.
“There are no parades if you finish with a silver medal.”