For Auriemma and Walz, mutual respect is no joke
(Eds: Updates with result of NCAA final. With AP Photos.)
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - When Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma compared Jeff Walz's shirt in the women's NCAA semifinals to an "Italian tablecloth,'' and then joked about hiring Louisville's coach at his restaurant, Walz ran with it.
"This will most likely be the last game that I coach,'' Walz said during the lead-up to Tuesday night's national title tilt between Louisville and UConn. "As a women's basketball coach, you go through times where you're always wondering, `What are you going to do when you're finished?'
"So my goal is to become the head waiter. Not just one that sits in the back. I want to be the best damn one he's got,'' Walz continued as laughter permeated an interview room in the New Orleans Arena. "So I'm going to talk to him after the game ... and see when I can start.''
All kidding aside, the last two coaches standing in the 2013 women's college basketball season really do seem to like and respect each another.
Auriemma even noted at one point, "As far as Jeff is concerned, I see a lot of myself in him.''
Auriemma, 59, has elevated UConn women's basketball to such elite status that trips to the Final Four have become par for the course. Connecticut's arrival in New Orleans last week marked the Huskies' 14th trip to the Final four under Auriemma, and sixth straight. Then UConn wound up matching Tennessee for the most national titles all-time with eight by overwhelming the Cardinals, 93-60.
Walz, 41, has a long way to go to put Louisville in the same class as UConn, but the potential is there. He first led the Cardinals to the Final Four in 2009, going as far as the title game before losing to none other than Auriemma and the Huskies.
Tuesday night's title game was Walz's second as a head coach in six seasons. Since he took over at Louisville before the 2007-08 season, the Cardinals have missed the tournament only once.
Auriemma noted that when he first took UConn to a Final Four in 1991, "No one was paying attention.''
Walz, Auriemma said, "is doing it in a much bigger arena where lights are a lot brighter.''
"You look around the country - who's done a better job than him in six years?'' Auriemma asked. "I don't think there's another coach in America that's accomplished as much as he has from where they started in the last six years than he has.''
When Walz isn't playing along with one of Auriemma's jokes, he speaks in a reverent tone about UConn's sustained success. He recalled an instance several seasons ago when UConn borrowed Louisville's practice facility during a road trip, and Auriemma not only allowed Walz to watch, but talked with him during the first hour of practice.
"What impressed me so much is you had Renee Montgomery, I think it was Maya (Moore)'s freshman year, Tina Charles, those kids were out there running practice,'' Walz said. "He didn't have to tell them to go hard. The upperclassmen were getting on the freshmen, were getting on the sophomores. If you weren't going hard, he didn't have to say anything. ... That's when you know you've got yourself a great program and leaders.''
Auriemma said he shares his experiences with Walz when he can, and that they've spent a lot of time together at Big East meetings.
"I've tried to help him out a little bit. I told him, I said, `You're so inexperienced, you don't even know how to get a technical. You say the wrong things,'' Auriemma said. "I gave him a couple pointers on how to really get technicals. And he's taken me up on it, and pretty much every time we play them he gets one just to prove to me that he's a good learner.''
Auriemma smiles when he says Walz is "the cockiest guy I ever met,'' almost as if he's trying to pull the curtain back on Walz's tendency to dress casually and relate to people with self-effacing humor.
Auriemma senses that Walz's competitive nature is as strong as it gets, scoffing at the suggestion that the Cardinals did as well as they did in the tournament because they're playing loose and taking chances as if they have nothing to lose.
"When you watch them play, they play to win,'' Auriemma said. "They're not looking to just hang around and see if they happen to win the game. They're playing to win, and that's why they're so much fun to watch right now. And I've loved watching them play.''
If Auriemma respects Walz enough to say that, it might not be far-fetched to suggest the UConn coach doesn't really mind the fact that Walz doesn't wear a suit on game day. Whether he'd admit that is another matter.
When the subject turned back to Walz's comments about leaving Louisville for Auriemma's restaurant, the UConn coach responded, "He doesn't dress well enough to work in the front room of my restaurant, so he'll be bussing dishes and taking out the trash in the back until he fixes his attitude.''
Ryan Getzlaf leads Ducks past Stars 3-2 in Game 2
Pavel Datsyuk's late goal leads Red Wings to Game 1 win over Bruins