Auriemma was quieter, the intense tactician. He counseled and consoled. He could say hard things in practice—"He once told me, 'You're a nightmare, I don't care if you get up and go home to North Carolina right now,' " guard Shea Ralph says—but he would pull the string back. Players would go to his house to play Scrabble. Auriemma, at a quick glance, looked like a brotherly Frankie Avalon.
The two men, as their teams became better and better—top-ranked recruits such as Donyell Marshall and Ray Allen and Jennifer Rizzotti and Nykesha Sales arriving regularly—became a statewide preoccupation. How could they be accomplishing what they were accomplishing? Who were they? Their personalities unfolded in public.
"I've always been a Don Quixote kind of character," Calhoun says. "Maybe it's because my father died when I was 15. I've always been the underdog. That's the way I've always thought of myself."
Called in from the outfield during a baseball game to be told of his father's death from a heart attack, Calhoun, suddenly the man of a large household, became a protector, a fighter for what he thought was right. He took this attitude with him to American International College in Springfield, Mass., where he was a combative forward. He took it to three high school coaching jobs, then to Northeastern. He took it to UConn. He fed it, nurtured it, every day another climb up a large mountain of perceived injustice. Bright, sarcastic, funny, Calhoun would tangle with referees, writers, timekeepers, whichever knucklehead had the audacity to tell him no at the wrong time. The list of offenders was long, and the confrontations were colorful.
"He's just the best adversary in the world," Randy Smith, columnist for the Manchester (Conn.) Journal-Enquirer, says. "I've gone up against him maybe 24 times, and I'm 0-24, but they've all been great. He takes the team to Hawaii one year. I notice that the team doesn't visit the USS Arizona, the war memorial. I write a column about how they should have gone—if going to Hawaii was supposed to be an educational experience, they should have seen this important landmark. I wait. Two weeks later, the Hartford Civic Center, before a game. Calhoun's going up an escalator. I'm on the ground floor. He yells, 'Hey, Randy! You think we should have gone to the goddam Mark Twain House this afternoon?' It was beautiful."
"I've been married to him for 32 years, and sometimes I don't know him," Pat Calhoun says. "He can get wound up about things that don't affect him. Just today he was all upset about something he read about the [New England] Patriots. Some guy wanted Pete Carroll to be fired. Doesn't the guy know about all the injuries? What's he talking about? I tell him to let it go. He just can't."
Auriemma was a more subdued underdog in the face of life's incivilities. He was seven years old when his family moved to Norristown, Pa., from a small town outside of Naples, Italy. He had never ridden in a car until he took the trip to the airport. His father and uncle worked in the Norristown steel mill, and their two families lived in the same house, four adults, seven kids. Geno's parents had no schooling past the second grade.
The son lived the traditional story of the immigrant kid who found acceptance through sports. Baseball was Geno's favorite, but in the winter he played basketball. An undersized guard, he was cut from his school team in the seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth. In the 10th grade he made the team. He fell in love with basketball, with the discipline, the fun, the noise, everything about the game.
After graduating from West Chester (Pa.) University, where he didn't play, he moved into high school coaching part-time. He worked for short money as an assistant with girls' programs, boys' programs, back and forth. He worked full-time as a teacher and, weekends and summers, as a roofer. He went to summer camps and clinics. He hoped he'd become a men's coach at some level. Then he was offered the assistant's job with the Virginia women. He'd never traveled as far south as Charlottesville before he went for the interview. Hey, it was warm in Charlottesville. He became a women's assistant.
"I've always thought that you work as hard as you can, and sometimes you get lucky," Auriemma says. "Sometimes you don't. My father, he never got lucky. He didn't own a car until he was 55 years old. He worked in the steel mill all his life. Me? I got lucky. I'm lucky to be here. It was the right time, with women's basketball becoming popular. It was the right place, close enough to ESPN, to New York City, for people to pay attention, to send reporters when we started going well. I got lucky."