"I remember a few days after we won [the NCAAs], and I was sitting in his office when this fan came in," says Lobo. "She was gushing, asking us to sign all kinds of things, and when she left I made a snide remark. Geno snapped, 'Don't act like that, Rebecca. Don't ever be one of those players who don't appreciate.' "
He discovered his aptitude for coaching the way other people find out they can play the piano the first time they sit down at one. He had figured maybe he would be a history teacher. It was easier than what his old man did, working in a factory, and besides, Geno noticed that teachers drove nice cars and got the summer off. Then one day when he was 21, working his way through West Chester State, he got a part-time job coaching ninth-grade girls. It was an epiphany. "The first time I did this," he says, "I knew. It's still the only thing I've found that I'm any good at."
"Yeah." He pauses. "No, I don't know if that's it. What I can do is, I can see what they can't see." It's a gift. His wife is almost scared by how intuitive he can be. "I always wanted to be one of those guys who could make you do something," Geno explains, which, in a nutshell, is what good coaching is.
He coached both girls and boys, but newly married to Kathy, he also tended bar, stocked shelves, taught gym and worked construction to pay the bills. When Phil Martelli, who is now the coach at St. Joseph's, turned down a chance to be the women's assistant at Virginia because he wanted to stick with men, he suggested Geno for the job. Geno demurred, afraid to venture into the world outside of Philly; the Big Five was his immigrant's glass ceiling. Martelli urged him to at least take a look. Instantly, in the baronial luster of Charlottesville, Geno was bug-eyed—"Me, a little boy from Norristown, at Mr. Jefferson's university," he says.
Debbie Ryan, who is still the coach at UVA, hired him for $13,000 a year. It might've helped that Ryan's a Natale on her mother's side. "Yeah," she says, laughing, "but it was evident right away how aggressive and bright Geno was. And he was well grounded because he'd carried the load for his family from a very young age. He has a wonderful working-class mentality, and he never forgets where he came from." Ryan laughs again. "And if you forget, Geno'll remind you."
Suddenly Geno, the hang-out team guy, had entered this parallel universe where skirts ruled. He had never been a ladies' man, either. Probably that's good. His high school coach had told him that a boy could be a student, a player and a lover—but only two out of the three. Geno had stuck with what he knew best. Now he was not only an assistant in a women's program, but Kathy had given him one daughter and was expecting another soon. Every day his life was like those red-light neon signs that blink, GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!
Only a few male coaches who are wired right can make the adjustment and play second fiddle to the fairer sex. It is also true, though, that whereas male coaches never hire female assistants for men's teams, some women coaches have a special, practical reason for bringing a male on board to coach women. "I always want a man on my staff," Ryan says, "because a lot of players can use a male role model since they don't have one at home." The UConn staff is like a nuclear family, with Geno the daddy; Chris Dailey, his right-hand woman from the start, as the mommy; and two younger assistants, Tonya Cardoza and Jamelle Elliott, as the big sisters. "I told you how my mother was strong and self-sufficient," Auriemma says. "My thinking was that every woman must be like my mother, so ever since, I've tried to surround myself with strong, self-sufficient women."
Curiously, nobody attributes Geno's success to any variation on the theme of being good with women. Rather, the women he has worked with and coached conclude that he gets through to women because he gets through to people. I wanted to be one of those guys who could make you do something. It was just happenstance that he ended up coaching women, and although sometimes he thought the women's side was a dead end, when the head-coaching job opened up at UConn he applied. The Huskies were perennial losers. The women's basketball office was one small room with black rotary phones. The team had to share a locker room with men's soccer. During basketball practice the track team ran around the outside of the court, while, close by, weightlifters hoisted in time to their music. Geno thought he could use the job as a stepping-stone to a really classy program.
Pat Meiser-McKnett, who's now the athletic director at Hartford, was chair of the UConn search committee that year, 1985. Geno was only 31, and he'd never been a head coach anywhere, and he was a man, but he blew them away. "Geno was absolutely captivating," Meiser-McKnett says, "but there was also such subtlety, friendliness and warmth." In other words Auriemma showed his soft, feminine side. The players told Meiser-McKnett that they didn't give a hoot what chromosomes their new coach had. They'd just like maybe to win for a change. UConn signed Geno for $28,229 at a Dunkin' Donuts.