STORRS, Conn. — Geno Auriemma doesn’t think he would have returned to coach the U.S. women’s basketball team at a second straight Olympics unless Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi came back, too.
“I wouldn’t be good enough as a coach to guide the team through a gold medal [at Rio 2016],” Auriemma said at the end of a three-day national team camp at the University of Connecticut on Tuesday. “I need them to help me. That’s how good they are, and that’s how smart they are. And that’s how used to winning they are. So, I wouldn’t trust myself to be able to do it without them.”
Auriemma, 61, is in his 31st season coaching UConn, a run that’s included 10 NCAA titles, four of them with Bird and/or Taurasi on the roster from 2000-04.
In 2012, Auriemma led the U.S. women’s basketball team at the Olympics for the first time.
The Americans went undefeated, running their Olympic winning streak to 41 games. Auriemma called the experience more special because the 12-woman roster included six of his former UConn players, and the dynamic perimeter duo of Bird and Taurasi in particular.
“I think [Taurasi] knows, and particularly her and Sue, I think they know one of my reasons for wanting to do it in the first place was, obviously, being an Olympic coach means a lot, but the opportunity to coach the two of them again was pretty powerful,” Auriemma said.
Auriemma thought that would be his only Olympic head-coaching experience.
“It’s not my turn anymore,” Auriemma said in 2013. “It’s someone else’s turn. I did what I was asked to do and what I wanted to do.
“First of all, I was never asked [to return], so I didn’t want to presume anything. Second of all, I really did think USA Basketball, on the women’s side, has never done that [retain an Olympic coach for the following Games]. So why should I presume I would be the first?”
That all changed on July 31, 2013. USA Basketball finally asked Auriemma.
And on a cleverly planned day — when the coach felt particularly patriotic at the White House, feted with his national champion UConn team by President Obama.
“I was reminded that the opportunity to represent your country is one you don’t take lightly,” Auriemma said in a press release announcing his return to coach the team about one month later. “This is not an opportunity that comes along too often. I was humbled by the request, and I’m honored to do it again.”
Auriemma said the choice did not come easy. It was the longest he had ever taken to make a decision. Unspecified NBA and U.S. leaders nudged him to come back.
On Tuesday, the three-time Olympic champions Bird and Taurasi said they had deep conversations with Auriemma to persuade him as well.
“I think he was really thinking about it and kind of seesawing,” Bird said. “There was definitely a phone conversation that happened. That was probably, in that conversation, the most honest I’ve ever been with him.”
Taurasi said she communicates with Auriemma three times per week, even when she’s playing professionally in Russia.
“Coach, he knows how to use an iPhone now, that’s made communicating a little bit easier,” joked Taurasi, adding that she sat down with, called and texted Auriemma to convince him to go for 2016. “After London, I feel like there was still a little unfinished business for him.”
How can a coach of an undefeated Olympic champion team possibly have unfinished business?
“It wouldn’t be as far as results or scoring more points,” Taurasi said. “I think he just saw an opportunity with, maybe a new breed of players, that he can instill something that can go a long way. I think he’s doing that.”
The comment immediately brought to mind current UConn senior Breanna Stewart, the youngest player among 25 Olympic team finalists who is attempting to duplicate Taurasi’s feat from 2004 — win an NCAA title and an Olympic gold medal in the same year.
Back to Bird, the U.S.’ starting point guard for the last decade. She seemed hesitant to commit to 2016 in the emotional moments after taking gold in London.
But Bird and Taurasi’s message to Auriemma in 2013 couldn’t have been clearer.
“It was, well, we’re going to do it one more time,” Auriemma said. “We’re going to try to give it a shot one more time. I was like, yeah, but I’ve already done it. Then they talked about, let’s do it again. Let’s see where it takes us. Between that and [U.S. women’s national team director] Carol Callan and [USA Basketball CEO] Jim Tooley and USA Basketball, it kind of put the screws on me.
“You had two answers. Yes, and, yes, when can I start? You weren’t going to say no to them.”
NBC Olympic researcher Amanda Doyle contributed to this report.