Barbara Barker is an award-winning sports features writer and columnist who has covered sports in New York for
STORRS, Conn. - Who is the best coach in sports today? Bill Belichick? Gregg Popovich? Mike Krzyzewski? Nick Saban?
As his UConn team opens the women's NCAA Tournament looking to win its 10th national title, Geno Auriemma has to be included in that list, if not at the top of it.
No coach and no team has been more dominant the past 20 years. Connecticut has won four national titles in the last six years.
Auriemma has the best winning percentage of any coach in men's and women's basketball. Since he took over the Huskies 30 years ago, he has been to the NCAA Tournament 27 times, appeared in 15 Final Fours and produced five perfect seasons.
He is 9-0 in national championship games, and a win this year would tie him with UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden for the most ever.
For two decades, Auriemma and his players have been the face of women's college basketball. For some, they have been the epitome of a villain, both arrogant and merciless as they beat up opponent after opponent by an average of 42 points this season. For others, they are the ultimate winner, an exciting brand that has helped elevate the women's college game and produced 15 WNBA first-round picks. Love them or hate them, they've had an unprecedented impact on their sport.
Auriemma, 60, is not entirely comfortable with cross-sport comparisons, preferring to be measured only by what he is doing in his own arena.
"I don't think Coach K is starting the NCAA Tournament saying I need five more to catch Geno," Auriemma said at the team's practice on Friday before the start of the Albany Regional. "I don't think Serena Williams' goal is to catch Pete Sampras. I think you compete against the people you compete against."
This, of course, brings up one of the most popular arguments against including Auriemma in best-of-the-best coaching conversations: Auriemma's sport has been dominated by just a handful of schools and he really hasn't had that much competition, especially in recent years.
Yet isn't it interesting that the same people who bring this up rarely say the same thing about Wooden's UCLA teams, even though men's college basketball in the 1960s and early '70s was at about the same place back then that the women's game is today?
You're going to be hearing a lot of Wooden-Auriemma comparisons the next couple of weeks as Auriemma advances toward tying Wooden's record.
To some, it is heresy to compare the coach of a women's team to Wooden, who became deified in his own lifetime after winning 10 titles in 12 years.
Yet the parallels between the two coaches are dramatic. Both emphasized playing unselfish, team-oriented basketball. Both had a signature style: Wooden preaching his folksy pyramid of success and Auriemma wielding a quick, sarcastic wit.
Both saw their sport grow dramatically in popularity during their tenure. And both basically were able to win over a protracted period of time because they were able to recruit the best athletes.
Of course, when it comes to attracting the best athletes, Auriemma may have a leg up on Wooden. During his 30-year tenure, Auriemma has been connected with two secondary NCAA violations: He arranged for Maya Moore to visit ESPN and its studios during a recruiting visit and called eighth-grader Mo'ne Davis last year to congratulate her on her Little League win.
Wooden, by contrast, turned a blind eye to the doings of some of his boosters. So much so that Bill Walton, one of UCLA's greatest players, wrote in his autobiography that if the team had been under the same kind of scrutiny that UNLV and other teams later were, "they would have to forfeit about eight national titles and be on probation for the next 100 years."
Auriemma believes there are some interesting comparisons between the two teams.
"We're in a similar era," he said. "I think winning in men's college basketball now is harder than it was back then. Winning in women's college basketball is harder than it was 20 years ago. But I never competed against John Wooden, and I don't compete against any of the people he competed against and I don't live in that arena. I live in this one. I'm not always comfortable being compared to people in that world. Because it's a completely different world."
Still, that doesn't mean that tying Wooden's record wouldn't mean a lot to Auriemma and his team.
"We talk about it. It's exciting for all of us," Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said, "to hopefully be a part of the 10th national championship that Coach wins."