Auriemma al­lowed play­ers to de­cide on their off­sea­son work­out sched­ule

The Norwalk Hour - - SPORTS - By Doug Bon­jour

STORRS — One day dur­ing the off­sea­son some 20-plus years ago, Re­becca Lobo, the star of UConn’s first of 11 na­tional cham­pi­onship teams, popped into Geno Auriemma’s of­fice to tell him just how ex­cited she was for prac­tice to be­gin.

And Auriemma re­mem­bers this mo­ment, why? Well, for one, it was unique.

“The last time some­body said that to me? Re­becca Lobo,” Auriemma joked Fri­day be­fore First Night fes­tiv­i­ties at Gam­pel Pav­il­ion.

Back then, col­lege bas­ket­ball teams were not al­lowed to prac­tice be­fore Oct. 15. There was al­ways a pal­pa­ble build-up to that date among play­ers and coaches be­cause it marked the un­of­fi­cial start of a new sea­son.

“Peo­ple for­get, we used to not be able to talk to our play­ers on the court, in­volved with them, un­til Oct. 15,” Auriemma, now in his

34th sea­son as the UConn women’s coach, ex­plained. “All of Septem­ber and half of Oc­to­ber, we weren’t able to do any­thing with them. Now, all of a sud­den, peo­ple are start­ing prac­tice in the mid­dle of Septem­ber. And they’re do­ing two hours a week and stuff in the sum­mer.

“We had some pretty good teams when we weren’t al­lowed to do any­thing un­til Oct. 15. Play­ers, I think, ap­pre­ci­ated it.”

This year, Auriemma con­ducted his first prac­tice Oct. 10, al­beit with a catch. The play­ers who par­tic­i­pated had al­ready spent weeks — if not longer — in the gym hon­ing their craft. And they were away from Auriemma while do­ing so.

In­stead of dic­tat­ing a plan for the off­sea­son, Auriemma left it up to his play­ers to choose when they wanted to prac­tice. It was his way of loos­en­ing the reins, so to speak.

“We just said, ‘Lis­ten, you guys are in charge. What­ever you guys want to do, it’s on you,’” Auriemma said.

In ex­plain­ing the de­ci­sion to re­porters, Auriemma, a ven­er­a­ble bas­ket­ball mind, be­moaned how stu­dent-ath­letes’ sched­ules — from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep — have be­come too rigid. He said that their lives are struc­tured al­most to a fault.

“It’s al­most like it’s too easy. … Af­ter a while, it’s like, when do you get to de­cide any­thing? You don’t,” he said.

This off­sea­son’s sched­ule fell squarely on the shoul­ders of one of the Huskies’ two se­niors, Katie Lou Sa­muel­son. Though she was lim­ited in what she could do on the court be­cause of an an­kle surgery, Sa­muel­son played an im­por­tant role dur­ing work­outs, act­ing as a leader. It’s a role that Auriemma ex­pects her — and hope­fully oth­ers — to take into the reg­u­lar sea­son.

“She’s re­ally taken to it,” Auriemma said. “I see her every day. I see the ef­fects of what hap­pened in the spring. She was in­volved with them then, dur­ing the sum­mer, and into Septem­ber.”

Play­ers wel­comed the change. In fact, se­nior for­ward Napheesa Col­lier — who was away for a few weeks with the U.S. Na­tional Team — be­lieves that play­ers ended up train­ing more than they would have un­der a stricter sched­ule.

“It was a lot dif­fer­ent,” Col­lier said. “We usu­ally do have a lot of struc­ture, so mak­ing it our­selves, I think, re­ally held us ac­count­able.”

That’s ex­actly what Auriemma had in mind when he de­cided to give play­ers more free­dom. He wants them to be re­spon­si­ble for them­selves and their team­mates. The pro­grams with win­ning cul­tures, he ex­plained, have play­ers who want to prac­tice — even when they have the op­tion to do oth­er­wise.

“I did it dif­fer­ently be­cause I want play­ers to take own­er­ship,” he said. “I want them to feel like this is my team, this is our team,” he said. “I think too many times to­day, kids are di­rected to play. From a young age, ‘Come on, get in a car, we’re go­ing to go play.’ …To­day, it’s more of a cul­ture of, ‘Let’s go play. Let’s go in a gym — there has to be lights, it can’t be cold, the air con­di­tion­ing has to be on.’

“You kind of lose that feel­ing of play­ing for the joy of play­ing. I wanted them to get that back.”

The play­ers be­lieve they have that back.

“By Coach do­ing that, I think it made us closer as a team,” sopho­more Me­gan Walker said. “It just made us have that love for the game. I think we were miss­ing that a lit­tle bit last year. It just gives us some en­ergy. We can come to­gether when­ever we want.”

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire via Getty Im­ages

UConn for­ward Napheesa Col­lier shoots a free throw against SMU on Feb. 24, at the Moody Col­i­seum in Dal­las, Texas.

Darron Cum­mings / AP

UConn women’s back­et­ball head coach Geno Auriemma al­lowed his play­ers to de­cide their work­out sched­ule dur­ing the off­sea­son.

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