Wiedmer: Vandy should try to lure Auriemma for men's team

Wiedmer: Vandy should try to lure Auriemma for men's team

March 30th, 2016 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma, right, talks with player Katie Lou Samuelson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the American Athletic Conference tournament semifinals at Mohegan Sun Arena, Sunday, March 6, 2016, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Photo by The Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Before Vanderbilt hires anyone else to replace Kevin Stallings as men's basketball coach, the Commodores should first make Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma say no.

It's really that simple, as are the overwhelming reasons for such an unfathomably bold move.

For starters — assuming the Huskies hand Auriemma his record 11th NCAA title and fourth straight Tuesday night in Indianapolis — the 62-year-old coach will have more national championships than late UCLA men's coaching legend John Wooden, who won 10 in 12 seasons from 1964 through 1975.

Auriemma also will have won 24 straight NCAA tourney games, which would surpass former Tennessee Lady Vols coaching giant Pat Summitt's 22 straight. In fact, Auriemma has won so often in 31 seasons at UConn that his average record is now 31-4. Read that again: Thirty-one and four. That's his average. And should he win the title next week, those 31 years will have included six undefeated seasons.

FILE - In this Jan. 26, 2016, file photo, Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings watches from the sideline in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida in Nashville, Tenn. Pittsburgh hired Stallings away from Vanderbilt on Sunday, March 27, 2016, tasking him with rejuvenating a program that had stagnated during the final years under Jamie Dixon. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)


Photo by The Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Point is, Auriemma has done all he can do in the women's game. And amazing as his career has been, his salary, though nothing to sneeze at, is about $2 million a year. To put that in perspective, in the Southeastern Conference alone, where only Kentucky's John Calipari previously has won it all, there are at least four other coaches — Alabama's Avery Johnson, Auburn's Bruce Pearl, South Carolina's Frank Martin and Tennessee's Rick Barnes — who are north of $2 million a year. And none of those four reached the NCAA tournament this month.

Let Auriemma win it all in Indy and he'll have more national championship rings than fingers. He's at least to women's basketball what Wooden was to the men's game. And as even Wooden used to say near the end of his life, from a pure basketball standpoint, the women's game today is a better example of what Dr. James Naismith envisioned when he invented the sport, both its offenses and defenses more precise and better executed.

This is in no way to suggest that Auriemma would be interested in a career change.

As his close friend and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's coach Jim Foster — who was the women's coach at Vanderbilt for 11 seasons — wryly observed Tuesday: "Why would the assumption be that (the Vanderbilt men's job) is better than the job he has now?"

And if the Commodores — or possibly Georgia Tech — wouldn't substantially increase his salary, it might understandably be tough for Auriemma to seriously consider jeopardizing his bullet-proof legacy to try his hand at the men's game, which has arguably become far more dependent on the presence of future NBA first-round talent than X-and-O supremacy.

But money isn't really an issue at Vanderbilt, given its $4.1 billion endowment, its yearly SEC share of $30 million and its long-standing ability to generate basketball revenue inside the concrete block walls of magical Memorial Gym. The school could easily shell out between $3.5 and $4 million for the UConn coach and never miss it.

The issue is how committed the VU brass is to becoming a yearly Top 25 program capable of regular runs to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 or beyond. Foster proved long ago that you could guide the VU women to the Final Four. There's no reason the Commodores men can't get there, too, with the right man running the show.

Timing is everything in moments such as this. Not every school would be willing to take this gamble, however glittering Auriemma's career. Nor might Auriemma consider such a leap if UConn does the unthinkable and falters in the Final Four. Even an 11th title might not have him believing he's accomplished all he can in the women's game.

But there also comes a saturation point in all careers, regardless of the occupation. Let UConn win a fourth straight title next Tuesday and Auriemma owns the women's game as no one has ever owned it, or is likely ever to own it again. Beyond that, Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams thinks outside the box as much as any power five conference AD. After all, it wasn't all that long ago that Vandy didn't even have an athletic department, Williams more of a liaison between the coaches and former chancellor Gordon Gee than an AD.

And the Commodore Nation can quickly dismiss any concern that Auriemma would struggle to recruit against the Coach Cals and Coach Ks of the men's game. It was Geno Jugular who more than once beat out Summitt for players; so much so that she severed their regular-season rivalry over her belief that he might have overstepped recruiting rules to land Atlanta area great Maya Moore, who helped UConn to two national titles and an NCAA gender-best 90-game winning streak.

So if you think a man who could out-recruit Summitt for the women's game's best players couldn't convince mothers of the best young male players to entrust their sons to him, think again.

There's certainly nothing wrong with Auriemma remaining at UConn. There's nothing wrong with former Vanderbilt men's coaching great Eddie Fogler focusing the search he's leading on some bright young gun all but certain to succeed.

But at least partly because Fogler once said of Foster, "If any women's coach could succeed in the men's game, it would be Jim," it would certainly seem plausible for Vanderbilt to at least reach out to Auriemma before someone such as Georgia Tech does.

Or as Foster said when asked if the Commodores should pursue his longtime friend: "If you're trying to hire the best basketball coach, the answer is yes."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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