Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: UConn's Geno Auriemma still not afraid to speak his mind

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ALBANY, N.Y. — When Geno Auriemma speaks, all you have to do is listen.Should players get paid? He's got an answer. How about whether or not his UConn Huskies have a "chip on their shoulders" after being named the No. 2 seed in the Albany Region? He'll tell you.

Auriemma and the Huskies made the three-hour trip from Storrs, Conn. to Albany, and will face UCLA in the first game of the Albany Regional on Friday night. Louisville will play Oregon State in Friday's nightcap.

And it didn't take Auriemma very long to win in the media room.

"I just wanted to let everybody know that I'm still the coach at UConn, and I intend to be the coach at UConn next year," he said. "In case anybody had any questions about that."

Auriemma's name might just be one of the few names that are not linked to the Tennessee opening, a job that came open when the school decided not to bring Holly Warlick back. Warlick replaced the late Pat Summitt in 2012, but had not been able to keep the Volunteers at the same level as Summitt had.

The UConn coach, who is in his 34th year in Storrs, was able to joke because the other three coaches here — Louisville's Jeff Walz, Oregon State's Scott Rueck and UCLA's Cori Close — have all been mentioned in news reports as possible replacements at Tennessee.

Auriemma wasn't the only coach able to have fun with the Tennessee coaching rumors.

"First off, I just want to start off by saying I'm the head coach at the University of Louisville. I think Geno would be a wonderful candidate for that position that is open," Walz said during his media availability. "So before the questions start coming, I'm the head coach at the University of Louisville. I've loved it, enjoy it, it's been great."

The Louisville coach, as the UConn coach did earlier, made light of the coaching rumors.

"And I joke with our players all the time. I'm like, 'guys, you can solve this if you just suck. If you don't win games, nobody will hire any of my assistants, and you won't ever have to worry about my name coming up for anything,' " Walz said. "If we're 3-21, I promise you this is not a discussion."

Auriemma was able to fill two full pages of quotes handed out to the media, and then held court in the hallway of the Times Union Center for about 20 more minutes before he was escorted to the court to begin practice.

One of the questions asked during the post-press conference scrum concerned a statement made by Connecticut U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, that college athletes should be paid.

Now, many college coaches would wade carefully into that topic. Auriemma jumped into the deep end of the pool.

"I like Chris too. Senator Murphy is a great guy, and there's some value to what he said. I think players should be paid," Auriemma said. "It's somebody else's job to figure out how they're going to do that."

Auriemma was not done.

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"There are a lot of plusses to it, I believe in it, a lot of plusses to athletes getting paid. No one's been able to figure out how to deal with the negatives," he said. "I'm sure at some point, somebody will figure it out. Because the world is changing. Coaches are making billions of dollars and schools are making billions of dollars."

He did, however, say while student-athletes aren't benefiting like coaches are, it's not completely a one-way street.

"All players get is a free education, the cover of Sports Illustrated and four hours on ESPN every night," he said, "and an opportunity to grow their brand."

UConn came to Albany as the No. 2 seed in the Albany Regional, behind a Louisville team that had scored a 78-69 win over the Huskies back on Jan. 31. UConn hasn't lost since then.

Auriemma was asked if his team has a chip on its shoulder about being a No. 2 seed, when the Huskies have historically been either a No. 1 seed or the No. 1 overall seed.

"I don't even know what that means today. I know what it used to mean," Auriemma said. "Kids would get pissed. That's what it meant when they said they had a chip on their shoulder. They were pissed. They felt disrespected.

"And when they felt like that, you actually saw the results on the court."

He recalled losing in the Final Four back in 2001, that his players were angry about that for the next 12 months, until UConn won the NCAA D-I title.

Now?

"Today, the chip on the kids' shoulders lasts until the next text. So we've got a chip on our shoulder, the chip in their phone. That other stuff, it doesn't exist anymore," Auriemma said. "How are you going to have a chip on your shoulder when your best friends are all the kids you play against? You've got everybody on speed dial because you played against these kids growing up. I liked it better when everybody hated each other.

"All the hate's gone. It's no fun."

Auriemma's topics included the new TV contract that the American Athletic Conference just signed with ESPN, the situation at Tennessee and how the job of a coach has changed.

He said after the press conference that UConn is still a team that helps raise the level of interest in women's basketball, and it's a responsibility he accepts.

"Hey, it's March," he said, "and in a few years I'll be in Florida playing golf, and I won't have to answer these questions. A few years? It could be a few days. It could be this weekend.

"I booked a flight on Saturday, just in case."

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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