Warriors' Steve Kerr and UConn's Geno Auriemma trade insights and quips at Cal fundraiser

ByMichelle Smith ESPN logo
Saturday, December 22, 2018

BERKELEY, Calif. -- A pink and orange winter solstice sunset ducking over the Golden Gate Bridge as the backdrop, Geno Auriemma chatted with U.S. Olympic swim team coach Teri McKeever on the deck of the club room at Cal's Memorial Stadium. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr arrived and also made his way outside, two championship basketball coaches ready to hold the rapt attention of a room full of donors in the holiday spirit.

Cal women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb fidgeted with her notes and her dress, greeting both the more than 150 paying guests and the two guests of honor.

Auriemma is in town ahead of Saturday's game between his top-ranked UConn Huskies (10-0) and the unbeaten and 14th-ranked Bears (9-0), the first time UConn has played in Berkeley in 26 years. Auriemma has played his share of games across the bay at Stanford through the years, but brings a team to Cal for the first time as a national powerhouse.

Given the rarity of the occasion, Gottlieb came up with the idea to sit down with Auriemma and Kerr, two of the most successful and outspoken coaches in sports, as a fundraiser for her program.

Gottlieb's stated goal was to talk about the changes within basketball, insights on the success of both coaches and a discussion of "big picture" issues impacting the sport and the world.

The conversation didn't disappoint. A one-hour discussion ranging from coaching philosophy to the role of women in professional basketball to athletes speaking out on politics, the insights and the quips came quickly.

"Am I allowed to be a little nervous?" Gottlieb asked while taking the stage, confessing that she has always wanted to be Oprah Winfrey.

Gottlieb introduced Kerr as "Maddie and Nick's dad," the father of two Cal grads, and joked that Auriemma, who Gottlieb has known since she was a 16-year-old high school basketball player, was sitting at 1,037 wins and she was fine if he stayed at that number.

That line earned her the first of many rounds of applause.

Gottlieb opened by asking both Kerr and Auriemma how they handle duplicating their success season after season. Auriemma talked about redefining the standards for success after 11 national championships.

"When I first got into coaching, it was to prove that I could win and earn the respect of my peers," Auriemma said. "When you win and you win often enough and there are expectations to replicate what I've done, that's when it gets difficult, when you have to reinvent it every single year.

"Success has to be redefined. You have to look at it like, 'I'm doing everything I can to put my team in the best position to win and whatever happens after that, I've got to live with it.' In the back of my mind, I'm really thinking, 'What, you are going to criticize me? I have 11 national championships.'"

Kerr shook his head and smiled. The audience, which included University of California Chancellor Carol Christ, along with Cal basketball players past and present, laughed along with Auriemma.

Kerr and Auriemma both confessed that difficult losses stick. Kerr, for example, talked about the NBA Finals Game 7 loss to Cleveland in 2016 and how he asked that the nets be cut down and delivered to the Cavs as a souvenir because they had earned it.

"There are losses that will stay with me forever, but there has to be a self-reflection," Kerr said. "Are you going to win every time? No."

Auriemma talked about the Huskies' loss at the buzzer to Notre Dame last spring in the national semifinals, the second year in a row that UConn had been ousted in the Final Four on a last-second shot.

"We are keeping score and that means that the other team is allowed to win once in awhile," Auriemma said. "It can't always be, 'What happened to Connecticut?' You have to acknowledge that the other team played great. If you don't give credit to the other team when they beat you, what you are saying is that beating them doesn't mean anything, either."

In recent years, some critics have argued that UConn's sustained success is bad for women's basketball, and Gottlieb asked whether the Warriors' dominance in the NBA is treated differently than UConn's?

"Are women treated differently in terms of success?" Gottlieb asked.

Auriemma pointed to the dominance of a team like Alabama in college football and whether anyone asks if that's bad for the sport.

"The reason why scoring is up in the NBA, why so many teams are scoring so many points, is because of Steve's offense. They are the perfect team, playing the perfect style and they set the tone for the rest of the league," Auriemma said. "Now the rest of the league goes back and figures out what they need to do to beat them.

"Are we bad for women's basketball? Only if you don't intend to get better. Appreciate us for who we are and what we do and how we do it and try to be like us. At some point, you are going to get tired of losing to us."

Asked to give each other coaching advice, Kerr had words of wisdom for Auriemma should he ever want to pursue a head coaching position in the NBA.

"Know the job you are taking," Kerr said. "Make sure it's great ownership, a GM you can work with and good players."

Auriemma admitted that he is "curious" about what it would be like to coach in the NBA.

"I've wondered what it would be like to coach the best players in the world and sit and watch film and think, 'How am I going to deal with that guy?' To me, that's the ultimate in coaching."

Both Kerr and Auriemma agreed that it is difficult at this point to see a woman getting a head coaching job in the NBA. Former WNBA star Becky Hammon is currently coaching from "the front of the bench" for the San Antonio Spurs, and a handful of other women with WNBA playing and coaching experience are getting opportunities as assistants and in scouting.

Kerr said it's a "hard question" to answer.

"Somebody needs to take a leap of faith and that person needs to have success," he said. "This is a copycat league. Somebody would have to take that chance, and I don't know if it's going to happen."

Auriemma agreed that it will be a "tough call."

"People are reluctant to change," Auriemma said. "Someone has to get the ball rolling. I think it would be naive to think that a college head coach could jump to the NBA without going through everything that Becky is going through now."

Kerr said Phoenix Mercury and former UConn star Diana Taurasi is the women's player he would most like to have coached. Kerr and Taurasi interacted frequently when he was the Phoenix Suns' general manager.

"She is such a dynamic personality and player and just incredible to watch," Kerr said of the four-time Olympic gold medalist and all-time leading scorer in WNBA history.

Asked what men's player he would like to have coached, Auriemma said it is his childhood idol, Walt Frazier.

"Every night, you knew he was going to be the kind of guy that you couldn't stop from doing whatever he wanted and you couldn't score on him," Auriemma said. "He was the ultimate competitor."

And what role should athletes have in political discourse?

Kerr, who speaks often about politics, said he believes athletes don't have a "responsibility to speak out, but they have a right."

Auriemma, meanwhile, said he wants his college-age athletes to be thoughtful in speaking out and to understand the implications of doing so.

"Are you really aware of the issues or are you just doing it to be in the conversation," said Auriemma, who added that college protests drove the anti-war and civil rights movements when he was a student.

"I had a draft card," Auriemma said. "If it wasn't for college kids, a lot more kids would have died."

The conversation wrapped with a discussion about decisions -- ones that work and the ones that keep coaches awake at night. Kerr talked about an in-bounds play that he ran just two nights ago in a Warriors loss to Utah, and how it ate at him that he called the wrong play.

"How do you know if it's a good decision?" Auriemma asked. "If it works. If it didn't work, it wasn't a good decision."

Bringing Kerr and Auriemma together? An undeniably good decision for Gottlieb and Cal.