By Carl Adamec
Geno Auriemma grew up with Philadelphia Big Five college basketball when there was nothing better than watching La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s, Temple, or Villanova battle at the Palestra.
Paul Westhead was a part of it back in the day. He got his first head college coaching job in 1970 at La Salle.
They grew up in the same area and their paths took directions. Auriemma became the coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team and has held the job for 28 years. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2006. Westhead went from college, to the NBA — winning a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers — back to college and even to the WNBA before taking over the women’s basketball program at the University of Oregon in 2009.
So there will be some Philadelphia in the air Monday in, of all places, Eugene, Ore., when the unbeaten Huskies take on the Ducks at 3 p.m. at Matthew Knight Arena.
“There were so many great coaches in the Philadelphia area and you say, ‘What made them great?’ ” Auriemma said. “What made them great was when they left Philadelphia and what they did. And Paul is a perfect example of that. Plus he was unique. He carved out his own identity as a coach. He had a distinct style, he was passionate about it, and he made it work.”
Westhead earned the nickname “Guru of Go” because of the fast-paced, shoot-first style that he and his former players call “The System.”
His 40-plus years in coaching has had its shares of ups and downs. He owns a 285-223 record as the men’s coach at La Salle, Loyola Marymount, and George Mason. He was a NBA head coach with the Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and Denver Nuggets but never came close to repeating the success he had in 1980 in Los Angeles. But in 2005 he took the job with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and won the 2007 championship before moving on to Oregon in 2009.
Auriemma was an assistant boys basketball coach at his alma mater Bishop Kenrick High in Norristown, Pa., when Westhead, who had replaced Jack McKinney earlier that season, guided the Lakers to the 1980 NBA championship.
The Lakers, led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, captured the title with a Game 6 win over the Philadelphia 76ers at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.
“Those were the days when you looked at the NBA and Jack Ramsay was coaching the Trail Blazers and Paul Westhead ended up with the Lakers and Jimmy Lynam was coaching the old Clippers,” Auriemma said. “One year I’m watching the Lakers win the NBA championship and they’re coached by a guy that coached at my wife’s high school (Cheltenham).
“Paul just always had that look about him. He looked like a pro coach. He coached his teams like they were pros, which was different than what anyone had seen. When he got to Loyola Marymount, nobody had seen what he was doing to that extreme. People had tried that style in the past but not to the extreme he did. Then he did it with Diana Taurasi in Phoenix. He proved it works in the pros, colleges, and the WNBA.”
Auriemma and Westhead go back 40 years. Through his high school coach Buddy Gardler, Auriemma had a chance to go to La Salle when Westhead was there and try to make the Explorers’ freshman team but opted for Montgomery County Community College.
“The freshman team was a bunch of guys that would be on the varsity team the next year or were going to be really, really good,” Auriemma said. “Then there were guys like me that weren’t recruited and you end up on the freshman team and from there you don’t play because you’re probably not good enough. If I had maybe a better high school career, maybe I would have ended up there. It wasn’t like he said, ‘You have to come to La Salle.’ I took the easy way out. I went where I felt comfortable and my friends were at and I played there and had fun.”
But Auriemma always kept track of the Philadelphia coaches and followed closely Westhead’s 1990 Loyola Marymount team that overcame the death of star Hank Gathers to reach the NCAA Tournament West Regional final before losing to eventual champion Nevada-Las Vegas.
The two do have something major in common in their careers: Both coached Taurasi to championships.
“I was surprised when Paul took the Phoenix job, but I know that Diana loved him and they won a title,” Auriemma said. “Then I was surprised when he took the job at the University of Oregon. But he’s been full of surprises all his life.”
Westhead brought his fast-paced style to Oregon and the Ducks were second in the country in scoring his first season of 2010. But their scoring average has dropped each of the next three seasons This year, Oregon (2-9) has been decimated by injuries and will be down two starters Monday. But even before the season began the Ducks were picked to finish 11th in the perennially weak Pac-12. They come into Monday’s game averaging just 67.1 points per game and were held to 49 in a 19-point loss to Portland in their last game on Dec. 21.
Freshman center Jillian Alleyne is averaging a double-double at 15.3 points and 14.5 rebounds per game.
The Huskies (11-0) are coming off Saturday’s 61-35 thrashing of former No. 1 Stanford that should move them to the top of the Associated Press poll when it is released Monday. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis led UConn with 19 points while Stefanie Dolson had a double-double (10 points, 14 rebounds) and was outstanding defensively against Stanford All-American Chiney Ogwumike. UConn’s victory, the first in four games against Stanford at Maples Pavilion, also ended the Cardinal’s 82-game home winning streak.
UConn loves an uptempo game and Oregon will oblige it.
“It’s something that you have to experience,” Auriemma said. “You go through it, and you get out of there and move on to the next thing. And we’re not going to have a lot of time to prepare for it. Maybe we’ll just tell the players to revert back to their AAU days and act like it’s another AAU tournament and let’s see what happens.”
The Huskies will return home after the game. They open their Big East schedule this Saturday against No. 5 Notre Dame at Gampel Pavilion.