Jeff Jacobs: Auriemma back and plans to be around for a while

STORRS — The holidays are a time for reflection. Yes, Geno Auriemma did reflect. The holidays are a time for reflection. His UConn players reflected, too, if ever so briefly.

“No, no,” said Kyla Irwin, when asked Wednesday if she and her teammates had come up with New Year’s resolutions for Auriemma to pursue in 2020. “He’s great.”

Irwin’s teammates would echo the sentiment. No one dared to give their coach a 2020 project for improvement.

Auriemma may have been a great enough coach to have be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall in 2006 when he was only 53 years old. Think about this for a second. He was 589-112 with five national championships when he was enshrined that night in Springfield with Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins, Joe Dumars and Dave Gavitt. He has gone 483-27 with six national championships since. Essentially, Auriemma has had a second Hall of Fame career after his first one.

Yeah, he has been great. But — news flash — Luigi Auriemma, born March 23, 1954 in Montella, Italy, isn’t immortal.

Recruits, of course, are reminded of this by opposing schools along the scholar-athlete procurement trail. And in the days after he underwent a successful surgical procedure to alleviate symptoms caused by diverticulitis on Dec. 19 at UConn Health, Auriemma admitted he considered his own career mortality.

“When you are away from it for a little bit, you do get a chance to kind of think things through a little more and you do start to have, ‘Hey, how many more years can you coach?’” Auriemma, 65, said. “You can’t control the health of someone.

“You do miss it. You do feel like you want to be at practice, want to be on the sidelines, want to be able to do this. So as long as in the morning when you wake up and feel like that, then that’s good sign. You keep doing it. There’s going to come a time somewhere down the road, it’s probably not the right thing to do anymore. When that time comes, I have no idea. Being away for a little bit of time makes you realize that time isn’t here yet.”

He missed the wayward first quarter of the Oklahoma game and watched the outstanding three final quarters of the 44-point victory on TV on Dec. 22. He appreciated the team functioned well without him, joked that he didn’t want it to function too well and after relaxing through Christmas returned to practice Saturday in advance of a hectic January schedule.

Auriemma had a procedure in the spring to clean up cartilage in his knee. He missed a couple of games last year with a stomach virus. After winning a fourth consecutive national championship in April 2016 there was a bronchial and heart episode that led him off a flight and into the hospital for three nights. He missed the parade in Hartford.

Otherwise, Auriemma and his teams have been a study in mind-numbing consistency. The Huskies entered the last decade No. 1 and they exited the decade No. 1. In one sense, Auriemma said, 2010 to 2019 flew by. In another, 2010 seems likes a lifetime ago.

“I don’t know what that means going forward for the next 10 years,” Auriemma said.

What he knows is he has no idea when the day will arrive when he wakes up and says he has had enough.

After a week or so away, he is damn sure on New Year’s 2020 the day isn’t here yet. He’s not going anywhere.

That doesn’t mean others won’t suggest the day is nearing. Recruiting is a tough business. Overnight, a whisper can become a rumor which can become a statement of fact. A year ago, after UConn had missed out on Haley Jones to Stanford and Aliyah Boston to South Carolina, folks were suggesting that this was the end of the UConn dynasty.

Auriemma even said Wednesday that after you have so much success the shocking buzzer-beaters by Morgan William and Arike Ogunbowale to eliminate UConn from the 2017 and 2018 Final Fours may well be what he remembers most from the past decade.

It can be lonely at the top of the mountain when the rest of the country is rooting for a fall that may hasten retirement.

Megan Walker, the Huskies’ best player this season, was the nation’s No.1 rated recruit in 2017. Obviously, a slew of schools wanted her. Asked if anyone used Geno’s age against him in her recruiting or if it was mentioned he may retire, Walker said, “A little bit. You know how schools are.

“Yeah, they did, but me and him had that conversation. He said, ‘I’m here.’ It never was a big deal for me coming here and being a part of this program.”

Paige Bueckers, the 2020 No. 1 recruit in America, will be coming to Storrs, too. So will Croatian Nika Muhl, Mir McLean, Piath Gabriel and Canadian Aaliyah Edwards to cement the No. 2 recruiting class. Amari DeBerry and Saylor Poffenbarger are 2021 recruits. Isuneh Brady, the No. 3-rated 2022 recruit, committed.

The fall didn’t happen. Yeah, UConn looks like it will be bad for basketball well into the new decade. With 1,072 wins, he is 26 wins away from Pat Summitt’s NCAA record. Tara VanDerveer, the 66-year-old Stanford coach, has 1,078 wins.

“I find it interesting,” Auriemma said. “People tend to use your age as the reason why you should think about he’s not going to be there. Sometimes my response to those players when this comes up is, ‘Well, you know, it’s funny. That other coach recruiting you who’s saying that? If I left here tomorrow, they would apply for this job.’

“So whatever school they’re recruiting you at, if I left they would leave that school to come here. You don’t make choices of where to go to school based on what might happen down the road. But, yeah, it’s out there and it has been out there for quite some time now. I don’t know if that’s the case with other coaches my age.”

Geno Auriemma does know this much.

“My favorite moment of the decade? Yeah, 12:01 last night. It means I made it to another decade.”

He has no plans to leave anytime soon.; @jeffjacobs123