Geno Auriemma, coach of the NCAA women’s basketball champions, encouraged more than 200 Neag School of Education graduates to merge the arts and sciences into their approach as teachers.
“Take the science that you learned, add the creative art that’s in your soul, and I think you’re on your way to become a good teacher,” Auriemma said to the Mother’s Day crowd in the Jorgensen Auditorium. An audience member punctuated his point with a loud handclap, and Auriemma responded, “Yeah, I like that, too.”
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame coach was introduced by Neag Dean Thomas DeFranco, who outlined Auriemma’s prowess on the court – seven NCAA titles, 78 straight wins, four undefeated seasons, five-time national coach of the year, and “more importantly, inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame,” the dean quipped about their shared heritage.
DeFranco relayed an anecdote about the coach’s generosity in helping the dean recruit a top specialist to Neag and praised Auriemma as an educator. “Every recruited freshman on the women’s basketball team who has finished her eligibility at Storrs has graduated with a degree. I’m sure he is equally proud of that statistic as he is about seven NCAA titles,” DeFranco said.
As if to punctuate the point, Auriemma started his talk by calling out to Jacquie Fernandes, a senior guard on his team who was earning a Neag degree that day.
Auriemma, an immigrant to the United States from Italy at the age of 7, spoke of the impact of teachers on his life. “The most important people in my life were my teachers. If it wasn’t for them I would not have been able to assimilate myself into this culture and to help my parents assimilate themselves into this culture. My teachers taught me everything that I know to this day.”
Later he returned to this theme, saying, “What I’m going to encourage you to do is to be for some of the people, if not all, that you come in contact with …that when they are 56 years old – my age – they will remember you as the biggest impact on their life.”
The coach’s speech was peppered with his trademark humor. He noted the on-stage presence of the president of the Neag Alumni Society Sandra Justin, apparently to establish the graduates’ initiation as alumni. “You’re a Husky forever,” he joked, “as long as your checks don’t bounce.”
But his message overall was straight from the heart, straight from his own experience.
He asked the graduates if their responsibilities once they become teachers would be to the principal, the parents or the school board. “No. Your responsibilities, the way I look at it, is every student that comes to your class either has the potential for greatness, and it’s up to you to make sure they’re great, or they have the potential to be good, and it’s your job to make sure that they’re good. If you have any other responsibilities other than that, then I think you’re in for the wrong reasons.”
Then he delivered his parting advice: “Don’t ever take no for an answer. When someone says you can’t do this, that’s your first step in getting it done.”