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Geno Auriemma: How to lose fans and alienate people

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Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma has long been known for saying precisely what’s on his mind, and while that’s often an admirable quality, some thoughts are better left unexpressed. Auriemma gave a perfect example this week when he criticized Huskies fans for showing up in insufficient numbers to see his team win its first- and second-round NCAA tournament games.

Fewer than six thousand fans — 5,729, to be exact — attended Connecticut’s thumping of Purdue on Tuesday at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, which seats 10,027. It was the smallest crowd to see the Huskies play since 1994.

So a petulant Auriemma has decided to punish the Storrs unfaithful. Although Connecticut has hosted at least one round of the NCAA tournament since 1989, with the exception of last season, Auriemma said Tuesday night he would ask Athletic Director Jeff Hathaway not to bid to host any tournament games for the next five years.

As threats go, that’s the equivalent of “I’m going to take my ball and go home!” And it’s directed at a group of fans who have shown themselves to be among the most loyal in all of women’s basketball.

It’s also just bad coaching strategy. Because Storrs has proved to have a strong fan base, Connecticut is often awarded tournament games, which are also home games. What coach would willingly give that up?

Not content just with suggesting a five-year “timeout” for his absent fans, Auriemma decided to insult them as well.

“I think we have a real spoiled group of fans,” he said. “I think free parking and handouts at the game would help. Letting some of the fans participate in coaching the team, since they always volunteer to do that.”

Seriously? Auriemma’s fans sometimes offer advice and criticism? What an awful burden for Auriemma to bear. Why, I thought only coaches were allowed to criticize fans.

Huskies fans may well be spoiled, and Auriemma can be both thanked and blamed for that. Connecticut won a major college record 90 straight games before the streak was broken in December. Since then, they’ve reeled off another 20 straight. They’re ranked No. 1 in the country and are 34-1, their sixth straight 30-win season. It’s not outside the realm of imagination to assume that the Huskies’ fans, like everyone else in the country, thought they would breeze through their first two tournament games.

U-Conn. fans may also be watching their pennies, like a lot of people. Perhaps some were saving up for this weekend’s games, or next weekend’s. When you support the Connecticut women’s program, it’s not much of a gamble to assume your team is going to make the Final Four.

Connecticut’s next game happens to be against Georgetown on Sunday in Philadelphia. The Hoyas advanced to the Sweet 16 by beating Maryland Tuesday night at Comcast Center in front of 4,493. If Maryland wasn’t in the midst of spring break, the crowd might have been larger, but it wouldn’t have approached Connecticut’s usual numbers.

Auriemma deserves all the credit for building a dynasty at Connecticut. But if he keeps insulting the fan base he’s managed to build — and makes it even harder for that fan base to attend the early rounds of the NCAA tournament — that dynasty will be playing in front of a lot more empty seats.

© The Washington Post Company