Relationship between UConn's Auriemma, Albany's Griffith goes way back
The mission was accomplished as Auriemma spent a few minutes with Albany assistant coach Yolanda Grffith.
"A lot of his stories he used to tell ...," Griffith said. "Every day when we go out and I see him on the road recruiting, he brings back memories of letting me know that I was one of the players he appreciated and loved to work with when he did the Olympics because I just went out and did my job, no questions asked. I do my job, I compete evry day in practice and we formed a good bond, a good relationship.
Auriemma, facing Griffith for the first time with both of them in a coaching capacity, wasn't about to limit his characterization at merely being a "good relationship."
"She was by far my favorite player to coach on that Olympic team," Auriemma said. "She was the toughest, most competitive, I think most talented, the smartest. She was relentless in everything she did. You could count on her every day in practice every game. Up to that point I had only seen her play at a distance but getting a chance to spend time and actually work with her, I came out of there thinking this kid is something special, she is a special human being. I respect the fact that she enjoyed being coached."
Griffith was the leading rebounder and No. 3 scorer on a U.S. team that won the Olympic gold medal despite playing without the injured Chamique Holdsclaw.
At the time when Auriemma was one of U.S. head coach Nell Fortner's assistant coaches he was coming off his second national championship as the head coach at UConn. He is now at 11 and his Huskies are the No. 1 overall seed as they head for their fifth in a row and 12th overall title.
"Geno has established a strong organization, a strong pedigree as far as women's basketball goes," Griffith said. "His footprint is all over women's basketball and he is winning no matter who he puts on the court, what individual puts the uniform on, they know the pressure is on them to help the program to win. I had that experience in 2000 when he was an assistant with our Olympic team. He was very competitive bringing the best out of players. He is hard on you and that is one thing about being a competitive player, you want them to be hard so they can teach you the good, the bad of the game and that is what he's done. Hat's off to him, he's been successful with this program and that it what you want, you want not just one strong program but multiple programs in women's sports to continue to be successful."
Griffith is 10th in rebounding, 16th in blocked shots and 26th in scoring in WNBA history even though she played her final game in the league in 2009. There have been prominent WNBA legends who have used their fame to secure high-profile coaching jobs before they were ready. Griffith has been willing to pay her dues serving as an assistant coach at Dartmouth, Lafayette and UMass before joining the staff of first-year Albany coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee after former Great Danes coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson took the job at UCF,
"If you look at where she comes from, it is not one of entitlement," Auriemma said. "It was not one of, 'do you know who I am and do you know what I deserve?' She is willing to do it the way she did it as a player. She is going to work for everything she gets and she expects to start at the bottom and work her way up because that is how it has always been for her and she will get to the top because that is who she is."
Griffith is one of eight players to be named the WNBA MVP and Finals MVP and a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2014.
Coaching was something that Griffith knew she wanted to pursue even during her Hall of Fame career. When she suffered a career-ending torn Achilles' tendon early in the 2009 season, her opportunity came sooner than she imagined as the WNBA's Indiana Fever made her an adjunct assistant coach in 2009.
"It was just in me when I was playing," Griffith said. "I was a mentor, a coach, a player so I just felt like it was in me to be my next journey."
Griffith enjoys the process whether it is recruiting or seeing young prospects emerge into reliable veterans.
"When you start working with players when they are freshmen until they are seniors, you see their development," Griffith said. "You form that relationship and knowing that you are just a phone call away. It is not a matter of what you do with them on the court but what you do for them when they leave."
Her first season at Albany has not been always smooth sailing. When the Great Danes suffered an overtime loss at Yale on Dec. 3, they were sitting with a 3-5 record. America East Conference play began with three wins and three losses which was quite the struggle for the dominant program in the America East. Albany finished the season going 12-1 including the three wins in the conference tournament to secure a sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
"The players from last year, the experience they have with Imani (Tate), Bailey (Hixson) and with Cassie (Edwards) the veterans understanding what they did last year and wanting to come back again this year," Griffith said. "That is the competitiveness of them, they wanted another opportunity before they graduate. They wanted to continue the tradition the streak, it is an amazing run. We had one point where we went on a 10 or 11 game winning streak, hit a bump in a road and then we found a way to bounce back."