UConn celebrates Geno Auriemma's 70th birthday in style

The Huskies had custom shirts, old photos and "Up" jokes to celebrate the coach's big day.

Photo: Daniel Connolly

UConn had two major sources of motivation on Saturday. First and foremost, the Huskies needed to beat 14-seed Jackson State to keep their season alive and move on to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. That took precedence.

But they also couldn’t spoil Geno Auriemma’s 70th birthday. The coach hit the milestone on Saturday and while the focus remained on the contest at the start of the day, the 86-64 victory allowed UConn to kick off the celebration in earnest.

“It would not have been as fun if the game went another way,” Ice Brady said.

“You want it to be a special day,” Paige Bueckers said. “I know if we lost it would no longer be a special day.”

In the locker room postgame, there were photos of the coach through all the different eras of his life — “There's like a thousand pictures of him in there. You can only imagine. There's not just one big picture,” Brady explained. They had cupcakes topped with his face and sang him happy birthday as well.

The kicker? Everyone — from the players to the assistants to the support staff — had custom t-shirts with various photos of Auriemma, an idea came from associate head coach Chris Dailey. Everyone got to pick an image of Auriemma for their shirt.

The results were spectacular.

Ashlynn Shade had an in-game shot from the ‘90s of the coach yelling from the sidelines.

“This sums up me and Coach’s relationship mostly throughout the games. This is what he looks like,” she said. “But when he yells at me, I'm just starting to translate into ‘I love you’ instead of ‘You suck.’ So when he goes ‘You suck,’ I'm just like, ‘Ugh, love you too.’”

“You need a new translator,” Auriemma chimed in.

Bueckers also went with something personal. She had a shot where she’s sitting next to a sleeping Auriemma on the bus down to Big East Media Day this past October.

“He was reading and then got a little tired,” Bueckers said. “I was doing my homework and I was like, ‘Azzi, take this picture real quick.’”

Nika Mühl went outside the box. Instead of a photo of Auriemma himself, she used Carl, the main character from the Pixar movie Up. As the coach has gotten older and his hair whiter, some — including Mühl — have noticed a resemblance.

“Ever since I came here, I was like, ‘That man reminds me of somebody,’” she said. “It was always the guy from Up. I tried to find the grumpiest picture and there you go.”

KK Arnold decided to go in the opposite direction. She found a goofy photo of a younger Auriemma wearing a bucket hat.

“Of course I picked this one. This matches my mood and matches my personality. So I was like, ‘Might as well,’” Arnold explained.

While others leaned towards humor, Brady just wanted a good photo of the coach. She found one from earlier in his career — presumably the ‘90s — where he’s on the sideline wearing a tie, an outfit choice he’s long since retired.

“He’s young, he’s got a full head of hair, he’s nice and fit,” Brady said. “He looks good. He’s handsome. He's young. He's prime.”

Which one did Auriemma like the best?

“I'm not sure I like any of them to be honest. Certainly none from the ‘70s. I don't think that was a good look at all. Can't imagine we all thought that was okay back then,” he said. “I don't know where they got them. I don't know how they came up with them. I don't know whose idea it was.

“But I did get a laugh out of them.”

From his players’ perspective, the best part of it was forcing Auriemma to be in the spotlight.

“He doesn't like being in the center of attention a lot. He just doesn’t like it. We tried to put as much as much attention on him today,” Mühl said. “It was emotional. It was cute. Seventy is a great number. We just tried to celebrate him as a person, not just as a coach.”

Auriemma doesn’t have big plans for the rest of his birthday, though. UConn had a recruit visiting, so that takes priority. After that, he’s just glad the calendar fell the way it did.

“This is one of the few times where I'm home during the NCAA Tournament on my birthday. Most of the time we're on the road,” he said. “So I'm glad that I’ve got a chance to spend some time with my family.”

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