It was the spring of Geno Auriemma's junior year at Bishop Kenrick High. His coach, Bud Gardler, took him to lunch. Auriemma was probably thinking, "I've waited my turn. Next season is my time."
Gardler told him, "Look, there are going to be six of you seniors. I'm not keeping all six of you."
The coach gave zero signal that Auriemma would be one he kept.
"Stone cold,'' Auriemma said. "I'm keeping two or three."
As it turned out, Auriemma made it, and "little by little by little" got some playing time, and continued on a path that eventually got him to Connecticut and later the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The day it was announced that Auriemma had made the Hall, this man born in Italy and raised in Norristown stood at the front of a room and brought up his old coach.
"With my background, you're not really connected to anything," Auriemma said that day. "You kind of come in as an outsider. You go through grade school a little different than everybody else. You always felt a need to be part of a team. When I got to high school, Gardler gave me that opportunity. The guys on the team became my closest friends, my family. He became kind of the guy I wanted to be like. "
Gardler died Wednesday, at age 72, and Auriemma returned a call Thursday to talk about him.
"I think he had an interesting relationship with his players that was very, very difficult to describe,'' Auriemma said. "He was a young guy, coming out of St. Joe's …"
Gardler had played for Jack Ramsay.
"He was a hard kind of guy,'' Auriemma said. "A 'my way or the highway' kind of guy. Very, very stern kind of approach, where everything was going to be done exactly right, the way he wanted it to be done. There was no room for any deviation. Some people thrived in that kind of environment. I was fine with that."
After Kenrick, Gardler had a long run at Cardinal O'Hara. Penn coach Steve Donahue and Hartford coach John Gallagher played for him there. St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli and Temple assistant David Duke were both Gardler assistants. O'Hara grad Sean Kearney, now a Colorado assistant, went straight from being a Gardler assistant to a graduate assistant at Providence the year Rick Pitino took the Friars to the Final Four. The connection was Gardler, who became close to Pitino when they both worked the legendary Five-Star camp every summer in the Poconos.
Gardler's son Chris played at St. Joe's and his daughter Meghan played for Auriemma at UConn. Anybody who thought Auriemma gave a scholarship to the daughter to repay the father quickly was set straight, Auriemma said. Gardler ended up being first off the UConn bench on a national-title team.
"Meg had a lot of her dad in her,'' Auriemma said. "She walked around like she owned the place. She wasn't afraid of anybody."
If somebody walked out of a scrum holding her nose or her eye, practice or a game, "you know it was Meghan that did it,'' Auriemma said. "There was no doubt."
Auriemma talked of the attitude Kenrick players had, just like the Roman Catholic guys talk of playing for Speedy Morris and other Catholic Leaguers talk of their own schools: "I swear to God, every time we played, I know this is a Philadelphia thing — we're just smarter than you. We thought we invented the game of basketball."
Auriemma stayed in touch with his old coach, sporadically at times, as those things go. He came to realize, if he didn't initiate it, Gardler wasn't going to call and bother him.
When Auriemma returned with UConn to Philadelphia for a game, probably at Villanova, he heard a fan yell something like, "Look at you, you're just like Gardler."
It made Auriemma cringe in the way you realize you're suddenly sounding just like your father.
"It was awful,'' Auriemma said.
Except he then came to realize it wasn't. Everybody needs coaching models.
"What you teach,'' Auriemma said. "What you demand."
And if anybody still wants to say he's just like Buddy Gardler, that's more than fine, 11 NCAA titles later. If Gardler had cut Auriemma, the UConn dynasty probably never happens.
"He had this ability, this unique ability, to kind of get inside of you,'' Auriemma said. "He got right to the heart of things."
And if that bothered you, that maybe this coach could see right through you, that was your problem.