RIO DE JANEIRO – You love them now, right America?
Mike Krzyzewski and Geno Auriemma may have their haters in college basketball, but this is the Olympics. This is when patriotic pride trumps school spirit, when there is no Tar Heel blue, only red, white and blue.
So all those fans chanting "USA! USA!" should be shouting "Go Coach K!"
"Well, I hope they're saying that. I'm not sure all of them are completely saying that," Krzyzewski said with a laugh. "But I would hope that most people are."
College basketball, built on regional rivalries and March Madness, makes it impossible for anyone to be universally beloved, especially when they've won as much as Krzyzewski has with the Duke men or Auriemma with the Connecticut women.
So Auriemma also laughs when pondering fans on both sides of Tobacco Road in North Carolina, or way up on Rocky Top in Tennessee, suddenly being on board with the U.S. coaches.
"Well, some people are pro-USA but not necessarily pro-Coach K and Geno," Auriemma said. "So I'm sure there's a faction out there of anti-Duke, anti-UConn people who, 'We love the USA so much that we want them to win in spite of those two guys.'"
There's little need to consider that in most of the Olympics, individual sports with emotional tales of underdogs overcoming the odds to win gold for their country. That's what makes women's gymnastics so popular.
But these guys aren't underdogs, they're definitely not America's Sweethearts, and they don't come around every four years. For some fans, they're the Evil Empire, in their faces every November to March.
"You have to put that aside right now," U.S. forward and former Tar Heels star Harrison Barnes said, "although UNC did have a better season this year."
Krzyzewski has won five NCAA championships and more than 1,000 games, most in Division I history. The Blue Devils are college basketball's version of the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys, the team that fans either love or love to hate — and the haters believe the TV announcers and referees love them too much.
Auriemma has won a record 11 national championships, a man in a women's world who doesn't apologize for the way he wins or talks. His comments sometimes overshadow his games, even back when the Huskies played Pat Summitt's Tennessee teams.
Now wearing their country's colors and undefeated heading into the quarterfinals — Auriemma's team is dominating at a record-setting pace; Krzyzewski's squad has been challenged — the guy from Chicago (Krzyzewski) and Philadelphia (Auriemma) should now be popular around the nation.
"I don't think they really think about those things," U.S. men's assistant Jim Boeheim said. "I know Geno doesn't. He thrives on the fact that they root against him."
Boeheim, friends with both, said the difference is that Krzyzewski is more careful than Auriemma in choosing his words, not wanting to offend anyone.
"Mike cares," Boeheim said. "Geno doesn't care."
"First of all, I'm surprised that Boeheim is even aware of anything anybody says, because he lives in his own world up there in Syracuse," Auriemma quipped. "So that's the biggest shocker so far of the Olympics, the fact that he actually pays attention to anything.
"Mike's been at it a lot longer at a higher level than I have. And he's a West Point guy, and very smart, really bright, and knows how to think before he speaks. So why is that surprising, that I stick my foot in my mouth sometimes?"
He said he's tried to choose his words more carefully since beginning what he calls the "unbelievable experience" of becoming U.S. women's coach in 2009, realizing that on some issues he's speaking not just for UConn, but for the country. Auriemma said the writers who cover the Huskies like him less now because he won't say some of the things he used to.
Krzyzewski is nearing the end of his 10-year run as U.S. coach, but the former Army captain has been involved with U.S. teams since 1979. He said people who don't necessarily root for him have shown they appreciate him.
"They say, 'Coach, thanks for coaching USA, thanks for taking the time to coach USA,'" he said. "And I tell them, 'Look, it's an honor. Thanks for watching and cheering for us.'"
And cheering for him.
"Whether you like Duke or not, you can't underestimate what Coach K's done. Whether you like UConn or not, you have to respect what Coach Auriemma's done," women's and former UConn star Diana Taurasi said. "And I think the more that they're seen in this setting, you know what, it's not (they win) because they're at Duke, it's not because they're at UConn. It's because they're great coaches."