- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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He took a random video produced in Texas and turned it into one of the most successful children's franchises in history -- can you say Barney, the purple dinosaur? -- but in some ways Larry Rifkin's biggest discovery was the University of Connecticut women's basketball team.
"It's a tough call, really," said Rifkin, the senior programming executive at Connecticut Public Television. "Barney, of course, is a huge international thing. UConn's impact here on CPTV is actually far greater.
"Connecticut basketball defines us. I daresay there isn't another public station in America and very few commercial ones that have a franchise so essential to their being in the community."
Back in 1995, several months before UConn won its first NCAA basketball championship, Rifkin and CPTV outbid all the other Connecticut stations for the right to broadcast women's games. The price: a then-staggering $2.28 million for three years. In retrospect, it was a shrewd investment.
Rifkin calls the UConn women's basketball a serial drama, a series of changing characters, but not changing success.
"From Rebecca (Lobo) to Nykesha (Sales) to Svet (Svetlana Abrosimova) to Shea (Ralph), we fall in love with them and then they leave," Rifkin said. "All these wonderful characters with more always right behind them. Last year they were actually underdogs, and with Diana (Taurasi) they found a way to win. Now, they're favorites again."
You can say that again.
Indeed, both of UConn's basketball teams will be favorites this season. When the national preseason polls come out at the end of October (men's) and early November (women's), Connecticut is expected to be ranked No. 1 in both. This happened only one other time in 1999, when the Huskies of both genders were again dual preseason favorites.
Brace yourself for a dose of overexposure. Spies in Storrs, Conn., report that you'll soon be seeing the likes of Emeka Okafor and Diana Taurasi on the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine.
Jim Calhoun returns a 23-10 squad that finished No. 11 in the final ESPN/USA Today coaches poll and features national player of the year candidates Okafor and Ben Gordon. Calhoun is aiming for his second national title in six seasons. Geno Auriemma's reigning national champions, led by Taurasi, already the national player of the year as a junior, attempt to win their third consecutive title.
As if folks in the Nutmeg State need any incentive to back their basketball teams. Maybe it's the size -- you can bisect the state from New Haven to Hartford to Enfield in a little more than an hour. Maybe it's the odd-man-out location between Boston and New York. Or maybe it's the fact that there are no major professional teams playing within its borders.
Whatever the reason, a virulent form of Husky Hysteria -- some prefer to call it UConn Madness -- prevails.
It is possible that the state college basketball teams mean more to the people in The Land of Steady Habits than any other athletic team does to its region, which is saying something. Basketball in Indiana? Football in Green Bay, Wis., or Tuscaloosa, Ala.? Women's hoops in Knoxville, Tenn.? They've got nothing on Connecticut basketball.
"I think the only thing comparable might be Penn State football," Calhoun said. "The people here love their basketball. I coach in the best place in America.
"Our goals were to make it a program to be reckoned with in the Big East, and we made it a program to be reckoned with in the nation. I used to tell people that I coached at UConn and they'd say 'Isn't it cold up there?' UConn is no longer up north in Alaska, as in Yukon."
Nobody does it better, on both sides of the (basket)ball, as it were, than Connecticut.
In the past 20 years of college basketball only two programs have managed to win a national title on both the men's and women's sides. North Carolina won the men's title in 1993 and the women reigned in 1994. Those are the only two championships for the Tar Heels. The Connecticut women broke through in 1995 and the Husky men matched that championship in 1999. Moving past Tennessee as the nation's preeminent program, the UConn women have won three of the past four titles.
Quick, name the elite men's programs over the last decade. Based on victories, the top three are Kentucky (287-66, .813), Kansas (286-64, .817) and Duke (273-72, .791). Makes sense, right? Believe it or not, UConn (266-73, .785) is fourth.
On the women's side, it's not even close. The Huskies (339-21, .942) are far and away the best team. Tennessee (322-39, .892) is second. Between them, they have won seven of the past nine national titles.
Checking in from his car phone earlier this week, Auriemma said he couldn't imagine the phenomenon to come when he first arrived.
"Women's basketball didn't exist in the minds of an awful lot of people," he said. "Men's basketball, they always said there was a passion for it here. To be honest, when I got here you could always get seats to the games at the old field house.
"Then, when the winning started in the late '80s and early '90s, both the men's and women's teams saw a tremendous amount of people come out of the woodwork. It just brought everything to the surface."
A fertile period
The Madness, compared to, say, the sweeping grandeur of Yale football (established in 1872), is indeed a relatively new phenomenon. It can be traced to a nine-month gestation period from 1985-86, when two towering personalities arrived in Storrs.
Auriemma was an assistant coach at the University of Virginia when Connecticut went 9-18 under Jean Balthaser for the 1984-85 season. Calhoun was taking Northeastern University to its fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament in 1985-86 as the Husky men stumbled to a 12-16 record (3-13 in the Big East) under Dom Perno.
Pat Meiser-McKnett, UConn's senior women's administrator, lobbied hard for Auriemma in August 1985 and then-athletic director John Toner concurred. Toner chose Calhoun over two other finalists (Mitch Buonaguro and Nick Macarchuk), but he initially turned Toner down. A visit to Boston brought Calhoun around and he came on board in May 1986.
It was Toner who laid the foundation by bringing UConn into a fledgling enterprise known as the Big East in 1979. Previously, Connecticut's peers were regional neighbors, the state universities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Now, Georgetown, Providence, Villanova and Syracuse were the regular opposition.
Harry J. Hartley, who would serve as the school's president from 1990-96, oversaw athletics at the time.
"The men were always popular, but only on a regional basis," Hartley said. "We had a seating capacity of 4,600 in the field house and they had a good following. The women? If they were lucky, they'd get 100 spectators for a game."
It was Hartley who was chiefly responsible for securing the final component for critical mass: a new basketball venue. It took a dozen years for his first request, back in 1975, to get approved. Three years after that, in 1990, the 8,200-seat Gampel Pavilion opened on campus.
"That was the beginning of the birth of interest in basketball," Hartley said. "Everything sort of took off from there."
Contrary to revisionist history, success was not achieved overnight, nor even in a year or two. Calhoun's biggest struggle was not recruiting and landing minority student-athletes, but giving them the academic support they required and deserved. National title notwithstanding, changing the parochial culture in academia might have been his greatest victory.
Calhoun's first season, 1986-87, was a brutal 9-19. Like Perno, he went 3-13 in the Big East. It wasn't until his fourth season that Calhoun's team produced a winning record in conference play. Similarly, Auriemma was 12-15 in 1985-86 and followed that up with a 14-13 mark. In his fourth season, Connecticut was the Big East regular-season and tournament champion and a first-time entrant in the NCAA Tournament.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Hartley will tell you that it all crested on Feb. 13, 1995. There was no game that night, but it was a watershed event in Connecticut just the same. The men's and women's basketball teams were simultaneously ranked No. 1.
It was not a coincidence that four months later, the legislature approved an unprecedented $1 billion package to upgrade the university's infrastructure.
"The legislators were falling all over themselves to be associated with the two basketball teams," Hartley said. "It was the highest amount of state support that any public institution in the country had ever received. It was all due to those teams that played on the basketball court. The Branch Rickey quote was true for us: 'Luck is the residue of design.'
"We put the plan in place and we made it happen. That support was crucial for the future of the university. The (championship) trophy was just a bonus."
Embracing the message
The Connecticut women's program has been first, second or third in national attendance for the past eight seasons, trading places with Tennessee. Gampel Pavilion has been sold out for every women's game since December 1997. Last year, a sell-out of 10,167 filled the place for six regular-season games. There were seven dates at the Hartford Civic Center with identical houses of 16,294. When the Huskies visits a campus arena, invariably a new attendance record is set. Last Feb. 1, UConn-Duke was the first women's game to fill Cameron Indoor Arena (9,314).
While the men come close to filling Gampel and the Hartford Civic Center on a regular basis, their numbers are not typically among the nation's attendance leaders.
There are 93,000 UConn alumni to draw from, a significant number in a state with a population around three million. The CPTV women's ratings are the best in the country for a public television station. Typically, they draw a 33 audience share and a 15 rating -- numbers that approach popular shows shown on commercial stations.
"It is the hearth that Connecticut gathers around in the winter," CPTV's Rifkin said. "It is our basis of community, the thing a lot of people live for here."
As much as anyone, Central Connecticut's men's basketball coach Howie Dickenman is gripped by Husky Hysteria. He was a 10-year assistant under Calhoun and is also the godfather to Auriemma's son, Michael.
"It affects everyone," Dickenman laughs, in his trademark gravely baritone. "Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. Even unborn children are UConn fans. The pregnant ladies feel them kicking because they're so happy. It's gigantic."
Dickenman took Central Connecticut to two NCAA Tournament appearances, but, at best, he'll always be the third storyline during March Madness.
"Listen," he said, "UConn could go 0-28 and they'd still be the kings. We'll just take our little percentage of the pie."
One of Dickenman's theories is that the media in Connecticut is the messenger. He points to The Hoard, the traveling amalgamation of reporters and photographers who represent some 20 daily newspapers, not to mention the New York Times (a regular chronicler of the women) and the substantial television presence.
WTIC 1080 AM, a 50,000-watt Clear Channel radio station that can be heard in more than 20 states and Canada, regularly broadcasts the men's and women's games.
"The Hartford sports market is unique," said Hartford Courant sports editor Jeff Otterbein. "We must pay attention to everything that happens in this state but we are also just two hours away from two of the best pro sports markets in the country in New York and Boston. Is there a greater passion in a rivalry than Yankees-Red Sox? We just added another chapter Saturday night at Fenway. We need to cover them with equal passion.
"But having said all that, those are not 'our' teams. UConn men and women are truly our teams. And who would have thought just 15 years ago that when you ask someone to name the top universities in men's and women's basketball combined, the lists now needs to start in tiny Storrs, Conn."
But that is only part of the equation. Why, of all places, is Connecticut so receptive to the message?
"We're a suburb of Boston and New York, and those are hotbeds for sport," Hartley said. "Red Sox and Yankees, Patriots and Giants, Celtics and Knicks, Bruins and Rangers. We get it at both ends of the state and this is something we can call our own. Plus, there's not much going on in the winter.
"Interest and success. The two feed each other until it becomes a monster."
The rabid followers of the women's program raise the fervor to an unprecedented level. It is a curious intersection of nontraditional basketball fans.
On Jan. 3, 1998, the No. 10-ranked UConn men's team defeated Notre Dame at the Hartford Civic Center before 15,101. Hours later, the now-defunct New England Blizzard, a middling 13-14 American Basketball League team featuring several former UConn stars, beat the Colorado Xplosion in the same building. The attendance was 15,213.
On Dec. 30, 2000, a very real blizzard blinded Connecticut, knocking out electricity and effectively shutting down the state, but 14,000 fans overcame the elements and came to the Civic Center. They were treated to an 81-76 victory against Tennessee.
A typical women's basketball audience, as broken down in a Harvard Business School study, consists of three sectors: families with female children, professional women who are single and senior citizens. In other words, nontraditional fans of meat-and-potatoes sports like basketball and football.
"It's a different market, a broader mix," Rifkin explained. "John Wooden has talked about how they play a pure, fundamental game you saw in the 1950s. It's appealing and the players are, too. They're accessible and approachable at the same time. All of this comes at the coldest, most bleak period of the year. Throw in Geno's personality, and it all comes together."
Said Calhoun: "The state has truly adopted our state university as its own special jewel. ... I'm proud that we were able to accomplish all this. The idea that we could be big-time, it was a hard-fought change in attitude. I never felt we couldn't be successful and now it's happening across the entire university. We're the No. 19-rated public institution and our average board (scores) are around 1,200.
"Connecticut used to be a secondary choice, it was more of an area dominated by private schools, but not any more. Our biggest increase in enrollment is from Fairfield County. Kids see it as a cool school now and, on some level, basketball helped to change things."
Added Auriemma: "I won't say it's not possible anywhere else -- that's not true. It's not one of these things you can replicate just anywhere. You know, 'OK, let's win all these championships and they'll come.' It doesn't work that way. You need a tremendous void that must be filled.
"It can't happen in a big city, whether it's New York or Los Angeles or Philadelphia. Big events there are always pro sports. College sports seem to get pushed to the background. That's why I laugh when I read about Boston College going to the ACC. They want the Boston market -- is that the fast-food place or the television market? In Boston, the market is the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics. Trying to create a college basketball environment in a place like that is not impossible but very tough."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
It's a phenomenon like no other when the following of UConn men's and women's basketball get together.