Commentary

PSU volleyball a better comparison

Here's a coach -- PSU's Russ Rose -- who knows what Geno Auriemma is going through

Originally Published: December 19, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

A fellow with a sarcastic wit, a strategic mind, and a knack for making good players into great ones and making great players into legends had a victory cigar this weekend.

OK, cigars are gross (don't try this at home, kids), but we all have our vices. And when you've been this successful at your profession, you can indulge every once in a while.

Think we're talking about Geno Auriemma? Well, we could be. But in this case, we're referencing Russ Rose, whose Penn State's women's volleyball program won its fourth consecutive NCAA title Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeJantel Lavender
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesJantel Lavender came into Sunday's game leading the nation with 26.6 points per game, but was held to 14 points on 7-for-21 shooting.

But the lion's share of attention in women's sports recently hasn't gone to the Lions. It has gone to Auriemma's UConn women's basketball team, which crushed Ohio State 81-50 Sunday at Madison Square Garden to extend its victory streak to 88 in a row.

If you've just arrived from another planet in recent hours, you might not have previously heard, but the Huskies matched UCLA men's basketball's 88-game winning streak, which ended in 1974.

There has been considerable debate about this. The streaks were set in different sports, men's and women's basketball, and in different eras in terms of collegiate sports development and media attention.

To those who say this comparison is simply a product of media-driven hype, isn't that typically the case in all sports? Another reason the UCLA comparison is being hit on so hard by various media outlets is that probably no one can realistically imagine any men's program being in position again to even threaten what the Bruins did in the 1970s. Enough star players don't stay in school two years -- let alone four -- in men's hoops to build such dynastic teams.

And, of course, there is more talent now spread out through the men's college game, which is many decades older and further developed than the women's counterpart. The NCAA tournament for the men was a little more than 30 years old when UCLA's streak began in 1971; 2011 will mark the 30th NCAA tournament for women.

For all the griping that has gone on by those who dislike the comparison, consider that it's given a lot of publicity to a bygone era in men's hoops and the great program that ruled then. There are young folks today who actually might have been introduced to UCLA's "Legend of 88" because of UConn's women.

To those who say this comparison is simply a product of media-driven hype, isn't that typically the case in all sports? … For all the griping that has gone on by those who dislike the comparison, consider that it's given a lot of publicity to a bygone era in men's hoops and the great program that ruled then. There are young folks today who actually might have been introduced to UCLA's "Legend of 88" because of UConn's women.

However, if you want to start another argument -- never enough of those, right? -- how about a different comparison: UConn women's basketball to Penn State women's volleyball.

UConn and Tennessee each have won three NCAA women's hoops titles in a row, but neither team has four consecutive national championships like Penn State volleyball. And UConn women's hoops at 88 straight is still a ways from matching the Nittany Lions' streak of 109 victories in a row, which was ended this past September by Stanford. (Might Stanford also end UConn's hoops streak? They meet Dec. 30 at Stanford.)

"I have the ball in my office from when we 'broke' the UCLA basketball record," Rose said. "Well, it wasn't men's basketball, but people compare what we did to that. I don't look at what we did as it's just about me or about Penn State. We represent all of our conference and our sport. And people will make whatever comparisons they want."

In fact, UConn women's hoops versus Penn State women's volleyball is more apples to apples than not. Even more so than, say, a comparison to North Carolina's women's soccer, which won 92 matches in a row from 1990 to '94.

For one thing, the Penn State and UConn streaks are contemporary, meaning the athletes in both programs are living in the same media and technology world, with identical training, nutrition and scouting methods available. All things that were very different in the 1970s, and even different in the early 1990s.

In that same vein, women's collegiate athletics programs are pretty much all the same age. The overwhelming majority of schools started their varsity women's programs within a couple of years after Title IX was signed into law in 1972.

[+] EnlargePenn State volleyball
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelPenn State, which had its 109-match winning streak snapped in September, won its fourth straight volleyball championship Saturday.

There were so-called club women's teams at schools before then. But school sponsorship, scholarships, expanded travel and record-keeping were things that came about at most places in the 1970s.

UConn traces its varsity women's basketball history to 1974; Penn State began varsity volleyball in 1976. Rose took over the Nittany Lions in 1979; Auriemma started at UConn in 1985.

Neither program actually was at championship caliber for the early part of the NCAA era for women, which began in the 1981-82 school year. Southern California, Tennessee, Louisiana Tech and Stanford were the most successful women's hoops programs for the first decade or so of the NCAA tournament. In volleyball, schools from Hawaii and California dominated that time.

UConn got its Final Four breakthrough in 1991, Penn State in 1993. The Huskies won their first NCAA title in 1995, the Nittany Lions in 1999.

During their streaks, both teams have had big-time superstars who've also been consummate team players: Maya Moore and Tina Charles for UConn and Megan Hodge and Nicole Fawcett for Penn State. Plus supporting casts that had a lot of talent, but also a keen understanding of what their roles were.

As for conference play, UConn is 254-12 in the Big East going back to its NCAA title season in 1995. Going back to its 1999 championship year, Penn State is 213-27 in the Big Ten.

Similarly, Penn State volleyball faced more challenges from NCAA tournament foes during its streak than UConn basketball has. The Nittany Lions won three national titles during their streak, but faced a five-set match in each of those Final Fours. The Lions went the distance to beat Stanford in the 2007 final in Sacramento, Calif.; to beat Nebraska in the 2008 semifinals in Omaha, Neb.; and to beat Texas in the 2009 final in Tampa, Fla.

The Huskies have had only two games during their streak that have been decided by less than double digits: last year's national championship game against Stanford (by six points) and earlier this season against Baylor (by one point).

I'll go ahead and start another mini-debate: I think there was more parity among the very top volleyball teams during Penn State's streak than there has been in hoops during UConn's streak. That's usually cyclical to degrees in all sports. Neither streak means there aren't other good teams in women's hoops or volleyball. There definitely are, and yet these two programs still have gone on remarkable runs.

That's the bottom line: Both have achieved something that will stand the test of time. Of course, so did UCLA men's basketball, so did UNC women's soccer, so does any team that gives us a chance to salute sustained excellence. Compare streaks just for fun; all are to be appreciated on their own merits.

"We never talked about the streak; we talked about getting better every day," Rose said, sounding a lot like Auriemma. "I'm sure Geno is probably looking at this season like, 'I want to enjoy coaching Maya Moore one last year,' more than anything. I saw a special on Geno on television, and he said a lot of things I could relate to."

Indeed, not too many coaches really do know what it's been like for Auriemma. Rose certainly does.

Penn State's streak ended this season, but the Lions still won another championship. UConn's streak is ongoing. If it ends this season, the Huskies hope their season concludes in April like Penn State's just did.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.