NEW ORLEANS -- The feud won't stop here.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and Tennessee's Pat Summitt will
be back at each other's throats fighting for the women's
championship again for the same reasons they were there Tuesday
They're relentless rivals and the best in the game.
This time and for the sixth straight meeting, Auriemma came away
smiling, winning his fifth national title -- one shy of Summitt's
record -- and third in a row with the Huskies' 70-61 victory over
the Lady Vols.
They shook hands, spoke briefly and shared a chuckle at their
introductions before the game, as if they enjoyed all the fuss over
their backbiting. Then they put on their game faces and went to
work, matching offenses, defenses and wits.
When it ended, Auriemma and Summitt spoke again, Auriemma gently
wrapping his left arm around her shoulder. For a brief moment, at
least, their mutual respect replaced any hard feelings.
"It was a cordial conversation," Summitt said, refusing, as he
had, to reveal details.
They could have passed for brother and sister, maybe kissing
cousins, if they weren't so busy trying to bash each other.
They prowled the sideline with the same ferocity and fiery eyes
-- his dark, hers bright blue. They barked at their players and the
refs, pointed fingers and shook fists, burned calories by the
minute and strained the neat creases of their perfectly tailored
Wisecracks, jabs and personal histories aside, they have more in
common than either would ever be willing to admit.
They both hate losing, no matter who's on the other side. They
know how to recruit, how to replace stars, keep continuity in their
programs, and get the most out of their players. They're shouters
who are tough disciplinarians.
"I think Geno has established himself as one of the very best
teachers and coaches in the women's game," Summitt said after this
stinging loss. "His teams reflect his personality. They have a
toughness about them, an aggressiveness, and obviously a
"I have a lot of respect for Geno and I have a lot of respect
for this Connecticut program."
Auriemma didn't gloat in victory or claim his program is the
best in the country. He knows that Tennessee may well be back on
top next year after recruiting five All-Americans.
"I'm comfortable with where we are and I'm comfortable with
Tennessee being right there where they are," he said. "And I'd be
comfortable the next couple of years if they start winning
championships and we finish second, because I understand that's the
nature of this game. This is our run, this is our time, right now.
'96, '97, '98, when they won three in a row ... it was their time.
It changed for them and it's going to change for us."
Auriemma, who learned his hoops and street smarts in
Philadelphia, alternately flashes a prickly wit and fun-loving
demeanor. Summitt, from Henrietta, Tenn., balances rigor with a
private warmth that fosters loyalty.
A year older at 51, Summitt has 852 victories in her 30-year
career at Tennessee -- tops among women coaches and trailing only
Dean Smith (879) and Adolph Rupp (876) among all college coaches.
Her six NCAA titles are second only to John Wooden's 10 at UCLA.
Auriemma has 532 victories in 20 years. Their winning
percentages are identical: .836.
No doubt Auriemma will join Summitt someday in the Basketball
Hall of Fame, and perhaps their frosty relationship will have
melted a little by then.
"It's silly," UConn star Diana Taurasi said of the feud going
into the game. "At some point they are going to get past this.
They are the key to women's basketball and it would be nice to see
them get along.
"He is either an arrogant guy who likes to run his mouth or a
guy who just likes to poke fun," Taurasi added, "and Coach
Summitt, she's old school."
Mickie DeMoss, Kentucky's coach and former longtime assistant to
Summitt, saw it differently.
"Pat's a Southern country girl who doesn't know how to respond
to Geno," DeMoss said. "I've told her, 'Don't take it personally,
take it lighthearted.' "
That's not likely.
Auriemma once called Tennessee the "evil empire," but his
empire has dominated in recent years, beating the Lady Vols in
their last four national title games and eight of the last nine
times they played.
Maybe his attitude has something to do with the way he felt like
an outsider on the women's basketball scene from the beginning and
when his teams started winning championships in 1995.
"I remember a comment was made that, you know, there's been a
lot of newcomers, there's been a lot of people that have pretended
to be good," he said.
Old Dominion, Southern California, Texas, Virginia, Stanford _
they were all good teams at times.
UConn was just starting to make a national splash, in New
Orleans in 1991, reaching its first Final Four. That was the year
Tennessee won its second NCAA title. Auriemma got noticed, but came
across as cocky.
"When we started winning championships in 1995, when we got to
be really, really good, we were like the new kids on the block,
and, hey, isn't it great, here comes someone else," he said. "I
remember a comment was made that, you know, there's been a lot of
newcomers, there's been a lot of people that have pretended to be
Old Dominion, Southern California, Texas, Virginia, Stanford --
they were all good teams at times, he said.
"But only Tennessee stood on the mountaintop forever," he
said. "And there was a sense that after a year or two we would
just go away and go back to tiny Storrs and say, 'Boy, wasn't it
great to visit New York City once.' But a funny thing happened. We
kept coming back."
That's when things "got a little bit dicey," he said, in the
rivalry between UConn and Tennessee, and between him and Summitt,
"because we wouldn't go away."
It was fitting, then, he said, that in order for UConn to win
its third straight national title, it had to get past the last team
to do it -- Tennessee.
"Nobody," Auriemma said, "can say we backed into it."