Geno and Pat: Headed for a championship showdown?


HARTFORD, Conn. -- University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma walked off the dais at the Big East tournament news conference and through the back curtains, where local reporters were waiting to ask more about his team's first-round victory against DePaul.

I walked with him and asked if he would consider doing an on-camera interview later in the week for a story about his relationship with Tennessee's Pat Summitt.

He stopped abruptly, shook his head and said, "Anything to do with her, I want nothing to do with it."

And with that, he walked away to the waiting throng.

Ah, the saga of Geno and Pat. Pat and Geno. They go together like … well, actually, they don't go together. At all. And now, because of (insert your choice of reasons here), UConn and Tennessee, which for 13 years played the most highly anticipated and watched regular-season game in women's college basketball, won't play each other at all unless they meet in the NCAA tournament.

This year, conveniently, that game would be for the national championship.

Such is the hate-hate relationship that has festered between these two coaches for years. Auriemma signed a contract last June to renew the series with Tennessee, but when the papers landed in Knoxville, Summitt refused to finalize the deal. Neither will say what the reasons were.

"Geno knows why," Summitt told Jim Rome on "Jim Rome is Burning" last week. "But I am not going to be the one to talk about it. And if he wants to talk about it, then he can do so."

Auriemma repeatedly has declined that opportunity, saying: "I'm not the one who canceled it."

Some believe Summitt was fed up with Auriemma's digs. He once referred to her and her team as the "evil empire." At the 2004 NCAA tournament, a reporter asked each of them what they'd do if one saw the other stranded on the side of the road.

"Well," said Summitt, "I'd stop and ask if I can help him."

Said Auriemma: "I'd walk."

And some believe at least part of the reason Summitt wouldn't renew the series is UConn's recruitment of star freshman Maya Moore. In October 2005, a Huskies' staff member called ESPN to set up a tour of the facilities for Moore and her mother, Kathryn, when Moore was a junior in high school.

Tennessee got wind of it and reported UConn to the Southeastern Conference, which then reported it to the NCAA. The tour constituted an impermissible benefit. The incident was considered a secondary violation.

UConn says it cooperated with the NCAA, and no action was taken. Still, the damage was done.

So how did it get to this point? How did the two highest-profile women's basketball coaches in the country become so adversarial that the Tennessee-UConn game -- the game just about everyone in the country wants to see on an annual basis -- is no longer being played?

The roots of this grudge match go back to 1995, when Summit took her storied Lady Vols squad into Storrs, Conn., to play an upstart Connecticut team led by Rebecca Lobo. When Summitt agreed to the series back then, she probably had no idea that the No. 1 ranking would be on the line in that game. The seeds of what was to come were planted.

"I remember coming off of warm-ups and Tennessee was on our half of the court and we asked them to move and they wouldn't move,"
Lobo said. "And it just fired some of our players up."

UConn won that game, then beat the Lady Vols two months later to win the 1995 NCAA Championship. Over the next 13 years, Connecticut beat Tennessee 13 of the 21 times they played -- including in the championship game in 2003 and 2004. As they cut into Tennessee's vaunted reign, Auriemma and the Huskies also cut into Tennessee's recruiting base; and that's when things turned really nasty, those close to both programs say.

"In the early days of this rivalry, they didn't recruit the same player," said Boston Globe columnist Jackie MacMullan, who co-authored Auriemma's 2006 book, "Geno." "And it's bloodthirsty, and it's serious and it's ugly [now]."

Now, Tennessee and Connecticut are among the favorites to advance to this year's championship, and neither Auriemma nor Summitt shows any signs of letting up.

Let the fireworks continue.

Shelley Smith is a Los Angeles-based reporter for ESPN television.