Commentary

UConn-Tennessee rivalry missed

Summitt book reflects on what made her cancel series

Originally Published: February 26, 2013
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

Gino Auriemma/Pat SummittAP Photo/Eric GayPat Summitt and Geno Auriemma embraced at last year's Final Four in Denver, perhaps signaling a thaw in their relationship.

Pat Summitt's third book with co-author Sally Jenkins is a needed chronicle of the Tennessee coaching legend's thoughts on her life and career as she copes with Alzheimer's.

Fans not just of women's basketball but coaching greatness will put "Sum It Up" on their shelves alongside "Reach for the Summitt" and "Raise the Roof," the two books Summitt and Jenkins did in the late 1990s.

Tennessee and Summitt were at their absolute peak then, winning three NCAA titles in a row from 1996 to '98. And the Lady Vols' epic rivalry with Connecticut, which began in 1995, was just reaching full flower, where it would stay for another decade while the two programs took turns raising the bar for women's hoops.

The end of the series, which was canceled by Summitt during the 2007 offseason, has been rehashed ever since. In a section of the book excerpted in Sports Illustrated, Summitt discusses her perspective on what happened between her and UConn coach Geno Auriemma that caused a cautiously friendly rivalry to deteriorate to the point where they couldn't mend their differences.

There is not anything truly new here; everyone involved with the sport watched the professional cordiality decline as the programs engaged in their Battle of the Titans. It became clear that recruiting put the biggest wedge between them, which was likely inevitable. For several years, UConn and Tennessee competed for that small handful of the very tip-top elite recruits.

[+] EnlargeSummitt & Auriemma
AP Photo/Wade PayneTennessee's Pat Summitt and UConn's Geno Auriemma raised the profile of women's basketball when their two programs faced off.

The two schools didn't divvy up absolutely all the great players during the stretch from 1995 to 2010, when UConn and Tennessee combined to win 12 of the 16 NCAA titles. But they each got their fair share. And one in particular -- Maya Moore -- was the backbreaker in what had become an increasingly contentious duel for talent.

Tennessee will always be convinced the Huskies went over the line to lure Moore to Storrs, Conn. Auriemma and his staff absolutely refute that. And never the twain shall meet on that issue. But ...

The most interesting part of Summitt's published take on the rivalry gone sour is she acknowledges that she and Auriemma probably could have been able to defuse things -- if they'd known each other a little better as actual friendly colleagues.

She writes about how often they agreed on the broader issues concerning women's basketball. To those of us who've watched these two coaching giants, they always did seem to -- fundamentally -- have far more in common than differences.

They were both old-school and had deep respect for parents/elders, a tireless work ethic and a belief that female athletes didn't require any coddling. The players just needed the chance to blossom and grow, with the help of stern, demanding, but ultimately caring taskmasters.

Their Tennessee-UConn games were "events" in a sport that needed that very thing. They offered not just a high quality of play that lifted the game, but also such a sharp and compelling narrative that even those far outside of women's hoops could easily follow it.

It was North versus South. "Old money" (Tennessee's rise to prominence began in the 1970s) versus the "nouveau riche" (UConn's first women's Final Four was in '91). The coaching contrast was near perfect "casting" for maximum comedy and drama: wisecracking, innovative Philly guy versus salt-of-the-earth Tennessee farm girl.

Auriemma and Summitt together helped raise the profile of the sport in a way that neither of them could have done without the other. But, yes, the competitive rivalry consumed them both.

Their Tennessee-UConn games were "events" in a sport that needed that very thing. They offered not just a high quality of play that lifted the game, but also such a sharp and compelling narrative that even those far outside of women's hoops could easily follow it.

Summitt was always humorous in a more laidback way, even her sarcasm tinged with just that little glaze of Southern manners. Thus, she was genuinely stung by some of the zingers Auriemma tossed in her direction, often while he was entertaining reporters.

Meanwhile, Auriemma seemed envious of how universally popular Summitt was, even among his own Huskies fan base. He felt he wasn't as appreciated, venerated, respected or beloved as Summitt, and part of that stemmed from resentment by those who wanted a female coach as the face of the sport, not him.

Auriemma wasn't totally off base, but he also didn't acknowledge when his public wisecracking went too far and seemed more hard-edged than playful. And Summitt may not have acknowledged that she was bothered by the fact that he didn't defer to her the way most women's college coaches did. He felt he was on equal footing, and he wasn't going to back down.

In the end, barriers between Auriemma and Summitt went up, and the programs' scintillating on-court rivalry was the casualty.

Deep down, though, you sensed they always knew they had pushed each other to greater heights. You wondered what it might take to bring just enough of a thaw for them to really talk again.

However ... the sport went on without the UConn-Tennessee game, with the women's hoops calendar finding other big clashes to take its place. UConn-Stanford, UConn-Notre Dame and UConn-Baylor, for example, have all gotten larger spotlights. And that has helped the growth of game, too.

Do we miss UConn-Tennessee? We miss what it was at its best: two coaching legends matching wits, some of the best players in NCAA women's history facing off, and backed up by legitimately large fan bases who bring the best (and worst) of college sports fanaticism.

It won't ever be the same without Summitt on the sidelines. As the embrace between Summitt and Auriemma at last year's Final Four in Denver showed, both coaches are quite aware that the challenges of life itself have trumped much of their previous animosity.

Will UConn and Tennessee ever resume their regular-season rivalry? UConn would have to get past the fact that Tennessee is never going to retreat from its recruiting accusations, and that might be tough.

Both sides would have to put aside the more vociferous verbal saber rattling and instead focus on how much they aided each other with their battles. Current Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is 100 percent loyal to Summitt. But, what Summitt says in her book seems to indicate she wouldn't be ardently opposed to Warlick at least opening the door again.

Does women's basketball need UConn and Tennessee to play again? No, it actually doesn't. Would it be fun to see it again? Absolutely.

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

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.