“Our sport is synonymous with Pat Summitt, and Pat Summitt is synonymous with women’s basketball,” Auriemma said Monday during his charity golf benefit for the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. “We don’t have a long history, women’s basketball. The history before Tennessee and before Pat Summitt is checkered. There wasn’t a lot of media attention. There wasn’t a lot of interest in the game. There wasn’t a lot of support from universities.
“During our short history, there was one person for a long time. Nobody else was even in that category. There was Pat Summitt. Nobody else. Other people took their turn at getting their 15 minutes of fame, but when people talked about women’s basketball in America, it was Pat Summitt and Tennessee. When was the last time a women’s team coach got on the cover of Time magazine? It just doesn’t happen.”
But it did with Summitt.
“And that’s saying a lot,” Auriemma said.
Pat Summitt was born on June 15, 1952. Geno Auriemma was born on March 23, 1954. Only 21 months separate the two. Yet on this June afternoon, with Auriemma looking tanned, fit, healthy after a trip to Europe, never did those 21 months seem any greater.
The immeasurable tragedy of Summitt being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2011 was that eventually she would not remember all she had accomplished for Tennessee, for women’s basketball, for American sport. The measurable tragedy is Pat Summitt died early Tuesday morning in Knoxville, surrounded by those who loved her most. She was only 64.
“The last six months people have kind of intimated that it wasn’t going well,” Auriemma said. “People I know who have been down to see her, talked to her. It’s one of those sad things all of us, as we get older, deal with more than we want.
“There are a lot of great memories I take away from it all. I wish she was around to enjoy those memories. You appreciate them more as you get older. Whether me or it’s my program, as much as everybody appreciated all the things Pat did, the more time that passes the more we appreciate it.”
Pat Summitt is a sports hero in Tennessee. Geno Auriemma is a sports hero in Connecticut.
It’s pretty safe to say Geno isn’t a hero in Tennessee.
Yet to know the greatest level of excellence in athletics, one must know his or her greatest rival. Chris made Martina and Martina made Chris. Ali made Frazier and Frazier made Ali. Magic made Larry and Larry made Magic.
Rivalries are not always pretty. Sometimes they aren’t pretty at all. Words can get ugly. Competition brings out the best and worst in the human condition. Yet in the end, after Rocky Top Orange battled National Flag Blue 22 times over 12 years, it is fair to say Pat made Geno and Geno made Pat. … No, not in the entirety of who they are or what they built, but certainly in pushing each other to their pinnacles.
When a Harris Interactive poll was run for Sports Illustrated in 2004 to determine the Enemy of the State, only one person in women’s athletics was named among the 50 states. Connecticut picked Pat Summitt.
Yes, the rivalry was magic.
Summitt had three national titles before Auriemma had one. She had six before he had two. Tennessee was the program everybody wanted to emulate.
“Obviously, when I was (assistant) coaching at Virginia and we were in the NCAA Tournament a lot, that was something you always had to listen to: Tennessee, Tennessee, Tennessee,” Auriemma said. “But when I got the Connecticut job (in 1985), it was never in my mind, even on my radar. It was never, ‘Wow, someday I’m going to build a program just like Tennessee.’
“That was one of those things after 1995 when we had a chance to play them, it kind of took on a life of its own. I certainly never set out to duplicate that, or to beat that, to compete with her or her program. Chris Dailey and I never used it as a measuring stick. That was at a whole different level when we started.”
Summitt agreed to play at Gampel Pavilion on Jan. 16, 1995, on national television, and it is safe to say the women’s game hasn’t been the same since. By the time the Huskies beat Tennessee again that April to complete a perfect season for the national title in Minneapolis, it was evident we would need Pat-Geno III, Pat-Geno IV, all the way to Pat-Geno XXII. The great sporting tragedy is that it ever had to end.
“It certainly was unique, certainly not anything that was happening before that and certainly not anything after,” Auriemma said. “Notre Dame is the closest thing that has evolved. But you think about that rivalry, it only lasted 12 years. But we played 22 times in those12. That’s what I think made the rivalry what it was.
“For me, the most fun about it was every single game we played against them there was something at stake … either NCAA Tournament game, national championship or just in the minds of a lot of people. I don’t know how many times we were both either one or two in the country when we played. There never was a meaningless game.”
Who can forget 2002 in Knoxville? Diana Taurasi scored 32 points in a 14-point UConn victory and punched a basket stanchion in wild emotion. Why? She needed to hit “something orange.”
Who can forget that incomparable 23-second span in 2007 at the XL Center? In the midst of a 30-point performance and a six-point Tennessee victory, Candace Parker dunked off a fastbreak, blocked a Charde Houston shot and fired a look-away fastbreak pass to Nicky Anosike for a layup.
Moments after moments after moments. At one end was the Tennessee General. At the other was the rapscallion from Philly. UConn won 13 of the 22, including all four times in the national championship. Summitt got Geno once in the Final Four and another time in the Elite Eight and won their final three meetings before she called an end to the rivalry. Long, unseemly story short: It was Pat Summitt’s greatest mistake.
“We had an opportunity to shape the landscape of women’s basketball, the two of us,” Auriemma said. “She did her part. I did my part. It didn’t necessarily go over well with everybody else. But that’s OK. That’s how things grow. I knew we made it big, Connecticut and Tennessee, Geno and Pat, when they asked a bunch of coaches one year at the NCAA Tournament, who do you think is going to win the NCAA Tournament?
“They said, ‘I really don’t care as long as it’s not Tennessee or Connecticut.’ That’s when I thought we’ve got something pretty special going. I remember walking up to Pat before one of the national semifinal games. I said, ‘You guys need to win. We need to win. We need to play each other because we’ve got a good thing going here, and we don’t need anybody else breaking into this party.’ She got a little chuckle out of that.”
Auriemma paused. He said he regretted that Tennessee and UConn became too much of Geno and Pat.
“That’s never good,” he said.
Summitt has the record of 1,048 wins. Auriemma, with 955, has the greatest winning percentage at. 877. He has 11 national titles. She has eight. To the end, they have each other.
In 2012, after Summitt stepped down as coach, they stood and talked during the Final Four in Denver. In front of everybody, they embraced. They smiled as they talked. And it was good.
“That maybe was the second to the last time I remember speaking to her,” Auriemma said. “As this has played out, the thing I probably appreciate most is kind of like the way it evolved with Dean Smith. There wasn’t a whole lot of information out there. Very private. And that’s probably the way it needs to be.
“My conversations were through other people. People who were close to her who would go see her on a regular basis. I talked to them and told them what I thought. I had them relay it. I don’t think anybody else should be involved in those kind of things.”
Twenty-two times in 12 years.
Geno and Pat. Pat and Geno.
It was magic.
The Hartford Courant—