- Unrivaled: UConn, Tennessee, and the Twelve Years That Transcended Women’s Basketball by Jeff Goldberg
In the summer of 1994, ESPN programmer Carol Stiff pitched an idea. Her concept was simple; however, it would prove revolutionary. She suggested the network create a marquee [End Page 120] matchup in women’s basketball, to be played annually in January. Stiff first reached out to the University of Connecticut (UConn), as the school was located in ESPN’s backyard. In addition, under head coach Geno Auriemma, the Huskies were quickly rising to prominence. To rival UConn, Stiff next approached the 1994 NCAA titleholder, the University of North Carolina (UNC). UNC declined, worried about adding a difficult, nonconference game to its schedule. Despite sharing similar concerns, University of Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt agreed to partake in the yearly matchup, “for the good of the game.”
Stiff’s idea evolved into an intense rivalry that spanned twelve years and produced twenty-two contests. In Unrivaled: UConn, Tennessee, and the Twelve Years That Transcended Women’s Basketball, Jeff Goldberg, the UConn women’s basketball reporter for the Hartford Courant from 2001 to 2006, chronicles the history of the matchups. According to Goldberg, the annual UConn-Tennessee pairing was “the only game that mattered in women’s college basketball” (xv). Unrivaled offers extensive details into the twenty-two games, illustrates the terse relationship between Auriemma and Summitt, and aims to demonstrate the significance the rivalry had on the development and growth of women’s basketball in the United States.
Both teams entered the first 1995 game as powerhouses. UConn was 12–0 on the season and ranked number two; Tennessee was 16–0 on the season and ranked number one. The 1995 matchup, won by the Huskies, not only generated a sellout crowd, but it also accrued 965,000 television viewers and a 0.8 Nielsen rating—unheard of for a women’s sport at the time. “Overnight this became a story about women’s basketball and how one exquisitely-played game between two top teams in a frenzied atmosphere could appeal to far more than just the sport’s purists,” explains Goldberg (23). Just one year later, Tennessee’s overtime NCAA semifinal victory over UConn drew 2.5 million television viewers. The thrilling contests between the two teams, oftentimes decided in the final minutes, helped women’s basketball gain both fans and respect.
Goldberg argues that the rivalry pushed women’s basketball into the national spotlight. The marquee matchup provided a lot of firsts, including a prime-time television slot and inclusion in ESPN’s Rivalry Week, a week of programming devoted to airing the top rivalries in college basketball. Accordingly, “it was the UConn-Tennessee rivalry that was driving the popularity train” for women’s basketball (46). Consequently, the contests sparked a golden age of women’s basketball. The popularity of the UConn-Tennessee game, suggests Goldberg, prompted the development of the American Basketball League and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). “The UConn-Tennessee rivalry was the greatest show in women’s basketball history, a drama that lifted the sport to unprecedented heights of popularity, and perhaps more important, legitimacy,” he explains (205).
Along with increasing the profile of women’s basketball, the UConn-Tennessee rivalry was also known for the icy relationship between Auriemma and Summitt. According to Goldberg, the two coaches initially maintained a mutual respect for one another. However, that changed when top recruit Semeka Randall selected the Lady Vols over the Huskies. The Ohio standout suggested that Auriemma criticized Summitt in the recruiting process. While Auriemma’s supposed remarks occurred behind closed doors, it was Randall’s later public remarks that drove a wedge between the two coaches. On January 3, 1998, Tennessee defeated Connecticut in front of the largest crowd in the history of women’s basketball. After [End Page 121] the Lady Vols’ convincing victory, 84–69, Chuck Cavalaris of the Knoxville News-Sentinel printed Randall’s postgame comments. While her suggestion that “I...