UConn's Auriemma: Pat Summitt is synonymous with women's basketball
Whether it is fair or not, if there were a word association game involving Summitt, the first name likely to be uttered would be Geno Auriemma.
Auriemma, during a break in his annual Fore The Kids Golf Tournament, spoke for more than 10 minutes on the legacy of Summitt as well as the unforgettable showdowns between Tennessee and UConn from 1995-2007.
"We don't have a long history in women's basketball," Auriemma said. "The history before Tennessee, before Pat Summitt is kind of checkered because there wasn't a lot of interest in the game, a lot of support from universities so it is a short history. During that short history, there is one person for a long time and nobody else was even in that category. A lot of times there is competition among a lot of coaches but for the longest time there was only Pat Summitt, nobody else. Other people took their turn getting their 15 minutes of fame but when people talked about college women's basketball in America ... When you get on the cover of Time Magazine, when's the last time a women's team coach got on the cover of Time Magazine? For that to happen, that is saying a lot. Pat Summitt is synonymous with women's basketball."
Seven times UConn played Tennessee in the NCAA tournament including the 1995, 2000, 2003 and 2004 national title games. When the teams played each other from 1995-2007, UConn won five national titles, Tennessee won the championship four times (with another crown in 2008) while the other teams combined to win four national titles. Friction between the coaches led to the end of the regular-season meetings between the women's basketball super powers but Auriemma has fond recollections of that rivalry.
"We had a chance to shape the landscape of women's basketball, the two of us," Auriemma said. "She did her part and I did that part. It didn't necessarily go over with everybody else but that is OK because that is how things grow. I knew we made it big - Connecticut/Tennessee, Geno/Pat - when they asked a bunch of coaches at the NCAA tournament who do you think is going to win the NCAA tournament and they said 'I really don't care as long as it is not either Tennessee or Connecticut.' That is when I thought to myself, we have something special going.
"I remember saying something to her at the Final Four, I forget which Final Four, remember walking up to her before the tournament started and said you guys need to win, we need to win and we need to play each other, we have a pretty good thing going and we don't need anybody breaking into this party. She kind of got a little chuckle out of it."
UConn leads the series 13-9 and from 1995-2007, the two programs helped bring eyes to the sport. It is hardly a coincidence that the most viewed women's NCAA tournament game in ESPN's history is the 2004 national title game between UConn and Tennessee which also happens to be the last NCAA tournament showdown between the Huskies and Lady Vols.
"It certainly was unique," Auriemma said. "There certainly wasn't anything happening before that and hasn't been anything ... Notre Dame is the closest thing that has evolved. If you think about, that rivalry only lasted 12 years, it is not a long time but we played 22 times in 12 years and that it what made the rivalry what it was. It seemed like, to me the most fun about it was that every single game that we played against them, there seemed to be something at stake - either an NCAA tournament game, a national championship or just in the minds of a lot of people 'something at stake. I don't know how many times we were either 1 or 2 in the country when the played so suffice it say there were never any meaningless games between us and Tennessee."
Summitt, who won a record 1,098 games and her eight national titles were the standard before Auriemma won 11 championships, announced that she was diagnosed with early onset dementia. Word began to spread that Summitt's condition had taken a turn for the worse and her family released a statement saying "the past few days have been difficult for Pat."
Former players, including those in the WNBA, have visited the Hall of Fame coach and social media is buzzing with prayers and other words of support for Summitt and her family.
Auriemma hasn't had much contact with Summitt but said he has reached out to those in her inner circle so they could pass on his thoughts to her.
"As this thing has played out, the thing I have appreciated the most kind of what it evolved with (former North Carolina men's basketball coach) Dean Smith, there really wasn't a whole lot of information out there, very private so my conversations were through other people who were close to her, who were going to see her on a regular basis," Auriemma said. "I talked to them and told them what I thought, had them relay it."