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Twin towers

Auriemma, Summitt will be viewed as the dominant women's hoop figures

Posted: Monday January 10, 2005 3:26PM; Updated: Monday January 10, 2005 4:59PM
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They spoil us, really. On Saturday the two most successful coaches in the relatively brief history of women's college basketball faced one another again, as they have done on average twice a year since they first faced each other 10 years ago this month.

Geno Auriemma of UConn versus Pat Summitt of Tennessee.

He versus She.

Mouth versus South.

Since they first met, in Storrs, Conn. on January 16, 1995, the Huskies and Lady Vols have won a combined eight of the past 10 national titles. UConn has won five (four of them at Tennessee's expense in the national title game) and the Lady Vols three (two of those title runs involved wins against UConn in the NCAAs). Summitt already had won three national titles before she ever stood on a sideline opposite Auriemma.

In short: Summitt, six national titles, Auriemma, five. Much ink and keystrokes have been expended on comparisons and contrasts between the two, everything from their heights to their backgrounds to their demeanors. But here is what's most important:

Decades from now (and much to the consternation of some of the other matriarchs of the sport), Auriemma and Summitt (or, if you prefer, Summitt and Auriemma) will be viewed as the twin pillars of coaching dominance from the first epoch of NCAA women's basketball. Of that, with respect to coaches such as Louisiana Tech's Leon Barmore (retired), Texas Tech's Marsha Sharp, Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer, Stanford's Tara VanDerveer et al, let there be no doubt.

The NCAA assumed guardianship of women's college basketball in 1982. Before that, for 10 years, the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) staged the lone women's championship. There's some fascinating (well, at least for those of us who care about women's college hoops) pre-history here, some of it coincidental, that indirectly involves both Geno and Pat. To wit:

• The first women's national championship, known as the Women's National Invitational Tournament, was staged in 1969 at West Chester (Pa.) College. West Chester defeated Western Carolina 65-39. Twelve years later, Geno would graduate from West Chester.

• Three years later another West Chester alum, Cathy Rush, led tiny Immaculata (Pa.) College to the first of three straight AIAW championships. All before her 27th birthday. The Mighty Macs, as they were known, played in the first nationally televised women's basketball game (at Maryland, 1975) and in the first women's hoops game staged at Madison Square Garden (also in 1975).

Immaculata's star player, Theresa Grentz (now a Hall of Fame head coach at Illinois) once recalled for me that, "they played Helen Reddy's I am Woman as an intro for us to run out onto the floor. Someone said, 'I'm not walking out to that.' We were very conscious of not looking like P.E. majors."

Rush, still not 30 years old, retired in 1977 with a career record of 149-15 and three national titles. Her last game took place in the 1977 AIAW national semi-finals, where Immaculata lost to  Tennessee. The Lady Vols' coach, then in her third season in Knoxville, was Pat Head (now Summitt).

• Six years earlier, in 1971, Rush and her then husband, former NBA official Ed Rush, had founded the Cathy Rush Basketball Camp. The camp, now known as Future Stars, has an impressive roster of alumni counselors: among them are St. Joe's men's coach Phil Martelli, Final Four women's coaches Rene Portland (Penn State), Muffet McGraw (Notre Dame) and ... Auriemma. Were it not for Rush's camp, it's unlikely that Auriemma would have ever been steered into women's college basketball.

• One final Cathy Rush connection: A women's coaching pioneer in so many ways, Rush would write out the practice schedules down to five-minute increments. Grentz, a chemistry major, would copy these schedules down each day, perhaps subconsciously aware that some day she would be a coach. In fact, she went on to coach Rutgers to the final AIAW national title in 1982. One of her players was Chris Dailey, the associate head coach at UConn, and the first person Auriemma hired upon arriving in Storrs in 1987. At Rutgers, Grentz would post practice schedules, derived directly from Rush's, on a bulletin board in the locker room. Each night after practice Dailey would take them. Dailey still has those schedules.

All of which is to say that, even though UConn and Tennessee entered Saturday's game with three losses apiece; even though neither school was ranked in the top three when they played for the first time; even though, as one UConn fan was heard to say, "Yes, we have no Dianas," this game was something special. And you don't need a one-point margin (Tennessee's past three victories against UConn have come by a total of six points) to tell you that.

UConn-Tennessee, as far as this sport is concerned, is living history that traces all the way back to the sport's national championship-level origin. And it'll remain that way as long as Geno and Pat are trolling the sidelines.

Or, as Summitt said after Tennessee's 68-67 win, "Everyone thinks we might curl up and die, both programs. I don't think it's going to happen, so put away your hankies."

Eight in the Box

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1. I spent two days last week covering a collegiate ski meet in Park City, Utah (that sentence also appears in the dictionary under "boondoggle"). As much as a sport that is contested at 9,000 feet above sea level can be considered "underground," skiing is. Gladys Weidt of the New Mexico ski team, the reigning national champs (and the first NCAA champ from the Land of Enchantment in any sport), told me, "To be totally honest with you, half the people at our school don't even know we exist."

2. My parents live in Sun Lakes, Ariz., a gated retirement community, or as Jerry Seinfeld refers to them, "minimum security prisons." Their development is so close to the Gila River Indian Reservation that, as I told a friend last week, Larry Storch mans the front gate. Larry Storch? F Troop? "Where Indians fights are colorful sights/and nobody takes a lickin'/Where pale face and redskin/both turn chicken"? They don't write theme songs like that any more.

3. I don't so much mind people saying that Auburn would have given Southern Cal a better game than Oklahoma did; I just don't recall any of those same people saying that USC would destroy the Sooners. And so I'm wondering, how can anyone who didn't predict a Trojans horse-whipping (which is just about everyone; for example, three of the four College Gameday experts -- and these guys do know what they're talking about -- predicted an Oklahoma win moments before kickoff, with Trev Alberts going so far as to say that the Sooners would win in a rout) profess to know what would have happened had the Tigers played in Fort Lauderdale?

4. A few weeks ago I made a joke about former ESPN anchors (e.g., Keith Olbermann, Craig Kilborn) soliciting Bristol to return. Well, it was only a joke, and the truth is that Olbermann is alive and thriving at MSNBC (his blog on msnbc.com is a veritable paean to erudition) as are his former cohorts. But imagine if you were able to assemble a new 24-hours sports network using just the former talent from ESPN? How top-notch would that be? Olbermann,  Kilborn, Rich Eisen, Chris Myers, Kenny Mayne -- what? Huh? Mayne's still there? He's the Ken Griffey Jr., of sports anchors.

5. That self-vindicating clearing of the throat you hear is probably coming from deposed Notre Dame head coach Ty Willingham. Can't you just imagine? "Sure, we too only scored 10 points in the first half against Southern Cal," he might say. "The difference is we only allowed 17, not 38." On that same topic, Notre Dame's athletic site has a transcript of a Jan. 7 Q&A with incoming head coach Charlie Weis. Two of the better excerpts from Weis, who comes off as candid and blunt:

Q: Are there common threads that you're looking for, common qualities of the recruits that you're going after?

Weis: First of all, that's a fair question. I think with the linemen, let's start with linemen first of all, both offensive and defensive linemen. I'm looking for tough guys. You all heard me when I first came in, and everyone ran with my opening comments, but that's the type of guy I'm looking for.

I think that if you want your team to be a certain way, then you have to recruit that persona, you need to recruit that personality. I don't think toughness is something that you can make. I think you have that. Sometimes toughness can be brought out of somebody. But I think that if you want a bunch of tough guys, then you better recruit a bunch of tough guys.

Q: Considering many of us saw the USC-Oklahoma game the other night, the speed that was on the field, do you have any assessment of where this team is at speed-wise?

Weis: I think the grass needs to be longer. Next question.

6. Two ideas concerning postcards, from a postcard connoisseur: A) When you find yourself in an exotic place that you're not likely to return to, remember to send yourself a postcard. It's easy. Just omit one word from the common postcard greeting, so that the back reads, "You were here." B) Wouldn't it be cool if they sold domestic postcards with the postage already included? How difficult is this to do?

7. Three songs I wish I'd included on my "Top 10 of 2004" list: Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day, Fall to Pieces by Velvet Revolver (I can just hear Axl Rose telling anyone who'll listen that he could hit the high notes on that tune better than Scott Weiland; and he could, but you can't win unless you suit up to play), and I Believe in a Thing Called Love by The Darkness (even if they did steal the guitar riff from Pat Benatar's Hit Me With Your Best Shot).

8. New York subway story du jour: Riding the 1 train and a well-dressed, clean-shaven, respectable-looking middle-aged man (I just realized that I meet 50 percent of that description) seated across from me is reading The Hidden Harbor Mystery. You know, a Hardy Boys book. I smiled, and he told me that he collects first editions of the series.

The Hardy Boys used to leave my pre-adolescent mind filled with more questions than answers. For example, I always wondered how those two siblings were able to miss so much school in order to do their sleuthing. Did their dad, Fenton (and how many Fentons have you ever met?) -- or even Aunt Gertrude -- write a litany of notes to the Bayport High School nurse? What did they say? "Please excuse my sons Frank, 18 years old and dark-haired, and Joe, blond and one year younger, from school as they will be out solving the Mystery of Wildcat Swamp"? And how come the people who produced the TV show of the same name cast two guys (Parker Stevenson, Shaun Cassidy) who had neither dark nor blond hair but were both brown-haired? How could a show about prodigy private eyes be so clueless?

OK, maybe I'm still a little flummoxed by it all.

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