A rivalry for the ages: Tennessee-UConn women's basketball

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In June 2007, the sports world buzzed with speculation as to why Pat Summitt, coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball program, declined to sign the contract that would continue their regular-season contests with the University of Connecticut. Since the two teams first met in 1995, theirs has been alternatively framed as "the meanest rivalry in sport," "the greatest rivalry in women's team sports," and "the best rivalry in women's basketball." Over the years, competition between the two has "elevated and expanded the sport"and "revolutionized the women's game," yet without explanation the series came to a halt. When asked about her refusal, Summitt would only reply "Geno knows." In response, Geno Auriemma, coach of the UConn Huskies, told his local newspaper, "I think she should just come out and say she's not playing us because she hates my guts." The best fans could hope for was that the two would meet in the 2008 NCAA championship, where the animosity between these storied programs could be played out on the hardwood.1 There are general elements, often in combination with one another, that go into the construction and perpetuation of sporting rivalries. Those on either side of the conflict typically share a common history that, over time, is spun into a narrative that transcends athletic competition. There must be regular contact and a sense of parity between two factions. Often times, coaches or standout athletes possess polarizing personalities that induce others to take sides in brewing feuds. There might also be some type of positional disparity-either physical or ideological-between the athletes and their followers that contributes to a sense of partisanship. And while there are myriad small-scale rivalries about which the majority of people will never learn (which is not to say that those antagonisms do not matter), to be a capital-R, grade- A, big-deal Rivalry, the public has to care about it, which means the public has to hear about it, which means the sport-media-commercial complex has to promote it.2 The importance of media coverage may go a long way toward explaining the lack of women on top rivalry lists from authoritative outlets like the Sporting News, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN. At a time when women's athletics receives less than 10 percent of all television and print coverage devoted to sports, it is understandable that the general public knows little about the hostilities between the American and Norwegian soccer teams or the Canadian and U.S. hockey teams or the UCLA and USC volleyball squads. Moreover, disproportionate attention is paid to female athletes in individual and "gender appropriate"sports so that when women's sporting rivalries are mentioned, they typically do not go beyond the Martina Navratilova-Chris Evert or Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding pairings. This is part of what makes the rivalry between the Tennessee Lady Vols and the UConn Huskies so intriguing: not only does the matchup pit the two best teams in the sport against one another, people pay attention when they meet. In fact, their contest for the 2004 NCAA national championship earned the highest television ratings on ESPN for any basketball game-men's or women's.3 In this chapter I "read"the rivalry between Tennessee and UConn by analyzing pertinent media texts published between 1995 and 2008. The sources I surveyed began with the student newspapers affiliated with the University of Tennessee (the Daily Beacon) and the University of Connecticut (the Daily Campus). Then, consulting the most recent information from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, a not-for-profit organization that tracks North American media distributions, I reviewed the most geographically relevant and widely read local, regional, and national newspapers associated with the two schools. Finally, I examined stories about the teams and their rivalry in sports-related outlets, including both print and online versions of Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine and its online partner ESPN.com, and Women's Basketball, as well as autobiographies and biographies about Summitt and Auriemma, media guides put out by their respective institutions, and secondary sources on women's college basketball.4 Based on these examinations, I identified three main components involved in creating and sustaining the Tennessee-UConn rivalry. First, and perhaps most simply, the two teams have enjoyed a relative dominance in Division I women's intercollegiate basketball. Every time the two teams meet, commented Summitt, "There's always something significant on the line." They are consistently among the top-ranked teams, boast the nation's best players, battle for the top recruits, and the games between the two-both during the regular season and, frequently, during the NCAA tournament-are fiercely competitive and unpredictable. The second component involves the success and personalities of Tennessee's Pat Summitt and UConn's Geno Auriemma, who have served as head coaches of their programs since before the rivalry emerged. Between them, the two coaches have won thirteen of the last twenty-two national championships and scores of coach-of-the-year honors, making them among the very best in the history of the game. At the same time, their personal and professional styles of conduct have led to several public conflicts that the media both reports and stokes. As such, the popular press constitutes both primary source material and the third major agent in the antagonism between UConn and Tennessee. Print and electronic forms of media have been inextricably involved in nearly every aspect of the rivalry: its initiation, perpetuation, and, most recently, its suspension.5.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationRivals
Subtitle of host publicationLegendary Matchups That Made Sports History
PublisherUniversity of Arkansas Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Print)1557289212, 9781557289216
StatePublished - Dec 1 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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