UConn-Tennessee 'not a big deal' anymore? Says who?
History, author David McCullough once said, is who we are and why we are here.
Truer words never applied more to women's basketball, whose greatest rivalry authored another rendition Thursday night. A universal compendium of women's basketball and its history would be this: UConn-Tennessee is who we are and why we are here.
And that's why the rivalry must go on beyond this year. Every year. Because of history. History counts. History is taught in school for a reason.
I get that we like to mock history now. We like to mock everything. But I believe Dr. King got it right when he said, "we are not makers of history. We are made by history."
Women's basketball was made by UConn-Tennessee.
Indeed, were some enterprising soul ever to write a novel about the history of American sports, the women's basketball chapter wouldn't be very long. But it would begin and end with UConn vs. Tennessee, the rivalry that brought the game to the front page, spats between Geno and Pat that led "SportsCenter," must-watch games shown in prime time.
The game would not be where it is today without it. Which is what made Auriemma's recent comments about the UConn-Tennessee game cause for some consternation.
"I think people have to realize it's not a big deal anymore," Auriemma said. "I mean, it's not. Whatever you want to say, it's not that big a deal anymore. We played here last year and it wasn't that big a deal. Maybe I got it all wrong, I don't know. Let's put it this way: We didn't sell out the game last year. Not even close. So how big a deal is it? I don't feel that buzz like I used to. I don't feel it. Maybe because it's been too long."
I'd hate to use UConn's spoiled fan base as a gauge for the rivalry's future. Besides, fan participation is largely irrelevant when weighed against the rivalry's historical narrative. UConn-Tennessee is an opportunity for the sport to celebrate itself in the best way sports celebrate themselves: through history.
Put it this way: Not every Yankees/Red Sox game causes us to breathe into brown paper bags. But every time they play, opportunities arise to reflect and educate, recalling some of the best narratives not just in the history of the rivalry — but the entire game. Yankees-Red Sox is a chance to relive Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone, Dave Roberts and the bloody sock all over again.
People need to know this stuff. People need to understand history. Example: One year during the Jim Calhoun era, the Huskies played in Hawaii. Late, great Manchester Journal Inquirer columnist Randy Smith chided Calhoun in a column for missing an educational opportunity, failing to take the team to visit the USS Arizona Memorial and learn more about Pearl Harbor.
When the team returned to Connecticut, Calhoun took a detour on the way to the locker room at halftime of a game. He bee-lined over to Smith and said, "Hey, Randy. The kids are holed up at the Farmington Marriott for semester break. Think I should take them to the bleeping Mark Twain House?"
OK. You giggle. (Me, too.) But Smith had a point. You get that close to Pearl Harbor, you ought to learn a little something. Sometimes, history needs to be reiterated. In this case, how Pat Summitt made Tennessee the game's first monarchy is important. How Geno Auriemma threatened the throne — and then staged a coup d'état — is important. The contrast of personality traits between a woman of the south and a wiseguy from Philly is important. Just because the narratives are old for us doesn't mean they don't have appeal elsewhere.
Lest we forget that UConn-Tennessee always gave us the key ingredient to every good story ever told: good vs. evil. It depended on where you lived, of course, as to the identities of good and evil. But it elevated the game to heretofore unseen heights.
I'm not suggesting the rivalry has the same rattle and hum, although Thursday's UConn victory was hard earned ... and fun. Now we get to tell a Paige Bueckers story within the narrative. Hobbled, struggling and then the dagger with 25 seconds left. See how this works? New chapters in the great allegory.
Next season's non-pandemic schedule will feature about 30 games for each program. They should make room for each other. If for no other reasons then Thursday's game was highly competitive and UConn-Tennessee invites us to tell the great stories all over again.
History is who we are and why we are here. And why was women's basketball played on prime time Thursday night? The roots are tethered to Geno and Pat.
UConn-Tennessee. Some people still care, apparently.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro
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