For the better part of thirteen years, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and I got along well. Though we were competitive, we felt a bond, a shared sense that we elevated the game to a very rare air.
On the court it was pure class, future Hall of Famers on both sides knocking down epic shots. Off the court we were amiable, and complimentary, even teasing. In the fall of 1998 after
After we got killed by UConn in the 2002 NCAA Final Four, 79-56, I visited their locker room to tell them how superb I thought they were -- their senior class of Sue Bird, Swin Cash, and Asjha Jones equaled anything the Meeks had ever done. "You guys are everything the game should be," I said. "You're one of the best teams I've ever seen, and you need to go on and win the whole thing."
Geno and I chatted regularly at functions, and when an issue arose in women's basketball, such as how to promote the game, we thought alike. We were allies when it came to the issue of pay. There were occasions when we shared contractual details so that the other could win a raise from their university. "I think I can help you," I remember Geno saying.
For all of that, Geno and I didn't socialize much; in all the years we competed, we had dinner just once, whereas I shared meals with other coaches regularly. Perhaps we should have done more of that and gotten to know the sides that people closest to us saw: the good parent, the funny cocktail companion, the generous colleague who helped younger coaches get their starts and inspired loyalty in staffs. We knew those sides existed, because people told us about them. But I'm not sure we ever met in the way we should have.
Then a couple of elbows got thrown. Geno always liked to make barbed remarks, but it seemed to me that from 2000 on, they had an ungenerous edge. Oddly, the more success UConn had, the more Geno seemed to resent Tennessee. In the summer of 2001, there was a bafflingly rude encounter when we were at different tables in the same restaurant, and he made me so uncomfortable by shouting my name derisively that I left the premises.
One evening during a coaching function in New York, he said to Mickie, "You know, you're pretty funny. We could be friends if you weren't with Tennessee." Mickie was bewildered. We'd always been friendly with our rivals; some of our best friends had handed us painful losses, Sue Gunter at LSU, Jody Conradt at Texas, Sylvia Hatchell at North Carolina, Leon Barmore at LA Tech, Tara VanDerveer at Stanford, and Melanie Balcomb at Xavier and then Vanderbilt.
After our traumatic upset loss to Xavier, someone faxed me a note scribbled in what looked like Geno's handwriting. "I predicted Tennessee would lose to Xavier, and I also predicted Pat would blame her team instead of herself," it read. I faxed it to Geno. "What's this about?" I wrote. He never replied. When I became great friends with Villanova coach Harry Perretta, who was an old friend of Geno's, he told the press that Harry "left me for an older woman" and made off-color jokes about us sitting in a hot tub together. I shot back. "I agree Geno is jealous," I said. "You could also put paranoid in there."
Geno felt elbows from us, too. I learned later that he believed Al Brown was discourteous to him in the handshake line. And when UConn was upset by Notre Dame in the 2001 NCAA Final Four, some of our staff had chanted, ungraciously, "Who let the dogs out!," and apparently he heard about it.
It got to the point that I took it up with him one summer when we wound up at the same all-star tournament. "It's a choice to play you," I said. If the ugliness continued, "I'll cancel the series." He looked shocked and said, hurriedly, "Well, that wouldn't be good for anybody." There was a temporary truce. When we met in the championship game at the 2004 NCAA Final Four in New Orleans, he leaned over during a pregame handshake and said, "Listen. Don't let anyone tell you I don't respect you. I've always respected you."
All of this should have been filed away as two coaches with competitive egos being thin-skinned. The problem was, it formed the backdrop of hard feelings for what happened next. Recruiting is the most difficult part of the game, and no coach likes it. Resentments arise when you can't just go out on a court and settle matters with a ball and a scoreboard.
I didn't do gray. I only did black and white. I believed I had a special responsibility to follow the rules closely, because whatever a coach at the top of the game did, every other coach in the country was going to do twice as aggressively. Over the course of about a year, I became increasingly upset with a couple of UConn's tactics in recruiting. I didn't itemize my complaints publicly then, and I'm not going to now. I went through the appropriate channels and that's how it will stay. I made my concerns known to UConn through our athletic director, Joan Cronan, and the Southeastern Conference. UConn responded that they saw nothing wrong with what they were doing. I made my concerns known again. Same response.
I was finished. I didn't see any other choice. "I'm not putting up with this any more," I told my staff. I met with Joan and our university president, Dr. John Petersen, and outlined my reasons for wanting to discontinue the series: the lack of response from UConn and the personal negativity convinced me it was no longer in our best interest. I thought we needed to send a message that we didn't want a game that wasn't played in the right spirit. The administration agreed, and we declined to renew the series.
A few nights later, my home phone rang. It was Geno. In retrospect, that was the moment when friendship and alliance should have prevailed. Each of us should have said, "Let's talk this through and solve this. What are your concerns?" But we had long passed the point of being able to talk that way. Instead it was hostile and defensive from the start. Geno made an opening remark.
"Geno, you and I both know we aren't playing by the same rules," I said.
The conversation only lasted a minute or so more. It mainly consisted of him saying that he hoped to see us in the NCAA tournament, so "I can kick your ass." But we never played again.
In the years since, the anger and suspicion have dissipated, replaced by the original bond. Shortly before I announced my diagnosis, a note came in the mail. It was from Geno, saying he'd heard I had health issues, and he was thinking about me. Shortly after I went public, I formed the Pat Summitt Foundation to fight Alzheimer's, with the help of my friend Danielle Donehew, an associate commissioner of the Big East Conference. Danielle asked Geno if he wanted to be the first contributor to it. He wrote out a check on the spot -- for $10,000.
I still believe my decision was the right one, for me. I was more at peace without UConn on our schedule and I didn't need the constant skirmishing UConn had come to represent. I had a sharp sense that I had paid my dues, been a good ambassador for the game, and now I was on the downhill side of my career.
I also knew we had a great chance to win another title -- if I could convince our team not to rest on their laurels, which they were in danger of doing.
We went to Tampa for what would be the last NCAA Final Four of my career, though I hardly knew it at the time. All I knew was that we had to face LSU, our Southeastern Conference rival, coached by one of the savviest men in the game, Van Chancellor, and led by one of the few players who could meet 6'4" All-America senior forward Candace Parker eye to eye, a giant six-foot-five eagle named Sylvia Fowles.
Everything we tried to do, they checkmated. We were up by just 22-19 at the half, the lowest halftime score in NCAA Final Four history. Nobody could gain an edge. Until, with 7.1 seconds left, it was LSU ahead by a point, 46-45.
Candace [who was suffering from a dislocated shoulder sustained in the regional final] was being smothered and struggling.
Over on the sideline, my old friend Tara VanDerveer was watching closely. Just two hours earlier, her Stanford team, led by a luminous star named Candice Wiggins, had beaten UConn to make it into the title game. Whoever prevailed over the next seven seconds would be her opponent. At the moment it looked like LSU. But Tara turned to her assistant coaches.
"You watch," she said. "Pat's going to pull another rabbit out of the hat."
But I wasn't the one who performed the magic trick. If I haven't talked enough about our staff, what happened next should illustrate how valuable they were all those years. During every time-out, I briefly huddled with them and sought ideas. Sometimes I drove them crazy: I wanted their stimulation, wheels turning, everyone feeding me ideas, but I was just as likely to sift through their suggestions and then discard them, saying, "Here's what I'm going to do."
But in this instance, I seized on an idea from Nikki Caldwell, who a week later would become a head coach in her own right at UCLA. "Have Candace bring the ball up," she said urgently. It was totally counterintuitive: Candace was our go-to player, on whom we counted when we needed a score. If Candace brought the ball up the court, that meant she'd have to pass it off. It meant someone else would take the last shot of the game. It meant that if we lost, everyone in the country would want to know why we hadn't gone to the best player in the game. I nodded. It was a high-stakes decision. But I loved being the trigger puller. Loved it.
I went into the huddle -- and made the last critical call I would ever make in an NCAA Final Four. I looked at senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who would be our inbounder. "Get the ball in to Candace," I said. I turned to Candace. "They will converge on you. Find the open player." They all nodded and took their places.
What happened next is a credit to the culture of a program in which players are taught to commit, to run every play all out, attend to every detail no matter how seemingly unimportant, to never go through the motions, no matter how routine seeming, to finish with as much energy as they started.
Everything happened just as we predicted. Lex inbounded to Candace, who took four giant dribbles up the court. The clocked ticked, 7... 6... 5. The LSU defenders collapsed on her -- drawn to her like iron fillings to a magnet. Candace kept her eyes up the court ... and rifled a pass to Nicky under the LSU basket. Nicky went up -- an LSU defender swatted at her. The shot ticked off the rim. Nicky had missed. The clock ticked 4... 3...
Out of nowhere Lex came flying in like Batman. She had gone scoreless all game. But after inbounding the ball she had sprinted hard and trailed Nicky to the basket. She hurled herself into the air over Nicky's back and caught the ball up around the backboard. She hung there for a moment -- and then kissed it softly off the glass. It fell through the net for the game winner, to send us into the national championship game. Lex Hornbuckle had started the play behind the black line on the opposite end of the court -- she was the last player to set foot on the floor. Yet she had beaten the defense to the basket and scored the game winner.
Two days later, we defeated Stanford for our eighth national championship, 64-48, and I stood under another soft, dense rain of confetti. Had I known I'd never see another Final Four as a competitor, I might have taken more careful note of my thoughts. All I remember is feeling blaze-eyed with euphoria, and yet snow-blinded by all the colorful paper that drifted around me. Those fluttering bits of brightness seemed so reflective of the countless inspired moments our players had given me, a great torrent of victories. More than three decades of potent emotions seemed to be cascading down on my head all at once. Up on the rim of the arena, a huge rainbow-lit LED display read, "And then there was Tennessee."