Skip to main content

Inside the Fortuitous Beginning of the UConn-Tennessee Rivalry 25 Years Ago

Twenty-five years after the first UConn-Tennessee women's basketball game, a look back at the ironic way the historic rivalry began in the first place.

Last Thursday, Jan. 16, marked the 25th anniversary of the first-ever meeting between the University of Connecticut women's basketball team and the University of Tennessee, a game that would alter the trajectory of both programs and the sport of women's basketball itself. The rivalry that was born that Martin Luther King Day afternoon back in 1995 would span 12 years, 22 games, four head-to-head national championship battles and countless controversies, grudges and feuds. The rivalry was abruptly cancelled by Tennessee coach Pat Summitt in the summer of 2007 and lay dormant for another dozen years, only to be resumed this Thursday at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. Coach Geno Auriemma and his top two assistants are still on the sidelines for UConn, but a new regime, led by former player and rivalry veteran Kellie Jolly Harper, leads the Lady Vols into this new era of UConn-Tennessee. 

Jeff Goldberg, the former UConn women's basketball beat writer for the Hartford Courant, chronicled the history of the rivalry in his 2015 book, Unrivaled. In this excerpt, Goldberg recalls the irony of how this iconic sports rivalry, for all its history-making and histrionics, wasn't actually supposed to happen in the first place.

The following is excerpted from Unrivaled: UConn, Tennessee, and the Twelve Years that Transcended Women’s Basketball, by Jeff Goldberg. Published by arrangement with University of Nebraska Press. Copyright © 2015 by Jeff Goldberg. All rights reserved.


The irony was that UConn and Tennessee weren’t supposed to play each other in the first place.

Not far from the bucolic campus of the University of Connecticut, just 45 miles west via Interstate 84 in the town of Bristol, lies the most powerful sports campus on the planet.

ESPN doesn’t call itself the “Worldwide Leader” for nothing. In the first 15 years of its existence, from its humble beginnings in 1979—the same year the Big East Conference began playing basketball—to the launch of ESPN2 in 1994, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network had evolved from a small network showing Australian Rules Football and high-stakes billiards to a sports and television behemoth broadcasting the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and major college football and basketball 24 hours a day, with its highlight show, SportsCenter, turning athletes and anchors alike into household names.

ESPN had not just been a mirror for the sporting audience, but had proved itself an influential vehicle for taking heretofore niche sports and turning them into national phenomena. This was perhaps never more evident than with the America’s Cup yachting races—by covering first the United States’ shocking upset loss to Australia’s “Winged Keel” in 1983, then the Americans’ triumphant reclaiming of the Cup in 1987—making Dennis Conner one of the most recognizable figures in sports.

By 1994 men’s college basketball had become a staple of ESPN’s daily winter lineup, with color commentator Dick Vitale bringing a manic announcing style oft-mimicked by a nation of hoop junkies. The 64-team National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, covered by CBS, had become a national obsession over the 15 years of ESPN’s existence, with office tournament pools only adding high-octane fuel to the madness of March.

However, reflecting the gender gap in American society at large, the women’s game lagged woefully behind the men’s product in popularity, financing and media coverage.

Changing the landscape for women in sports was the last thing on Carol Stiff’s mind in the summer of 1994. In charge of programming women’s basketball coverage for the network, Stiff was just trying to change on the fly.

Stiff had always had a close connection to women’s basketball, growing up playing the game in Bernardsville, New Jersey, and later for Southern Connecticut State University.

“I was the youngest of six, grew up being sort of the tomboy of the family,” Stiff said. “There were no girls in the neighborhood, so the guys always let me on their teams, it was no big deal. I grew up in a really small town. All the dads commuted in and out of New York.”

Stiff’s uncle, Don Donoher, was an Ohio basketball coaching legend, leading the University of Dayton to the 1967 national championship game, losing to John Wooden’s emerging dynasty at UCLA. Donoher, who was named an assistant coach on the 1984 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team by Bobby Knight, would later have a basketball facility named for him at Dayton Arena, where several NCAA women’s tournament regional finals would be played, including one in 2003 that sent UConn to the Final Four.

Donoher also had an enormous influence on the future of ESPN. In the late 1970s, he cut a broadcast journalism major named Dan Pugh, who had transferred from Eastern Kentucky University after playing for two seasons. Fans know him today as Dan Patrick.

Patrick and Keith Olbermann were a match made in heaven for SportsCenter in the summer of 1994, when Stiff set about to make a match of her own.

Stiff had joined ESPN in 1989, after a brief stint coaching the Southern Connecticut women’s basketball team.

“My first position [at ESPN] was to work on the [network’s] 10th anniversary party through the communications department, under Rosa Gatti, who had been the sports information director at Brown, so there was a connection there,” Stiff said. “And from there, I went over for a short stint in sales, adding in commercial time, so I was learning the business, and then went over to programming, where I resided for 20-something years.

“In that area I learned about Nielsen ratings and programming and what I learned from the coaching and playing—and why I think they hired me for this area—I worked really hard, I put my nose to the grindstone, just that energy to excel, I had in me.”

Tommy Odjakjian, who would later leave ESPN to join the Big East Conference, was in charge of scheduling all college sports. In 1992 he handed off the duties of scheduling ESPN’s women’s basketball coverage to Stiff.

“He came over to me one day and said, ‘Hey, I know you coached, I know you played college basketball, I know you have a great love for the game,’ and he handed me all the files and said, ‘Can you schedule all our women’s basketball games?’” Stiff said.

There were two ways ESPN went about scheduling its regular-season lineup, which consisted entirely of weekend games, mainly on Sunday afternoons, up against the NFL, NBA and NHL.

“One is where you have contractual obligations through a contract that had been written and executed with a conference,” Stiff said. “That could be football and basketball, and under those contracts would fall women’s basketball and Olympic sports. That’s one way, by contract, schedule three SEC games, eight Big East games, etc., for all the conferences we own the rights to.

“The other mechanism was being afforded an opportunity or pitching a good idea or a good date for a game and pitching our programming department on, ‘If I can get X team to play Y team on this date, I think it will be a really good game.’ We started putting matchups together, noticing which teams rated well, which teams had good depth charts and recruiting classes. I had a big notebook on different conferences and different teams.”

Both elements would come into play as the summer of 1994 got under way. While the nation was transfixed by the O. J. Simpson homicide case—and highway chase—Stiff was making the case to her ESPN bosses about creating a marquee women’s basketball game to be played during the winter doldrums of January. And, for a change, it would be a game that had a sports audience all to itself.

Since 1986, the third Monday in January has been designated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday recognizing the life and achievements of the civil rights leader who was assassinated in April 1968.

ESPN had in years past tied a national holiday to the scheduling of a college game. On Presidents Day, for instance, it was always a good bet that an ESPN audience would tune in to find George Washington University taking the court.

For the 1994–95 season Stiff envisioned staging a women’s game on Jan. 16 one day after King’s actual date of birth and the observance date of his holiday in 1995. The game would feature two of the top teams in the nation that had just squared off in the 1994 NCAA East Regional final—UConn and North Carolina.

The Tar Heels, coached by the legendary Sylvia Hatchell and featuring a speedy guard named Marion Jones, had defeated UConn en route to capturing the national championship over Louisiana Tech on a dramatic three-pointer at the buzzer by Charlotte Smith. North Carolina, trailing by two, inbounded from under Tech’s basket with 0.07 seconds left, with Smith nailing the three-pointer that might or might not have truly beaten the clock, but was whistled good in the days before instant replay.

A holiday rematch fit all of Stiff’s criteria. A contract ESPN already had in place stipulated a televised game between an Atlantic Coast Conference and a Big East school. Now it was just a matter of arranging it with the two schools. Stiff made her first phone call to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“I knew North Carolina had just won the championship, and I had my eye on UConn, with Jen Rizzotti and Rebecca Lobo, I knew they were bringing back quite a good class,” Stiff said. “So I made the call to Sylvia, because it had to be an ACC–Big East matchup. I made the first call to her, because I didn’t think UConn would turn it down. But she turned it down.”

In fact, Hatchell had been in favor of playing the game, but only under the condition that North Carolina be the home team. But Stiff knew that would be a problem. ACC teams had hosted the previous two games against Big East opponents. This game, by contract, had to be played at the Big East site, which in this case would be Gampel Pavilion, the 10,000-seat arena on the UConn campus that had first opened its doors in 1990.

“She wanted the game on her home court,” Stiff said. “I looked in my files and noticed the previous two years were on ACC soil, and I said, ‘No, no, it needs to be on a Big East campus.’ I was physically looking at the file. She said, ‘No, I don’t want the game.’ I repeated myself. ‘Are you sure you don’t want this game?’ I pitched her on it being Martin Luther King Day, on ESPN, Robin Roberts calling the game, and she declined the game.

“You have to remember, it was [scheduled for] mid-January. Teams are into their conference play. We still have a little of that today. Teams would rather not meet a tough opponent while in conference play.

“I was surprised that she wouldn’t take it, but I understood. So I said, ‘O.K., now what do I do?’”

Stiff dug back into her contract files. She still intended to keep UConn as one-half of the matchup. Now she turned to another conference under ESPN’s control, the Southeastern Conference. And in the SEC, the biggest name was Tennessee.

But first Stiff reached out to the athletic department at UConn, which agreed to take part.

“At the time, it was more of Carol bringing it to us and wanting to have a Martin Luther King Day event, and they approached us at first just about playing the game,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “There was no opponent at the time. And I said, ‘Sure, we’d love to play in the game.’ Getting the opponent was up to them.

“I guess the people they contacted, for whatever reason, didn’t show any interest in playing the game, and when they came back to me and said, ‘Do you think Tennessee will play you?’ I said, ‘I’m sure they will. You just have to ask [Pat Summitt].’ They play a great nonconference schedule, there’s no reason for them not to. That’s kind how it evolved. I had no idea they would be the opponent.”

Stiff placed the call to Knoxville. Summitt had already earned the reputation for playing a difficult nonconference schedule, and Stiff was confident this matchup with UConn would be no different.

“I moved on and made the call to Pat and I think I started, ‘You might not know who I am, but do you want this game?’” Stiff said. “And I gave her the same pitch I gave to Sylvia, and then I laid low, didn’t say a word. There was this awkward silence, and she goes, ‘You know, I’m in the SEC schedule that time of year, that’s going to be tough. It’s a Monday night, we play on the weekend. . . .’

“I didn’t say a word. And that’s when she said, ‘You know, for the good of the game, I’ll take it.’”

Stiff breathed a sigh of relief. ESPN had its marquee matchup. Tennessee’s Lady Vols, the most dominant women’s program in the nation, winners of three national titles over the previous eight seasons and the favorites to win the 1995 national championship, would travel to Storrs, Connecticut, for a Monday-afternoon game on January 16, 1995, against the upstart Eastern power UConn Huskies.

“Obviously, her program was legendary and she was a legend,” Stiff said. “I knew they were going to be good and I knew I wanted a marquee representation on that day. She would take games at any given day and time. She knew the importance of television. She was very savvy, from wearing microphones to letting us into her house for [NCAA tournament] selection shows. So, she stated it, ‘For the good of the game, I’ll take the game.’ I think I said, ‘I really appreciate this, I think it’s going to be a great game and a great showcase for women’s basketball.’”