I was there on Jan. 4, 2003, when the Connecticut Huskies hosted Tennessee at the Hartford Civic Center. Connecticut was ranked No. 1, which was nothing unusual, and Tennessee was No. 2 or 3, depending on the poll. It snowed like UConn was the Yukon and was the most miserable evening I have ever spent at a sporting event, before or since.
Not because of the lousy weather nor because Tennessee lost 63-62 in overtime. Not because someone asked me if I wanted possum on my pizza, and not even because Diana Taurasi nailed a three-pointer that she launched from New Jersey (no kidding. I’ve never seen a shot like that, before or since).
None of those annoyances affected me like the chant that went up as Kara Lawson’s last-second shot rattled off the rim:
“Geno is God! Geno is God! GENO IS GOD!”
I have never wanted out of anywhere as much I wanted to vacate that place. I’m from Knoxville. I’ve known sports fans all my life. But never have I been as discomfited as I was that evening. We just don’t holler blasphemous crap like that around here; not for Peyton. Not when Pat’s team went 39-0 in 1998, not when Tee Martin connected with Peerless Price in the Fiesta Bowl.
Things got more acrimonious over the next few years. Recruiting turned into the Hunger Games. Pat, who had previously allowed fans to watch her put the team through its paces at Thompson-Boling, closed down practices (except for special occasions). And in 2007, the same year her team won its seventh national championship, and after defeating Connecticut at Hartford in a game when Candace Parker dunked, Pat ended the series, saying that Geno knew the reason.
Sportswriters kvetched and moaned. ESPN complained. Geno bellowed. Pat was tight-lipped and unrelenting. I was happy.
Sad times followed. In 2011, Pat announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. She handed her whistle to Holly Warlick in 2012 and died in 2016. It’s difficult to write those words, even yet.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I wasn’t thrilled when the two athletics departments announced that the UT-UConn game was back on, at least for a two-year home-and-home engagement.
And that was before Tennessee point guard Evina Westbrook announced that a coaching change needed to happen. And before Holly lost her job. And it was before Westbrook announced that she was transferring to UConn. And it was before the NCAA denied UConn’s request for her immediate eligibility.
And it was before Geno Auriemma started bellyaching about the terrible, no-good, very bad atmosphere at Tennessee, generating the predictable spitball fights between Knoxville and Storrs over Tennessee’s alleged role in Westbrook’s having to ride the bench for a year. It didn’t take him long to start in on AD Phillip Fulmer, who seemed slightly befuddled by the vitriol.
It all has a much-too-familiar feel. And it doesn’t feel good. Maybe Fulmer now has a little more insight into why Pat pulled the plug.
I’ve heard that Warlick was pressured into agreeing to home-and home games with UConn by the powers-that-see-dollar-signs. And now her successor, Kellie Harper, has no choice but to proceed forward.
Here’s hoping that this incarnation of the “series” ends in 2021. Twenty-six years is far too long to put up with Auriemma’s bellyaching and Harper doesn’t deserve to be saddled with that dump truck load of bad history. Evidently, nobody up there in the frozen North has gotten the nerve to tell Geno he’s just not cute anymore. Maybe they still think he’s God.
Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties. Reach her at email@example.com.