May 24, 2023
How UConn women’s basketball inspired a state and elevated a sport
Geno Auriemma, Sue Bird and Morgan Tuck unpack an astounding legacy
HARTFORD, CT — I can still remember the first time that UConn women’s basketball came into my consciousness. Seated in my third-grade classroom, I looked up to see a poster of a basketball player with a blonde ponytail and a heavy brace on her right knee. Through her jubilant smile, one could see two cracked front teeth. I later learned from my teacher that this poster featured Shea Ralph, celebrating a 2000 national championship title for the UConn Huskies.
The poster of Shea Ralph inspired me. She was a total badass. I began to watch the UConn games on Connecticut Public Television (CPTV) and even had the chance to attend some games in a sold-out Hartford Civic Center (now, the XL Center). Fans in Connecticut, including my third-grade teacher, embraced the program with pride, and the sellout crowds that watched the team play were completely entranced with this talented group of young women and their hot-headed and fiery head coach, Geno Auriemma. When Shea Ralph ultimately went down with yet another ACL injury towards the end of her redshirt senior season (2000-01), the state rallied around her as if she were their own daughter, sending her letters of support and gratitude.
Earlier this month, the Connecticut Forum hosted an event to celebrate the legacy of the UConn women’s basketball program. Generations of fans old and young — many of whom I recognized from attending games over the years — shuffled into a packed Bushnell Center in Hartford, CT. The event featured a two-act interview with head coach Auriemma (now entering his 39th season at the helm) and UConn alums Sue Bird (’02) and Morgan Tuck (’16), facilitated by ESPN reporter Kimberley Martin.
As the interview progressed, fans hung on every word that the trio said. They laughed at Geno’s sarcastic comments, egged on playful banter between coach and legendary point guard Bird and clapped in appreciative recognition. There was a familial energy in the air, one of a fanbase that has experienced years and years of dominance alongside its state college basketball program.
Humble beginnings ‘special’ rivalries
To start the evening off, Auriemma was asked to recall his early days as coach of the Huskies. In August 1985, Auriemma left his assistant coaching position with the University of Virginia — a program with a winning tradition under the leadership of legendary coach Debbie Ryan — to move to a sleepy farm town in Storrs, Connecticut. When he took over the program, the Huskies had posted only one winning season and sat at the bottom of the BIG EAST conference.
“I was kind of pissy every day,” Auriemma said of his first few months on the job. He described the old field house where the team practiced and played its games and explained that he had inherited a team that just wanted to clinch a spot in the conference tournament.
“Back in the day [if] you finished eighth or ninth, you got to play the 8/9 game,” Auriemma said. “So you weren’t even in the tournament yet. You had to play games and get into the BIG EAST Tournament. So we just made it like a concerted effort — we’re not going to finish eighth. We finished seventh, so that was a huge win…that’s what we inherited, but if they were better, I wouldn’t have gotten the job.”
Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey led the Huskies to a 12-15 record in their first year on the job, the duo’s only losing season in 38 seasons coaching alongside one another.
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After a few years on the job, Auriemma and Dailey landed some talented recruits and the program began to turn around. With an infusion of new talent and culture beginning to establish, the Huskies would advance to the NCAA Tournament in the 1988-89 season and haven’t missed the tournament since. In 1991, the team advanced to it’s first Final Four, eventually ousted by Auriemma’s former program, Virginia, led by the scrappy point guard Dawn Staley.
It was the 1995 season that truly put Connecticut on the map as a program to be reckoned with, however, as they dethroned the mighty Tennessee Lady Volunteers, led by Pat Summitt in all of her blue-eyed intensity. In a jam-packed Gampel Pavilion on UConn’s campus, the Huskies would win their first-ever game against Tennessee 77-66 on Martin Luther King Day. Later in that same season, the Huskies defeated the Lady Vols 70-64 to win the national championship game. From that season on, the rivalry would go on to define the sport for the next decade plus.
Two-time national champion Bird recalled her time participating in the epic Lady Vols rivalry:
“Special, special, special times, those games. They transcended the sport. That rivalry transcended the sport, whether you were a women’s basketball fan or not, it didn’t matter — you were going to tune into that game, you knew about the rivalry. You knew about the teams and their previous success. I knew about the coaches and how they didn’t like each other. There’s a lot of storyline. But, you know, we joke that [Auriemma and Summitt] didn’t like each other, obviously the respect was there. But that’s what led to the to the storyline. It led to the hype of the game. And I feel really fortunate that I got to play in those games. In fact, my junior and my senior year we played a home-and-away, so you played a home-and-away against a non-conference team. And I don’t remember what year, but at some point ESPN had us right before the Duke/UNC men’s game on rivalry week. So this is like — this is like putting women’s college basketball on the map at that time.”Sue Bird
UConn and Tennessee went head-to-head 22 times between 1995-2007, with UConn holding a 13-9 advantage during that time. The teams met seven times in the NCAA Tournament, including four times in the national championship game. In the summer of 2007, Summitt abruptly ended the the series. Auriemma later revealed that the series was canceled because Summitt had accused his program of recruiting violations.
In the absence of the game’s premier matchup, there was space for a new UConn rival to emerge, this time in the form of Muffet McGraw’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The two programs competed in the BIG EAST conference for 18 seasons (1995-2013) and faced off at least once per season between 1996-2019.
Although Bird competed in her fair share of epic games against the Fighting Irish during her UConn career — including a buzzer-beater in the BIG EAST Tournament that inspired the book Bird at the Buzzer, followed by a devastating loss to the Irish in the 2001 national semifinals — the rivalry at that time paled in comparison to the UConn/Tennessee rivalry.
The Irish rivalry became more competitive during the 2010s once the Tennessee rivalry had been called off. As four-time champion Morgan Tuck (2013-16) put it, “Notre Dame was [our] Tennessee.” While UConn leads the overall series 39-14, since 2011 UConn just slightly leads the head-to-head series 14-10. During that same time period, the programs have faced off in the national semifinals five times (with Notre Dame holding a 4-1 advantage) and national championship game twice (Connecticut, 2-0).
“In my freshman year, we lost to Notre Dame three times in a year. We were in the BIG EAST and we lost twice in the regular season — [one of the losses] was a three-overtime game…at Notre Dame. And then we lost on a buzzer-beater layup in the BIG EAST championship of the conference tournament. But then we beat them in the national championship, so they made us feel really good about that,” said Tuck.
Nearly a quarter century after I first saw that poster of Ralph, the UConn women’s basketball program’s accolades are nearly unfathomable in their enormity: 11 national titles, over 50 conference regular season and tournament championships, the first and second-longest winning streaks in college basketball history (111 and 90 games, respectively) and six undefeated seasons. The program has produced All-Americans, WNBA MVPs, Olympians and current and future Hall of Famers.
While the Huskies have been dominant in the past two decades plus — winning 40% of national titles since their first in 1995 and reaching 14 consecutive Final Fours between the 2008-2022 seasons — they are in the midst of a seven-year title drought. During that time period, two first-time champs were crowned (South Carolina and LSU) and the parity in the sport has increased tremendously.
Auriemma believes that in the absence of complete UConn domination, other programs have risen to the elite ranks of the sport. He believes that this parity is good for women’s basketball overall and has contributed to increased interest and viewership in recent seasons:
“What’s happened in the last maybe five or six years — we haven’t been as dominant, so there’s been a void a little bit. Because when we win four straight national championships, it is UConn, UConn, UConn, UConn all the time. Well, then now when we’re not there, even though we’re — we were in the Final Four all these years — there’s other teams that are capable of winning and that’s excited people a lot, that’s made more people pay attention. And I was told that our SNY ratings this year were the highest since [the network] took over the games. We barely had six players, but every game was really close. So all the people that used to have a heart attack when we were only up 25, they leave the room now — but everybody else stays and watches the games. People like to see competitive games.”Geno Auriemma
The proof is in the numbers. This year’s championship game between Iowa and LSU was the most-viewed NCAA women’s basketball game on record, with 9.9 million viewers. UConn women’s basketball set the standard for excellence in women’s basketball, and now other teams have risen to that standard. From its humble beginnings in a field house in Storrs, Connecticut, the UConn women’s basketball program has outgrown its role as solely a state’s pride and joy, and changed the course of women’s basketball itself.