As Geno Auriemma passes Pat Summitt in wins, ex-Lady Vols relive sport’s greatest rivalry
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Semeka Randall still remembers the phone call she made to UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma nearly 25 years ago letting him know she was committing to Tennessee.
Randall felt a stronger connection to the Lady Vols because of the relationship she established with coach Pat Summitt throughout the recruiting process.
“When Geno was hanging up the phone with me, he said, ‘That’s all right. We are going to kick your butt,’ ” said Randall, who played for Tennessee from 1997-2001. “I respect that, and I love that. I couldn’t wait to play UConn. That game was circled on the calendar every year.”
After a 13-year pause, the greatest rivalry in women’s college basketball was rekindled last year, a 60-45 win by UConn at the XL Center in Hartford. The programs are set to complete the home-and-home series on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Huskies are making their first trip to Knoxville since 2006.
The meeting comes after Auriemma passedSummitt for second placeon the all-time wins list in women’s basketball with victory No. 1,099 on Tuesday night against Butler. Both coaches are behind Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, who overtook Summitt last month.
Summitt likely would have set the victory bar much higher had she remained healthy. The legendary coach retired in 2012 at age 59 because of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.She died in 2016.
“No matter what coach surpasses the number of wins Pat Summitt had, they still owe their success to Pat Summitt because she was the one who paved the way for them to now come and surpass her,” said Nicky Anosike, who played for the Lady Vols from 2004-08. “She worked really hard to grow the game, and formed the blueprint on how to run a successful women’s basketball program.”
While Summitt and VanDerveer shared a close relationship, Summitt and Auriemma had a more complicated dynamic.
Geno Auriemma talks with Pat Summitt during practice at the NCAA women's Final Four in Denver in 2012. (Photo: Eric Gay, AP)
The Tennessee-UConn series ended after the 2007 season when Summitt called it off. Summitt never went public about why she ended the series, but Auriemma said at the time that Summitt had accused the Huskies of a recruiting violation that most assumed involved UConn All-American Maya Moore.
The two mended fences a bit with a brief meeting courtside at the 2012 Final Four in Denver, and Auriemma was the first person to donate to the Pat Summitt Foundation with a $10,000 check.
“Sometimes fans may think coaches hate each other. But truly as a player, we never got that sense,” said Tasha Butts, who played for the Lady Vols from 2000-04. “It was a rivalry, and they were two competitive coaches. They were from two different sides of the country and were raised differently. Pat was a country girl that did things a certain way and had certain values of how things were done. Geno was completely different in how he was raised. I don’t think there was hatred, but just two competitive coaches doing what they love.”
Randall understands if some Lady Vols fans remain bitter toward Auriemma for his role in the rivalry over the years.
“I think he is always going to get a little bit of that just because he is a male in the women’s game and the way he probably went about doing it early in his career,” said Randall, in her first season as the interim head coach at Winthrop. “But to me, he has kind of changed his demeanor and maybe softened up a little bit. I definitely felt that way about Pat when I would go back and watch teams play. I thought she was easier on the players. I think it’s a credit to the coaches for changing a little bit because the players have changed.”
Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma meet before the NCAA women's championship in 2004 in New Orleans. (Photo: Getty Images)
Butts has no doubt Summitt would have been diplomatic about Auriemma’s sustained success since the rivalry ended. Auriemma has 11 national titles, breaking Summitt’s record of eight.
“If Pat was still here she would say records are made to be broken,” said Butts, an assistant coach at Georgia Tech. “If you play long enough and coach long enough, records are going to be broken. Pat has not coached since 2012, so it’s taken eight years for coach Tara and coach Geno to reach the all-time wins milestone.”
Kellie Harper was a central figure in many of the Tennessee-UConn rivalry games as a player, and faced the Huskies in her debut season as the coach of the Lady Vols.
As she tries to navigate playing a season through a pandemic, Harper said she hasn’t been preoccupied with Auriemma’s climb up the wins list. If not for several postponed and canceled games, Auriemma would have likely passed Summitt weeks ago.
"I had forgotten about that. I knew he was coming close to it,” Harper said. “To me, Pat set the bar so high and really put something out there, really grew our game. Elevated a lot of other programs in the county. It's an elite group, it is an elite group and just congratulations to him."
For all their differences in upbringing and personality, Summitt and Auriemma shared many defining characteristics when it came to coaching. They were fierce competitors, put a priority on developing strong leaders and engendered an unwavering loyalty from their players.
They pushed women’s basketball to new heights that helped elevate women’s sports overall.
“Hopefully people can be happy for Geno and this milestone because the truth is Pat Summitt would have been happy for him because that is just the type of upstanding woman that she was,” said Anosike, now the coach at Campbell County High. “Anyone that knew her knows that it was never about her. It was about growing the game and bringing respect to the game and it’s happening. The sad part is she is not here to witness it.”
Playing against Auriemma’s UConn teams were some of the best memories of Randall’s career. The two would chirp at each other during games, and Randall even saluted Auriemma after hitting a game-winning shot in 2000 at Gampel Pavilion.
If she were to call Auriemma to congratulate him on passing Summitt’s total, Randall may get the last word this time.
“I can still always say ‘My coach did it first. Ha, ha, ha,’ ” Randall said.
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