By Mel Greenberg
_ Almost a year ago, we attended the first of a series of Hall of Fame inductions for Geno Auriemma, who built the University of Connecticut women’s basketball program into a national powerhouse.
The occasion was the Montgomery County Hall of Fame ceremony just outside Norristown near here where Auriemma grew up.
St. Joseph’s men’s coach Phil Martelli, who once hired Auriemma as an assistant boys coach at Bishop Kenrick High, Auriemma’s alma mater, was the guest speaker.
As for Auriemma’s acceptance speech, noting the local crowd and reflecting on his youthful years, Auriemma reflected that “the one thing that makes this night different than most others is that tonight I probably know almost everybody in the room.”
Moving months later into the spring, Auriemma was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., which is also the home of Connecticut’s greatest rival _ the University of Tennessee.
A series of roller-coaster events over several weeks leading up to that induction caused Auriemma to be a little less glib than he normally has been on many occasions.
There was the last-second loss to Duke in the Bridgeport Regional that blocked another appearance at a Women’s Final Four.
That was soon replaced with the joy of the announcement of Auriemma’s election to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., where his induction will occur Friday night.
Then came the sudden and tragic death of first-year Army coach Maggie Dixon occurred right after the finals in Boston.
A few days later, Auriemma was hospitalized for diverticulitis.
Then came the trip to Knoxville.
And so we approach the events in Springfield, Mass., where print and blog coverage of Auriemma and the other inductees will be provided here and in The Inquirer over the next several days.
As much as we’re on the end of Geno’s Philly angle _ several others in the Inquirer sports department will also be handling stories _ it will be fascinating to view the UConn media horde at work this time around.
To be sure, especially after recent reports of Auriemma becoming involved with the once-vacant opening for the men’s position at Oklahoma, how many will be ready to compare Geno’s draw contrasted to the following a year ago that attended ceremonies for Connecticut men’s coach Jim Calhoun, when he was an inductee.
A month ago during the WNBA’s stretch drive, a former prominent UConn star known for her ability to match Geno’s wit, was asked what she knew of the Oklahoma story.
The individual, who declined to speak formally for the record, said, “I know it got close.”
Asked if her name might be mentioned in relation to the quote, she deadpanned, “Just say you talked to someone who played there for four years and is quite familiar with Mr. Auriemma’s dealings.”
That person will be unable to attend because of a prior commitment with a certain USA Basketball Senior Women’s Team preparing for the FIBA World Championships in Brazil.
But we’ll be on the scene Thursday night at the Reunion Dinner that kicks off the events. UConn notoriety aside, Auriemma’s celebration will still be strongly laced with a Philadelphia accent.
For one thing, he has chosen Hall of Famer Jack Ramsay, the former St. Joseph’s men’s coach in Philadelphia, to be his escort to the proceedings at Friday night’s ceremony and receptions.
Incidentally, two Philly types who won’t be attending, are Villanova women’s coach Harry Perretta, who has managed to provide his share of court torture to UConn in Auriemma’s early years with the program, and Jim Foster, the Ohio State women’s coach who hired Auriemma as an assistant with the Bishop McDevitt girls team and then at St. Joseph’s when Foster succeeded Rene Portland in charge of the Hawks.
“I had a prior commitment long before, but I did reach him in the office to wish him well,” Perretta said Tuesday night.
Foster was located at an airport waiting for a flight to Nova Scotia where he had his annual vacation scheduled.
Ironically, a slew of major events in UConn’s history under Auriemma have had a Philly-relation to them.
For example, Villanova, with Perretta’s famous slow-mo offense and three-point perimeter attack, owned the Big East in the 1980s.
UConn finally began make headway when the Huskies snapped the Wildcats’ long domination with a 64-63 victory on Feb. 11, 1989, using Villanova’s special poison _ a three-point shot as time expired to claim the victory.
A Few weeks later Connecticut won its first Big East tournament but Auriemma was sidelined as part of a penalty for being mathematically-challenged and incorrectly scheduling one-too-many games.
To help get under the cap, Syracuse agreed to have its game with the Huskies cancelled. Auriemma was also suspended through the Big East tournament, which Connecticut won to earn an NCAA bid.
However, Connecticut’s NCAA debut was short-lived when La Salle, from Philadelphia, beat the Huskies and advanced to the next round at Tennessee, delaying the Huskies’ first hookup with the Volunteers until the famous 1 vs. 2 game in 1995.
One of the Explorers stars involved in the win was Kelly Greenberg, who later became coach at Penn and is now at Boston U.
The next Philly association with Auriemma’s progress occurred in 1991.
Although Virginia was the dominant team in the nation that year, the big news in the Northeast was the emergence of Penn State to No. 1 after upsetting the Cavaliers in Charlottesville during the season to become the first Northeastern team atop the Associated Press poll.
Then the fun began. Rutgers, under Immaculata graduate Theresa Grentz, was upset by Bill Fennelly’s Toledo team, which then advanced to UConn for the second round.
The Huskies won that game to advance to Philadelphia at the Palestra for the regional when a Toledo basket at the buzzer was ruled by referee Dee Kantner to not count.
“She made the most important call in the history of the UConn program,” Auriemma has said over the years.
Penn State, meanwhile, became the first No. 1 team to lose to an unranked team when the Nittany Lions were upset by James Madison at State College.
That caused a few aspirins to be popped by officials in Philadelphia who had thought Penn State was a cinch to advance and help produce a large crowd.
But Auriemma’s Philly ties made Connecticut the local sweetheart and the Huskies responded with upsets of North Carolina State and Clemson to advance to their first Final Four in New Orleans.
That success helped Connecticut land a recruit whose name happened to be Rebecca Lobo.
When the Huskies won their first NCAA title in 1995, Philadelphia was then awarded the 2000 Finals with an eye to Auriemma having a major homecoming.
He responded and UConn beat Tennessee in 2000 to at the then-named First Union Center for the Huskies second national title.
A year later, Connecticut lost to eventual champion Notre Dame in the national semifinals. The Irish were and are coached by Muffet McGraw, a former St. Joseph’s star who succeeded Auriemma as an assistant to Foster at her alma mater in the early days.
By the way, one of the officials who hired him at Connecticut was Pat Meiser, a former Penn State coach who later became the athletic director of Hartford and hired one former Huskies star in Jen Rizzotti to be those Hawks’ first coach.
Rizzotti’s hire also unwittingly set the stage a year later for Temple in Philadelphia to hire Dawn Staley as a coach since Rizzotti had shown one could succeed coaching college and playing in the WNBA.
The next stop on the non-degree-of-separation-from-Philly-roots tour was in 1996 when Connecticut in Chicago beat a Vanderbilt team then coached by Foster to advance to the next round.
The two friends almost met in the 1994 regional final at Rutgers but Vanderbilt lost at the buzzer to North Carolina, which then beat Connecticut and went on to win the NCAA on the famous Charlotte Smith shot.
Another Philly moment occurred with great national controversy in 1998.
That’s when Perretta and Auriemma conspired to help an injured Nykesha Sales to hobble onto the court and score against the Wildcats at Villanova to set the school scoring record. That game, incidentally, went into overtime before UConn won, causing the Guru to write in the paper the next morning that Perretta began the night doing his friend Auriemma a favor and then attempting to beat his brains out for the next 40 minutes. A loss would have put the Huskies’ NCAA situation in some jeopardy if it didn’t win the Big East.
We already talked about 2000 and 2001.
Perretta was a menace again in 2003 when Villanova upset Connecticut in the Big East tournament title game at Rutgers to snap the Huskies’ NCAA-record women’s win streak at 70.
“I saved (coach) John Wooden,” Perretta later beamed alluding to the overall streak by UCLA that was being threatened by UConn.
Of course, the Huskies then responded by reeling off six straight wins for another NCAA title.
In recent years, there’s been the conference rivalry with Rutgers coached by C. Vivian Stringer, who once coached at Cheyney, a school located in the western suburbs of Philadelphia.
So on that note, we’ll close coverage with two lists below.
One notes all the Philadelphia connections in the Hall of Fame in Springfield.
The other is the list of all the women’s program notables who are enshrined, including Auriemma.
So until 24 hours from now after we know Wednesday night’s WNBA result, we’ll be back. And here’s those lists. -- Mel
Philly Ties to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame
NBA-76ers or Phila. Warriors
Paul Arizin, player
Charles Barkley, player
Larry Brown, coach
Al Cervi, coach
Wilt Chamberlain, player
Billy Cunningham, player-coach
Julius Erving, player
Joe Fulks, player
Tom Gola (also La Salle) player
Eddie Gottlieb, coach
Hal Greer, player
Alex Hannum, coach
Bailey Howell, player
Neil Johnston, coach
Moses Malone, player
Frank McGuire, coach
Andy Phillip, player
Jack Ramsay, coach
Dolph Schayes, player-coachSchools
Paul Arizona, Villanova player
John Chaney, Temple, coach
Chuck Daly, Penn, coach
Ken Loeffler, La Salle, coach
Harry Litwack, Temple, coach
James Pollard, La Salle, coach
Ralph Morgan, Penn, contributorGrew up in the area
Geno Auriemma (Norristown), Connecticut women’s coach
Earl Monroe (Phila.), played for New York Knicks
Earl “Yogi” Strom (Pottstown), refereeEnd of Philadelphia Section
Women’s coaches or players or contributors in Naismith
Geno Auriemma, Connecticut coach
Leon Barmore, Louisiana Tech coach
Senda Berenson Abbott, Smith College, contributor
Carol Blazjowski, Montclair State player
Joan Crawford, Nashville Business College, player
Jody Conradt, Texas coach
Denise Curry, UCLA player
Anne Donovan, Old Dominion player
Sue Gunter, Louisiana State coach
Lusia Harris-Stewart, Delta State player
Nancy Lieberman, Old Dominion player
Hortencia Marcari, Brazil player
Ann Meyers, UCLA player
Cheryl Miller, Southern Cal, player
Billie Moore, UCLA coach
Uljana Semjonova, Soviet Union, player
Pat Summitt, Tennessee coach
Bertha F. Teague, Oklahoma A&M, player
Nera White, Nashville Business College, player
Lynnette Woodard, Kansas-Harlem Globetrotter player
Kay Yow, North Carolina State coach
L. Margaret Wade, Delta State coach