Guru's College Special: How A Previous NHL Lockout Enhanced WBB To UConn's Benefit
Heller is also the men's and women's cross country coach and is a 1986 graduate of Villanova, where he once did servitude for veteran women's basketball coach Harry Perretta of the Wildcats.
Irony No. 1 is that Villanova assistant Heather Vulin just missed getting the Guru the milestone.
Irony No. 2 is that Sports Information Director legend Larry Dougherty of Temple gave the Guru his 1,000th follower a year ago. The Guru has been longtime friends with both.
By the way, the announcement the Guru promised in Monday's post is temporarily suspended to finish some housekeeping details before the presentation. And now on with the report.)
By Mel Greenberg
As the lockout in the National Hockey League has contined into November, the Guru recalls how a work stoppage under similar circumstances back in the fall of 1994 actually helped women's basketball and in particularly the University of Connecticut.
About the time the NHL owners' action began on Oct. 1 that year, a switch was being made in women's basketball polling history.
The Associated Press began doing the compiliation in-house, as opposed to the Guru handling things by remote, and a switch was made to use writers and broadcasters on the women's panel instead of coaches. the same system the wire service has used on all its other sports polls.
As an addition to the weekly vote, all-America teams determined by the media panel were to be added to the AP package along with national player and coach of the year awards, which are given at the NCAA Women's Final Four.
But more important, the AP was ready to step up ongoing coverage of the season from opening tip in November until a champion was determined the following March or April, depending how the calendar fell.
Thus a commitment was made to also send short stories across the wire nightly with a roundup also provided of any women's game involving a team in the Top 25.
In several situations, where a bureau chief wasn't overwhelmed by the mixture of sports and news on the daily plate, stories on even non-Top 25 teams would find their way into the digest.
This was back in what can be called the Camelot era of newspapers when space was plentiful, expense accounts for travel were more liberal, etc., etc.
Meanwhile, heading into that 1994-95 season, ESPN was seeking a rematch of the Elite Eight game of the previous spring when North Carolina had beaten UConn to move on to the Final Four and eventually win the NCAA title on Charlotte Smith's famous three-point shot at the end of regulation against Louisiana Tech.
But Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell did not find it tasty to go to the frozen north in the middle of winter and so refused.
Some at the time thought the future Women's Basketball Hall of Famer got confused and when ESPN talked about going to UConn, Hatchell thought the network officials meant Yukon, the territory in Alaska.
Still, the sports network wanted an afternoon attraction on Martin Luther King Day and at that time found a willing participant in Tennessee legendary coach Pat Summitt to go play against the up-and-coming Geno Auriemma-coached Huskies.
So the season got under way: Tennessee was No. 1 in the opening vote and Connecticut was No. 4 with No. 2 Purdue and No. 3 Louisiana Tech sandwiched between the two programs from the North and South.
But a curious thing also began to happen in sports sections.
As your Guru told you earlier, it was the hey day of newspapers with lots of space in the sports section.
But there was a problem. No NHL owner/labor peace meant no hockey games and with no games, sports editors had to scramble to fill the space that was occupied that time of year by the boys on ice.
And suddenly, there came an easy solution -- use the AP women's roundup and its accounts to occupy the vacumn.
In some places where some of the more liberal editors who had daughters in athletics existed, they enhanced the report by also running the local roundup with the national report.
And so everything moved forward.
Purdue took a tumble at the outset, so Stanford, which had been sixth, leapfrogged over Connecticut to No. 2, but the Huskies moved up to third ahead of Louisiana Tech.
No movement occured at the top at week three, but in week four Stanford lost and suddenly Connecticut was at an all-time rankings high in second when the week four rankings were released.
And then for the next five weeks the Lady Vols and Huskies marched lock step 1-2 and unbeaten. With pictures from games along the way and fancy displays on the sports pages, people began to notice.
And what they also noticed is that the scheduled Martin Luther King date was on the horizon and 1 vs. 2 was on a collision course ready to impact in tiny Storrs, the campus community of the Huskies buried a few miles away from the nearby civilization that was Hartford.
OK, make the locale of civilization Vernon where the fabulous NY deli Reins is located.
Meanwhile, peace was finding a path into the NHL fray and on Jan. 11 the war was over, just five days before the Tennessee-UConn showdown.
Nut reporters all over the mid-Atlantic seaboard had already suddenly found themselves assigned to head to Gampel Pavilion that frosty afternoon.
Added to excitment came yet another wrinkle from AP.
The way the weekly process works in terms of the poll, games through Sunday night are the cutoff point, the panel votes and then communicates their ballots to AP in New York by Monday afternoon.
Then the poll is released early Monday night and appears in newspapers the following morning.
But the powers that be, including Chuck Schoffner, who was Doug Feinberg's predecessor as the national in-house women's basketball journalist at AP, decided it might look strange in the wake of the Tennessee-UConn outcome if the team that won might not be the team No. 1 the following morning, especially if that team happened to be the underdog Huskies.
Furthermore, no one had games scheduled because of the holiday, a reason ESPN foresaw to showcase the game prior to knowing it might become a 1-2 matchup.
Thus, a decision was made to have the AP voters not cast ballots until the outcome at the top was determined.
The rest is history.
Connecticut won and immediately became media darlings, especially with the major national publication headquarters a few hours away easily accessible to jump on the bandwagon.
And it didn't hurt to have a new face in the mix in UConn's Auriemma, who became Mr. Entertainment and an unstoppable quote machine to the delight of those on the beat.
Meanwhile, Hockey was back, but so what?
This story was too good to let go and of course the epologue was provided several months later when unbeaten Connecticut and Tennessee met in the title game in Minneapolis with the Huskies rallying in the closing minutes to finish with an unbeaten record.
With all this fuss over UConn being visible to the folks at the NBA, who were looking for a way to provide a better feeder system towards the Olympics, the fuse was lit that exploded into the WNBA in the summer of 1997 while the American Basketball League had a short-lived two seasons life.
One of the ABL teams was the New England Blizzard, which gave the UConn crowd a pro team of their own. When the league went bankrupt, the populace continued to lobby the WNBA to break the mold of requiring an NBA big brother for each squad.
In 2003, the league finally gave in, allowing the failing Orlando Miracle to be bought by the Mohegan Tribe and moved to the Mohegan Sun near New London where it has become one of the more successful franchises, though a WNBA crown has remained out of reach.
And all this because of the scorched earth conflict in the NHL in which No Ice meant No Dice, except that suddenly there was a rattle and women's basketball had rolled snake eyes.
What happens off the current NHL dispute? Probably nothing in terms of benefits this time around. Newspapers are suffering economically but the internet and other technological enhancements provide alternatives to see the action and get results.
And there's more TV than ever.
But if the NHL continus to be idle, then what?
The answer is Baylor vs. UConn in Hartford -- much bigger than Storrs.
It'll be 1 vs 2. and ice or no ice that game will be one hot ticket.
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