Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Guru Special Feature: How an NHL Strike Helped UConn-Tennessee Get Media Coverage

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

On Friday the 20th anniversary of the now-suspended Tennessee-UConn rivalry was noted and how it positively helped propel attention to the women’s game.

But often times in this matter, several concurrent events serve as catalysts and the Guru being in the middle of things back then knows of several factors that helped impact attention to the first-ever matchup as it approached.

First of all, 1994-95 was the first year that the Associated Press women’s poll was switched to a writers’ poll and the Guru was no longer running the show from the outside and A.P. was doing the work in-house, though the Guru remained as a voter, consultant, etc.

But when the A.P. jumped aboard in-house, it didn’t just set up running the poll. With it came the other growth factors – there would be player and coach of the years awards, more features on the wire service and, most importantly, there would now be short stories sent over the wire every time a ranked team played.

So newspapers in a time when the industry hadn’t yet hit the skids had all this women’s basketball content available, especially in major markets, from the wire service.

Now as the season was getting under way another event was occurring in another sport: The National Hockey League went on strike and it started to extend from the preseason to the regular season and it lasted several months.

So, imagine sports departments who had large news holes to fill back then: because of the strike, a large part of sections suddenly needed content from elsewhere to replace what normally would be the nightly hockey report.

NBA, men’s college hoops and all that were already being covered to the max, so it wasn’t like there was a sudden need to spill over into the NHL vacancy and, besides, at some point the men on ice would be back to work.

So what did sports departments do?, and the Guru noticed it, immediately, trust him.

Women’s game reports and photos started appearing and on lite nights, nationally, the locals in markets started getting attention.

And on ESPN, it was the beginning of the new contract with the NCAA so the sports giant was making more of a commitment that, while nothing like today, was a nice compliment to the news coverage.

Meanwhile, poll-wise, Tennessee, then the New York Yankees of women’s basketball, starts out at the top. UConn, which was a few slots behind the Lady Vols, was coming into its own after falling just short of the Final Four the previous season, losing to eventual champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight.

And the Tar Heels came out of the sweet 16 when Vanderbilt in the regional semifinals, missed two easy inside baskets that otherwise would have sent the Commodores onward and perhaps UConn had the better capability to beat Vandy and get to its second Final Four in 1994.

Thus, the Huskies remained the underdog darling of the populace.

ESPN wanted a rematch for the matinee game with UNC but coach Sylvia Hatchell would have none of it.

Also, the previous summer the Guru was approached by ESPN because the network wanted to kick off the season with a dynamite doubleheader and with not much other exempted events back then, there was a campaign by schools to play.

The Guru organized a special poll to determine the participants and it really was four-for-five – UConn really wanted in but the Huskies fell just short.

Quote at the time form a source close to the person in charge of the team: “We Philly guys have to stick together.”

Otherwise, UConn might have met Tennessee in the season opener and the storyline of 1994-95 would have worked out differently.

Well, with no UNC, and since there was no early Tennessee-UConn event, it became convenient to perhaps have the Lady Vols visit Storrs for that event and since Pat Summitt was the equivalent of Apollo Creed (Rocky movie) going to places to put her program on display and give people a shot at the champ, it didn’t take a major effort to get her to go to Storrs.

OK, so the season starts and the teams between the Lady Vols and Huskies take losses and very quickly and in a few weeks Tennessee and Connecticut are locked 1-2 and winning.

And with no NHL coverage other than progression of the strike, the wins by the two teams would lead the national women’s roundup, getting headlines.

And as the New Year rolled around the radar went up that 1-2 both unbeaten were on a collision course.

The NHL settled early in the new year but this event was becoming too compelling to let go.

And if nothing else, the outside world knew Pat Summitt while Connecticut Geno Auriemma, the Philly attitude guy, started gaining media appeal from his first Final Four trip in 1991.

An excerpt: “We play Jewish basketball like when I was growing up and we would go to the gyms in Philly and these old guys would beat us without breaking a sweat.”

Now remember, the major media centers are all housed in New York so it was easy to send staffers to Storrs and around the country, others wanted their own staffers on the scene to handle eyewitness accounts of the game.

And what they found was while Summitt would keep her players under wraps with no distractions, here was this whole new batch of personalities totally accessible and great feature subjects, particularly Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti.

So once UConn won, though the NHL was back, now no one wanted to drop UConn coverage until the season played out in the Final Four because there was a sense that a repeat was coming.

And Geno was a venerable quote machine: “Do you know how difficult it is for me to be me?” he said to a slew of TV cameras after one game.

The Guru remembers his own Inquirer superiors reacting to a quote the Guru had in a story – oh, yes, the bucks were there to keep going to Storrs, especially since UConn was in the same conference as our locals Villanova and after ’95, Rutgers was also in play.

Anyhow, the quote in Geno commenting on one of his bench players who hadn’t played well in a blowout when given the chance: “She was the Ballantine girl, today,” he said looking at the boxscore: “Three Rings: No points. No rebounds. No assists.”

So there you have it. Rather than letting one other element get lost way down here, since Saturday is a light day, the Guru will tell you 24 hours from now the genesis of what was considered a routine decision to hold the AP poll for one day until the outcome of UConn-Tennessee was known and how that move added to the hype of the first game in the rivalry.

-- Mel

- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad


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