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.
By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru
This is a new Guru feature to offer guided tours down memory lane to recall events or persons he has encountered through the various decades.
The trigger for this post was clicked off the weekend snowstorm here in the Northeast and the comparison the weather people made by reaching back to 1996.
As the Guru worked his magic to dodge the elements along with keeping the Guru mobile also out of storm’s way a memory came flashing back of the white stuff of that winter and its relation to women’s basketball.
Basically, what dovetailed off the national schedule on the docket for that particular weekend when the end of the world was being predicted was Connecticut and Tennessee were to meet in Knoxville on a Saturday afternoon in the first clash between the two teams after the Huskies had completed a two-game 1995 sweep by winning the NCAA title on the heels of beating the Lady Vols in Storrs in a 1-2 game two months earlier to give UConn its first-ever No. 1 ranking.
In planning the trip and mindful of the weather folks, the Guru had calculated he could go and come out of Baltimore where Southwest Airways, long before gaining its Philly foothold, offered a $70 round-trip.
Off the original forecast, he could get back and race back north ahead of the storm which was coming from the South. But to play it safe, the Guru chose to park his car right near the terminals so in case it would snow earlier, the car wouldn’t be unreachable for several days.
Also, in Knoxville, when rentals were really cheap the Guru started low but the price was so low that he could basically upgrade all the way to drive a pseudo Sherman tank for $19 a day.
Most of the then large national group of writers on the beat and the then-quite large horde contingent on the UConn beat headed into Tennessee and we all stayed back then for a decent rate at the Holiday Inn near the old World’s Fair Grounds while the team was at the Hyatt a mile away on a big hill.
That building is now a Marriott located next door to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
This game had extra drama because Tennessee had recently taken over the NCAA home-court win streak record for women and because after meeting the Lady Vols at home in Gampel in Storrs and then Minneapolis, it was off to the house that Pat Summitt built.
Well, the game was close but near the end off the play of Jen Rizzotti, who had replaced the graduated Rebecca Lobo as the marque player, and Kara Wolters, the Huskies took control and won.
Back in those early days of the forthcoming UConn powerhouse, the extra benefit for the media was after official business, hanging around Geno Auriemma and hear tales and tales and tales.
In fact, postgame used to be really long because there was the formal immediate after give and take with the print folk, then showtime with the then-vast local TV corp that traveled, and then, when time allowed and deadlines were not on the horizon, the shoot-the-breeze portion.
Eventually we went off, filed our stories and then the traveling corp usually dined together.
Meanwhile, up North the area was beginning to get socked in while down South it just rained most of the night until the white stuff arrived.
Now, there wasn’t a lot of accumulation happening in Knoxville, except that handling that condition that was paltry to the Yankee contingent was not something Vols folks could cope with.
In fact when daylight arrived the next morning, the Guru packed for the flight home only to be told when he got to the lobby, nobody was going anywhere, all flights were cancelled.
Just then as we were all finishing rebooking a shot for the next day, Meghan Culmo, a member of the 1991 first UConn Final Four team, arrived to tell us, Geno wants us all over where the team was.
Well at first there was some reticence because of the hills but Guru had the heavy-duty vehicle so we all packed in as the Guru showed the local Orange group weren’t the only driving force in Knoxville.
The hotel has since been remodeled but on that particular wintery Sunday morning, we arrived to see a nice buffet set up, the players participating in rounds of pool, and a television beaming an NFL playoff game in which Auriemma’s beloved Philadelphia Eagles were about to be bird-handled by the arch-rival Dallas Cowboys.
As the hours went on, the Guru suddenly realized that his prediction had come true in which a Geno Saturday postgame press conference had extended and transformed into a Sunday brunch.
Anyhow, later that night, the media contingent went out for one more meal – Knoxville had many fine restaurants – and the UConn wing was to go on to Miami as the Huskies resumed their Big East schedule and the rest of us prepared to make way to attempt to get back up North.
Monday morning, the snow had totally melted and the Guru headed to the airport, turned in the rental, whose rates were about to zoom above the weekend specials, and walked to counter to look up and see a wall of blinking lights highlighting the word Cancelled.
Now came a dilemma. Reclaiming a car would cost much more, and getting back to town was no prize since the hotel rates were also going to be higher. However, the Guru shot down the walkway and managed to get the last room in the adjoining Hilton.
Meanwhile, the Guru’s main job at that time at The Inquirer – the move to sports staff came a few years later – was to be the paper’s liason for the chain’s Knight-Ridder News Wire.
Back then, the Guru would electronically fetch through a phone line into a computer all relative news going into the next day’s paper, run it through a computer program to clean up type commands, then send it through a phone line to Washington, where the wire people took care of the rest.
Each paper in the now defunct Knight-Ridder chain had a person with the same responsibilities.
The key is your Guru figured out how to do the job without being in the office, though while a Watts line transmission could be used with The Inquirer, the transmission back to Washington was a toll call.
But the paper paid the expenses but the Guru showed the benefits that they wouldn’t have to pay someone else overtime to fill in while he was off chasing women’s hoops coverage.
So the Guru settled in, and then looped all the paper’s weather coverage, among other news of the day, on its way.
The next morning upon returning to the gate – remember there is a car to reclaim that was dry but in Baltimore – the Guru was told the best bet was he would be connected to Pittsburgh and on to Philadelphia – BWI was still going to be closed.
At the connect, he would be placed standby to possibly get an earlier flight.
Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, a whole bunch of people who looked important arrived from Dallas, where they, too, were snowbound after the Eagles game. So we were all lumped together.
As the first available cameup, the Guru heard over the intercom at the gate, Mr. Greenberg, you got this flight, Mr. (Ron) Jaworski, we’ll get you on the next one.
But now upon getting home, the next day, the Guru had to take Amtrak to BWI to get the car so in the end the car in the garage cost more than the hotels and the weather problems negated the whole fly out of Baltimore deal.
However, there is an epilogue in that several weeks later there was a declaration that anyone who didn’t show up for work and was scheduled – never mind that the city had said everyone stay home – would be docked unless they wanted to use the day as one of their holidays.
However, when it came to the Guru, because he did the job he was scheduled to do, though it was a few pennies to do it elsewhere (the trip was paid for out of sports), he was considered to have worked his normal day.
And the moral of that story as it ended was the Guru saying, if you are going to cover the Huskies, of course you have to expect to have to deal with snow in the process.
Tomorrow: Remembering Kay Yow in Total Recall along with the normal coverage in other posts.