I wanted to wait a day or two before writing about this. I’m a proud UConn Alumni. I was on campus in 1995 when the women won their first national championship. I can brag to having met several members of the UConn athletic community. I even have a funny story about the men’s team from 1997 that I tell at parties. But I am happy the women lost to Notre Dame the other night and that by itself is a controversial statement.
If I left it there, the hatred I would draw from my fellow Nutmeggers and Huskies would be justified, but again, thats why I wanted to wait to post on this. It’s not a popular viewpoint in these parts and I understand that. So why the Hell, would a guy who claims to Bleed Blue, be happy right now? Because right now, UConn needed to lose to help the sport.
In 1995, UConn went 35-0 on its way to its first national championship. They upended the tournament favorite, Tennessee on their way and started a buzz in an undercovered sport. It was a rematch for the two schools as they had met earlier that season, with the upstart Huskies shocking the Vols. Everyone was certain that Tennessee would enact vengeance in the finals, but it simply didn’t happen. This would lead to a rivalry in which the two teams would meet 22 times in 12 years. UConn won 13 of those matchups, but lost the last three and eventually the rivalry was discontinued. The cause of the discontinuation is a topic of some dispute with many blaming Tennessee coach, Pat Summitt. It was claimed that Summitt refused to play UConn over the recruiting of Maya Moore, but I don’t believe that was ever substantiated.
By the time the rivalry ended after the 2007 season, the seeds had been planted. ESPN was covering more and more games and devoting more resources to covering the sport. Purdue, Notre Dame, Baylor and Maryland had all won their first championships in that time frame becoming the only teams not named Tennessee or UConn to win in that period. But it all started with Uconn beating Tennessee.
Tennessee would win three straight titles following that 1995 title loss. Then Uconn did it themselves winning in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Then just to show them up a little more, they won four in a row 2013-16. The young upstart team had become the face of women’s college basketball, increased television viewership through its back and forth rivalry with Tennessee, and given the entire sport a boost. But success will sometimes change the way you look at a team, as good as the UConn team was, as great as it was for the sport, Uconn had become the very thing they had upset way back in 1995. They had become the team everyone wanted to beat, they were the new Tennessee.
The problem with being the face of a sport, is that you polarize folks. Look at the Yankees as an example. If you asked the average person walking down the street to rate their opinion of the franchise on a scale of 1-10, I’m willing to bet 75%+ of your responses would be at either end of the scale. You are loved or you are hated and that is where UConn found itself going into the 2017 tournament on a massive 100+ game win streak and the presumptive champion, then Mississippi State happened and South Carolina won its first championship. The mighty empire had fallen, but UConn fans simply rallied that the 2018 tournament would be theirs and all season long, it looked like it would be. They started streaking again and entered the tournament undefeated, and then Notre Dame happened. Suddenly, the field was open again, the unbeatable team had slipped once and then faltered again on their redemption tour, anything is now possible.
Every school, every player, now feels like they can play with the big boys. Did you know that two 11 seeds made the sweet sixteen this year? Of course not, because the coverage continues to focus on the big schools, the one seeds, the teams with 35 wins. But the landscape is changing and its fantastic for the game. It’s fantastic for recruiting, for young coaches coming in to the field, for folks who love the sport. If nurtured properly, it can help grow the sport and that’s good for everyone including UConn.
There is a new reason for me to watch UConn basketball. It’s no longer, how big will they win, but IF they will win and that’s a level of excitement we haven’t had in a while. So I’m happy they lost, it hurts, but sorts need to hurt to be worthwhile. Sports without the possibility of loss or failure is boring, uncertainty breeds excitement and interest and reminds us all why we watch in the first place.
So I’m happy they lost. They are amazing scholar athletes who have learned a valuable lesson, nothing is pre-ordained, hard work is all that really matters in the end and that’s just a great thing to carry with you throughout life. I’m happy they lost. They will come back next year and be hungrier, work harder and be a better team because of it. When they look up at the scoreboard mid-season and are winning 75-18 (oh yeah thats happened a bunch), someone on the coaching staff will look down the line as they celebrate and say, ‘Enjoy this, but they’re not Notre Dame’ and they will get even hungrier. I’m happy they lost. Next year when they win, it will be special, not expected; it will be hard-earned, not destiny; they will be champions in their own right, not birthright. I’m happy they lost. I don’t think other schools will be happy to play them next year, but they’ll look forward to it; every one of them will think they are the next giant killer and maybe they will be, but won’t it be exciting to watch? Won’t it be good for the sport? Won’t it be good for the fans. When all this happens, I can be happy they win,