A week ago, Lady Vol nemesis Geno Auriemma did what he always does; he stirred the pot.
The head coach of UConn’s women’s basketball program spoke to the media at the second annual Huskies Coaches Road Show, and he was asked about the Lady Vol program and the upcoming renewal of UConn’s series with Tennessee. Auriemma’s comments, while not completely off base, definitely caught the ire of Tennessee fans.
“It’s a different world,” Auriemma said according to Jeff Jacobs of CTPost. “I never understood the big to-do about us playing Tennessee again. With all the teams we play and who we have played the last x number of years, it just doesn’t seem the same. Yeah, the name is the same but nothing else is the same.
“It’s almost like they’re any other school now.”
Kellie Harper played against Auriemma’s Huskies as a player for the Lady Vols from 1995-99. The two programs were an even 4-4 against each other in Harper’s time as a player. Now, Harper is Tennessee’s newest head coach, and she couldn’t disagree more with what Auriemma had to say about the Lady Vols’ program.
“I think everybody is entitled to their own opinion,” Harper said to gathered media at the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Florida. “I don’t think we’re just another program, but I guess everybody can say what they feel like they need to say.”
Though the Lady Vols have slipped far down from where they used to be in terms of on-court success, Harper believes that UT’s prestige is still intact. That’s exemplified in the fact that the Lady Vols were able to sign the No. 1 guard and overall five-star Jordan Horston in the 2019 class despite going through the worst season in program history in 2018-19.
Harper is clearly still a believer in the Lady Vol brand, and she’s excited about the renewal of the UT-UConn series this upcoming season.
“It’s a big game that’s going to do a lot of good. There’s a lot of fundraising around that game,” Harper stated. “There’s a lot of excitement and a lot of talk generated about that game.
“When the teams were playing as No. 1 and No. 2, it was really good for women’s basketball. There was a lot of rivalry and competitiveness surrounding that game. A lot of people talked about it and watched it. Maybe even non-women’s basketball fans watched that game. So I think it was good for the game.”
When the two rivals last played, they were both in the spotlight of women’s hoops. Tennessee was the No. 1 team in the country in 2006 when the two teams played, and UConn was ranked seventh. When UConn and UT played in 2007, the Lady Vols were No. 4 and UConn was No. 5.
But the two teams haven’t played since 2007. That changes this upcoming season, though.
Tennessee will travel to Connecticut in the 2019-20 season for the first game of the series, then UConn will come to Knoxville in the 2020-21 season. A portion of the proceeds from the games will benefit the Pat Summitt Foundation, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Harper added that her and her staff will “have to sit down and evaluate” their future commitments on their schedule to see if UConn and UT will or should play each other after this upcoming series is over. But it’s clear she’s open to the idea, stating that her goal at Tennessee is always to play “high level programs,” and UConn “is definitely that.”
As for her thoughts on Auriemma, Harper took the high road when asked her opinion on him when she was a player and now as a coach.
“Honestly, as a player, I didn’t have a lot of opinions on different coaches. I respected everybody that we played,” Harper stated. “Geno is a very good coach, and he’s a clever coach as well.”
The Lady Vols are 9-13 all-time against UConn, but Tennessee holds a three-game winning streak over the Huskies. No. 10 Tennessee defeated No. 15 UConn 68-67 on January 8, 2005, No. 1 Tennessee beat No. 7 UConn 89-80 on January 7, 2006, and the No. 4 Lady Vols beat No. 5 UConn 70-64 on January 6, 2007.