A secularized existence. That’s what women’s college basketball was before the 1990s. A sport viewed as inferior and unattractive compared to the men’s game, it was lacking a star team and star player that resonated on television. Until one incredible season birthed a dynasty, re-wrote the rules and changed the sport.
Rebecca Lobo drives a minivan. That, she thought, would be an embarrassing enough part of the story. This was Valentine’s Day, only a few weeks ago, following a wonderful day reminiscing and honoring the 20th anniversary of the 1994-95 Connecticut national championship team. Before she left, her four kids sat in the back, clamoring to watch something on the hour-long drive back home. Cartoons, she thought.
Mommy! We want to watch your DVD!
Yeah! The national championship game!
They had never watched it and now was as good of a time as any, she figured. Lobo has one of those minivans with the video screens in the backs of the seats, so she popped in the DVD of the championship game against Tennessee and began the 40-mile drive home from Storrs. Her kids laughed and giggled. They talked about how young she was and how “Mr. Auriemma” looked the same. They wanted to know about Pat Summitt and Kara and Jen and Jamelle.
Driving through a worsening snowstorm, Lobo began to find herself listening to the game, driving down memory lane with her kids. Suddenly, she had a hilariously macabre thought pop into her head.
“I realized I wasn’t really paying attention to the road,” she recalled, laughing. “And I thought, ‘I’m going to get into an accident.’ And wouldn’t that be some headline: ‘Rebecca Lobo is killed in a car accident while forcing her children to watch the 1995 national championship game — in a minivan.'”
It was the perfect capstone to a day that had been spent in the past.
Twenty years have passed since the 1994-95 UConn women’s basketball team went 35-0, winning the national championship along the way. Earlier that day at the ceremony they all kept thinking: “How had 20 years gone by so quickly?” They are older now, with kids and lives and careers of their own, but that entire afternoon they were reminded how impactful that team was.
Teams in women’s basketball had gone undefeated before the Huskies did it in the spring of 1995. Immaculata in 1973. Delta State in 1975. Louisiana Tech in 1981. Those teams did it before there was even a Women’s NCAA tournament. Texas with Jody Conradt did it in 1986. Teams — including UConn four times — have done it since. So, why was that Connecticut team unique? Why did they have an outsized impact on the sport where others didn’t or haven’t?
“It’s still a head-scratcher,” said Carla Berube, a sophomore on that team. “I think it was just the right time. There were some really great personalities on our team — our coach had a really great personality — so I think there was a really great story there. It was not just, ‘a good basketball team.'”
It was a team that became part of people’s lives.
Lobo was still struck by how many people approached her and told her their stories while mingling with her and the other players before, during and after that Valentine’s Day ceremony. They talked about how that team got them into women’s basketball. About how that team made them want to go to UConn. About how that team gave them the entryway to encourage their daughters to get involved in sports.
About how that team gave them a reason to pick up a ball and play.
The 1994-95 Huskies team began the season with a desperate mission by their coach, Geno Auriemma, to get his three seniors back to the Final Four. What happened over the next six months captured the hearts of a region, and a nation, and altered the landscape of women’s college basketball.
A dynasty was born. Television bought in. Rivalries were created. Professional leagues benefitted. All because of the right team, in the right environment, at the absolute perfect time.
“In hindsight, it had a huge impact,” Lobo said. “It was the catalyst for much that followed.”
DAVID BECOMES GOLIATH
Even though the University of Connecticut’s acreage is larger than Ohio State or Michigan, it is isolated in a way that you might not realize if you have never visited the Storrs campus. It straddles a two-lane stretch of state Route 195. It’s always snowy in the winter, cold the rest of the year, and outside of the campus footprint, you’re completely surrounded by farmland.
It is where Geno Auriemma first saw the chance to build something that no one else had.
“No one other than coach Auriemma could have done it,” Lobo said. “Anyone can do it with support and resources. But there, it’s him. It’s his vision. It’s just him. He’s the special ingredient that made Connecticut women’s basketball what it is.”
The program was created in 1974, and the Huskies enjoyed one winning season in their first 11 years — 1980-81, when the team went 16-14. Connecticut was 52-88 all-time when it fired head coach Jean Balthaser in the spring of 1985, and athletic director John Toner decided it was time for a change. As a member of the burgeoning Big East Conference, he wanted the school to make a serious commitment to men’s and women’s basketball.
He took a chance and hired a Virginia assistant from suburban Philadelphia named Geno Auriemma.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to John that can never be repaid,” Auriemma said in a statement at the time of Toner’s death in last September. [Auriemma and other UConn officials were not made available for this story by the school’s sports information staff.]
In 1988-89, the school made its first trip to the NCAA tournament. Two years after that, the Huskies made a surprise run to the Final Four as a #3 seed. Still, it was a challenge to find a star. Recruits would listen to his vision and plans, but the Connecticut campus was … isolated. And cold.
Why go there when you could go anywhere else?
That all changed when Rebecca Lobo said “yes.”
“He didn’t pitch me,” Lobo recalled. “We just had conversations about basketball and a variety of things. But it was never him pitching basketball or saying, ‘This is what our program could be.’ It was just him getting to know me.”
Lobo was a Parade All-American with nearly 100 schools after her. She was one of the three transformational high school recruits of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, along with Cheryl Miller and Lisa Leslie. Lobo scored 2,710 points in high school in Southwick, Massachusetts — a small New England town about an hour north of UConn’s campus. She wanted to stay close to home and Auriemma saw a chance to rewrite how women’s basketball was being played. At 6-foot-4, she could play inside and out and had a deft 3-point touch. For a girl her size, she ran the floor effortlessly.
“The reason why I chose Connecticut was because they were an up-and-coming program,” said Jamelle Elliott, a junior forward on that 1994-95 team. “That 1991 Final Four helped get it going, too. It helped pick recruiting up around the country. Me, being in D.C., I only knew who UConn was because of that 1991 Final Four team.”
Once players began to see how entertaining women’s basketball was becoming with Lobo and Auriemma at the helm, his recruiting base began to grow. It expanded beyond the northeast. He began going south into Maryland and Virginia. West into Ohio and Indiana.
Blue chip players began contacting Auriemma. They saw the results he was getting and it was an easy sell.
Plus, with the school having built an 8,000-plus seat on campus arena in 1990, he had the facilities to back up the wins.
“I didn’t know anybody who went,” said Cheryl Rosenberg, a former Hartford Courant sportswriter, who was a student at UConn from 1986-90. “Building Gampel made a huge difference. They were playing in the old (Hugh S. Greer) fieldhouse before then.”
The 1994-95 season though, became a nightly recruiting pitch. The winning streak, the exposure on television, the fun style of play — what player didn’t want that? Lobo left UConn as the program’s first multi-All-American player. In the last 20 years, Connecticut has produced 11 other players who have been named an All-American at least twice in their career.
Two players from the 2014-2015 team — Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Breanna Stewart — will likely be the 13th and 14th in program history.
“I think the most important thing is that it’s remained true to the program that I knew when I went there 22 years ago,” Berube, now the head coach at Tufts in Boston, said. “When I decided to go there, it wasn’t any powerhouse. Geno was trying to build something great and I wanted to play with Rebecca Lobo and Jen Rizzotti. Those were going to be my teammates and I knew there was going to be something special there.”
“THEY BECAME OUR PROFESSIONAL TEAM”
People thought Jerry Franklin was out of his mind.
Three years prior to the 1994-95 season, Franklin — president and CEO of the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network — had began a small experiment. After being contacted by a state legislator to inquire about “getting the [Lady Huskies] some exposure,” the community-owned network took on a small handful of games to broadcast live every season. Two games in 1991-92, four in 1992-93, six in 1993-94.
Nothing substantial, just enough to not get burned if no one ended up watching. People were watching — many more than Franklin dreamed. So before the 1994-95 season, Franklin brought up an idea:
Let’s broadcast every game the major networks aren’t.
“People thought I was bonkers at the time,” Franklin recalled. “Some of the people actually thought the women still played in only half-court.”
Franklin forged ahead. Any game that the major networks wouldn’t pick up would be broadcast on CPTV. Given that the major networks had commitments to NFL playoff games, miniseries and award shows — that meant nearly 30 games. The payoff was bigger than anyone could’ve imagined.
“We had phenomenal ratings,” he said. “We would get an 8.0, 9.0 or a 10.0 per game — which are NFL playoff numbers. Those numbers are huge. No one in public broadcasting would get ratings like that.”
The deal between the state’s public broadcasting network and the Connecticut women’s team was a revolutionary step. Suddenly, the Huskies were being televised each night in every household in the state, as well as some border areas of Massachusetts and New York. They were among the first women’s college basketball programs to enjoy their own local television contract.
CPTV paid the school $1 million for the broadcast rights, beginning with the 1994-95 season. And then, Franklin got lucky: Normally, there would be no space for coverage of women’s basketball highlights on TV or in print media coverage, but UConn had one other thing working in its favor: The 1994 NHL work stoppage.
The strike lasted until Jan. 11, but by that point Connecticut’s story was in full swing and about to get even larger five days later when it faced Tennessee.
“When they went on strike, editors needed something to fill the space,” said Mel Greenberg. “And they would run a wire story or a news service story on the top team or two. Well, those stories started going all across the country.”
In a pre-social media and 24-hour news cycle era, Connecticut was perfectly placed to be consumed by those outside the borders of the Nutmeg state. Storrs was a three-hour drive from New York City; a two-hour drive from Boston. Even Philadelphia was doable in under five hours. Not to mention the slew of local media which covered the team on a daily basis.
As the winning streak grew, the attention exploded.
“Geno was the perfect person for all of it,” said Greenberg, who closely began following the team as the season moved along. “You’d go to a bar in the team hotel the night before a game and there would be Geno, holding court with a bunch of us.”
The New York Times began to cover the team regularly. Sports Illustrated and USA Today parachuted in for feature stories. The Hartford Courant, the state’s largest newspaper, already had begun treating the program like a professional team, but as the wins mounted, even they upped their coverage.
Most importantly, ESPN began to take note.
Bristol was only an hour away, making it easy to get to any game for a live shot or interview. Suddenly, the network’s flagship program — SportsCenter — was regularly showing UConn women’s highlights. Occasionally, even leading the broadcast with them.
“We were covering women’s basketball since we launched ESPN,” Stiff said. “But I think the star power on that UConn team in ’94-’95 and that outlets like the New York Times started covered the games; that CPTV was the first TV entity that was doing the games — it ignited a lot of energy.”
None of that has waned in the 20 years since.
Even as newspapers have shrunk in size and budgets and the media landscape has changed, UConn women’s basketball is still one of the most trafficked and read beats in the state.
“It changed how we would cover them forever,” said Jeff Otterbein, who has been the Hartford Courant’s sports editor since 1990. “They earned it. So from that point forward, it was clear: We would have reporters and photographers at home and road games; we would send a columnist at times; virtually everything we did on them would be on the sports cover. … The state was in love with them and for us, it was simply a must-cover, in all aspects.”
The Huskies have become even bigger on television. This season alone, 10 of their games were on the ESPN family of networks, including one (at Notre Dame in the Jimmy V Classic) on ESPN. Every other game is still broadcast, though it’s now done through New York City-based SportsNet New York.
Connecticut wanted to reach more homes and have a greater footprint in the metropolitan New York area, so the school signed a 4-year deal worth $4.55 million in 2012 to move its games from CPTV to SNY.
“We had an 18-year love affair,” Franklin said. “We don’t have a professional team — we’re torn between the Red Sox and the Yankees — so the UConn women became our professional team. So regardless of what town you lived in or what bar you went to, you could be watching the women play basketball.”
A DAY TO THEMSELVES
Pat Summitt didn’t care. That’s how she built the Tennessee Lady Vols into the premier women’s program in the country. She didn’t care who you were, where you were located or how good you were — if she could steel her team for another championship run, she’d play you.
That’s why Carol Stiff went to her when a dream idea began to die.
Before the 1994-95 season, ESPN’s top two directors of college programming — Tom Odjakjian and Stiff — saw a vacancy on Martin Luther King Day and started thinking. The network was only 15 years old, but was heavily invested with college programming at that point. So on Jan. 16, the network had a hole to fill in the middle of the day and thought about featuring women’s basketball.
Connecticut was ranked No. 4 in the preseason polls, had gone to the Elite Eight the season before and returned one of the game’s rising stars in Lobo. And because of the network’s contract with the Big East Conference, the Huskies were in.
The question was: Who would their opponent be?
“I went to an ACC school, North Carolina, because they had just won the national championship,” said Stiff, now a vice president of multimedia strategy and integration at ESPN. “I would keep depth charts of all the tops teams when scheduling matchups, so I told (Carolina head coach) Sylvia Hatchell, ‘I think this UConn team is going to be pretty good next year.'”
North Carolina turned the game down. Stiff’s next call was to Summitt.
It was a perfect confluence of events: Tennessee would begin the season ranked No. 1 in the country. The Lady Vols were everything that Auriemma was trying to build at Connecticut — a nationally relevant program with trophies in the cabinet, who landed the best recruits and dominated the sport. When Stiff called Summitt, she was at first reluctant to squeeze a non-conference game in the midst of her SEC slate.
But the game would tip at 1 p.m. on the East Coast and it would be on ESPN. Not tape-delayed or pre-empted for billiards. Live coverage of two top teams on a national holiday, broadcast across the country.
“For the good of the game,” Summitt told Stiff. “I’ll take the game.”
Even 20 years later, the “Big Bang” moment in women’s college basketball didn’t occur when the Huskies cut down the nets three months later against the Lady Vols. It was that Martin Luther King Day game.
When No. 1 Tennessee traveled to No. 2 Connecticut, both teams were undefeated.
“I’ll never forget walking into Gampel before the game and the place was already packed,” Odjakjian, now a senior associate commissioner with the American Athletic Conference, recalled. “You have to remember, this was 1995. We were showing women’s games, but they were moved around a lot. Even with ESPN2 just starting, giving a women’s basketball game a prime slot like that was rare. It exceeded even our expectations.”
The matchup was so monumental in the sport that the Associated Press Top 25 poll — usually released every Monday evening — was delayed by a day, to account for the result. The only time in the poll’s 20-year history of being conducted by writers and broadcasters that it was held up.
“We looked at it and nobody else was playing,” said Mel Greenberg, the longtime writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, who helped organize the women’s top 25. “I talked with (AP sports writer) Chuck Schoffner and we agreed that if UConn won that game and they weren’t No. 1, the average person isn’t going to understand that.”
Connecticut won, 77-66, in a game that was as advertised. The Huskies would debut in the latest AP poll the next day at No. 1 — the first time in program history — a spot they would not relinquish for the rest of the season.
After the game was over, Stiff walked over to the UConn locker room to see Auriemma. He was buzzing, chatting up everyone in sight about how this was the boost his team needed to surge ahead. Then, she went down the hall to a much quieter Tennessee locker room. Summitt was standing outside, alone, reading over the box score.
“Pat saw me and looked up from the stat sheet,” Stiff remembered. “And she said: ‘For the good of the game.'”
While Connecticut was marching its way through the season and to the national championship, Val Ackerman was watching with great interest. She was the vice president of business affairs for the NBA at the time, but what many didn’t know was that she was being charged with gauging interest for a professional women’s basketball league.
The WNBA wasn’t even in its infancy yet, but Ackerman knew a good show when she saw one.
She was a standout at Virginia in the 80s and helped build the foundation of the program, becoming its first 1,000-point scorer and was a three-year captain. But basketball after college was never a serious career option. Ackerman got her law degree, ended up at the NBA and became a trusted adviser to commissioner David Stern. So when he began serious inquiries about a women’s league, even Ackerman knew it would be an uphill climb.
The sport needed a spark. It got one in Connecticut.
“We were very dialed in to what was happening,” Ackerman, now the commissioner of the Big East Conference, recalled. “That team, their rivalry with Tennessee and their location in the northeast, as being one of the primary catalysts in both elevating women’s college basketball in the early 90s and then directly leading to the launch of the WNBA.”
Already in the works through USA Basketball was a plan to create a “women’s Dream Team” for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, modeled after the men’s team four years earlier. In addition to her duties in helping head up the WNBA — she would become the league’s first president — Ackerman was also one of the NBA’s appointees to USA Basketball, which chose the Olympic team.
Sensing that the 1994-95 season at Connecticut was the beginning spark to women’s basketball taking its place in the American sporting landscape, she knew Lobo had to be a part of that 1996 U.S. Olympic team.
“She was a rookie on that team,” Ackerman said. “She graduated in ’95. But this team also had Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley — the very best veteran women’s players of that time. They were the ones that were starting and starring, but given what UConn was doing and what Rebecca had accomplished, it was unimaginable to have a team like that without her on it.”
Lobo was barely a factor in the ’96 games. She averaged 3.9 points and 2.0 rebounds per game, never starting. It didn’t matter — she now had the credibility of being a gold-medal winning Olympian with a national championship and an undefeated season to her name, all at age 22.
She was perfect for the WNBA’s launch.
“That pre-Olympics tour and those games convinced us that a time was right for a women’s pro league,” Ackerman said.
On April 24, 1996, the WNBA was announced at a press conference. The league hand-picked three players to be the face of the league: Leslie, Swoopes and Lobo.
“It changed the way people perceived women’s basketball,” Lobo said of the creation of the league. “It completely changed girls and their interest in sports. Parents were now making sure that their kids are involved in these opportunities. I live in a small town and there’s a ton of girls who play basketball.”
Nine years before the Huskies went 35-0 and won the national title, Texas became the first women’s team in the NCAA tournament era to go undefeated and win it all. The Longhorns were 34-0 in 1985-86 under head coach Jody Conradt. Hardly anyone noticed or remembered.
“All of our efforts were, at the time, to get the women to play separate from the men,” said Donna Lopiano, who was the Texas women’s athletic director from 1975 to 1992. “They were separate audiences. We were into the business of developing women’s sports and understanding that it was a separate brand to be marketed and it would be death to try and market it to the other gender.”
So even after the AIAW — a forerunner to collegiate women’s sports governance post-Title IX — went away in favor of a NCAA tournament like the men had, in 1982, women’s basketball was still a secularized entity. People believed that only women would be interested in women’s sports and so in order to keep funding and interest high, basketball was targeted to the one and only audience it knew.
Greenberg, who covered that Final Four with Texas and the three Tennessee titles from 1987 to 1991 as well as Stanford’s two titles, knew what type of product was being played. Conradt’s Texas team was in many ways, similar to what Auriemma would run at Connecticut — fast-paced, athletic basketball, which played to the exciting principles of the game.
UConn though, had a well-established cable network to beam its highlights throughout the country. Texas was one year removed from 1985, where only one of the Final Four games was broadcast live.
“They were ‘down there,’ which is how we looked at things,” Greenberg said, referring to where Texas was located. “It took ESPN’s own deal, beyond sharing it with other networks, for it to grow.”
Beginning in 1996, ESPN began exclusively televising the women’s NCAA tournament, wrestling it away from CBS. It proved to be one of the most important things that has happened to the growth of the game. Under the CBS contract, in order to secure prime air time, the women had to be scheduled around the men’s Final Four. Games were either played Friday night and Sunday afternoon or — as was the case in 1995 — on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
That all changed in 1996. The national championship game in Charlotte that season was moved to Sunday night — eventually moving to Tuesday night, where it is today — and for the first time ever, was a complete sell-out when tickets went on sale to the public.
Twenty-four days later, at a press conference in New York City, the WNBA announced it would begin play the following summer.
“I think it might have happened on its own, just maybe not as quickly,” Ackerman said. “But with that UConn surge and the Atlanta games, it was a foundational step.”
A TEAM FOR THE AGES
Last year, during a down period at the AAC women’s basketball tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, Jamelle Elliott needed a breather. Now the head coach at Cincinnati, she took a trip down to the casino floor to walk around and grab a bite to eat. At home, she can walk around in public without getting noticed.
She forgot where she was.
“A woman who was a teacher, came up to me,” Elliott said. “She was a basketball coach and she said that one of the awards she gives out at the end of every season is the ‘Jamelle Elliott Award’ for toughness, because she enjoyed watching me play.
“Those are the times where you realize that you’ve had such a lasting impact on so many people.”
They all have stories like that now. Lobo finds little bits of Geno Auriemma in herself when she coaches her daughters’ rec league teams. Carla Berube is constantly asked by her players what it was like to win a championship. Strangers approach them in supermarkets, on the bike paths, after their kids’ games. Sometimes it’s to say hello and tell them what a joy it was to watch their team.
Other times it’s to thank them for helping widen the path for their daughter or their granddaughter.
“I covered Jen Rizzotti, so for me, she’s frozen in time at the age of 20,” said Cheryl Rosenberg, now a mother of three, living in California. “I have a daughter and I recently showed her the crossover that Rizzotti did on Michelle Marciniak in that championship game and my daughter went outside and practiced it. And then she did it in a game.”
Basketball is how many of them continue to live on.
Elliott was an assistant under Auriemma for 11 seasons before taking over at Cincinnati. Berube took Tufts to its first Final Four last season and is 26-1, ranked No. 5 in Division III this year. Rizzotti has won 303 games in 15 seasons as the head coach at Hartford. Lobo is one of ESPN’s lead analysts for women’s college basketball and the WNBA. Kara Wolters is a women’s basketball studio analyst for SNY.
“They were like Mia Hamm,” Ackerman said. “Rebecca, all of them, they were the ones that the little girls wanted to have an autograph or be like.”
That is the part that, even 20 years later, the 1994-95 Connecticut team is still having trouble with: When people thank them for what they did. How do you respond to something like that? There is no answer, no response that can satisfy yourself and the other person. They were just a group of girls who had taken a chance on a coach building something at a remote New England state school.
They weren’t heroes. Just girls playing basketball, who happened to win all of their games one year — the one year it mattered.
During that season, the players insisted that they never conceptualized how big their impact was beyond Gampel Pavilion. Even when the media spotlight grew bigger and brighter, they remained in their own private bubble oblivious to the outside world, until it was all over.
“We were sitting in one of the hotel rooms that night after the championship game and coach is actually critiquing our mistakes,” Berube recalled, laughing. “And someone said, ‘Who cares? We don’t have practice tomorrow!’ which got a big laugh. That’s, I think, when we all realized it was over.”
After flying home from Minneapolis (the team took a chartered flight for the first time all season), there was still the ride from Bradley International Airport in Hartford, to campus. It was about 45 minutes and Auriemma informed his team upon arrival — many of them still hungover from partying the night before — that there would be a welcome party at Gampel when they returned.
The team figured that it would be a couple of hundred students, coach would say something, Rebecca would say something and that would be that. Go back to the dorms and resume normal life as a student on campus.
Over 5,000 fans greeted the team at the airport.
Mile by mile down the Connecticut interstate, they were blown away by what they were seeing: People were hanging off of overpasses. Lining the streets. Signs on buildings. Connecticut flags being waved in every direction.
The police-escorted ride back to Storrs became a 38-mile victory parade. Local news channels broke into the afternoon soap operas to show live footage of the team’s ride back to campus. When they arrived , the party was even bigger. Gampel Pavilion was stuffed with over 10,000 people — far beyond capacity — to welcome the champions home.
They were finally realizing the impact their season had on the people outside of their bubble.
Not bad for 13 girls and four coaches over the course of 35 games.
“None of us expected to impact people’s lives in any way,” Lobo said. “Not at all. Most 20-year olds are only thinking about how it impacts their lives. None of us could’ve ever anticipated that. I think all of us, to some degree, understand that now. The women on that team, all of our lives were changed because of that experience.”
Brendan Prunty is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. His work appears regularly in the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.