The rivalry was one of the biggest in all of sports. It brought women’s basketball to the national spotlight in a way it had never been before. In the 1990s, UConn and the University of Tennessee were two juggernauts led by dynamic personalities at head coach and the greatest players of that era. After meeting for the first time in 1995, the two teams played 22 times over the next 12 years and competed fiercely off the court for the nation’s top recruits. The apex of the rivalry marked formative chapters in the annals of women’s hoops, and sparked broader acceptance of women in sports across the country.
While the two schools’ basketball teams haven’t met since 2007, they found a new way to partner in the interest of promoting women’s sports a few years ago. This time, it happened on the academic side of these institutions.
The University of Tennessee is the primary administrative partner of a U.S. State Department initiative called the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP). The Director of UT’s Center for Sports, Society & Peace, Dr. Sarah J. Hillyer, helps run the GSMP’s two fellowship programs, including one serving global leaders in women’s sports called Empowering Women. For each of the past four years, UConn Sports Management has hosted a participant from this program.
“We were elated for the opportunity to work together to promote women’s sports around the world,” Hillyer said of the partnership with UConn. She was a longtime friend of Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt.
“I can remember thinking ‘Coach Summitt would be so proud.’”
The GSMP is part of a goodwill effort designed to promote civil rights and diplomacy globally through a shared passion for sports. The Empowering Women initiative operates on the premise that women and girls who play sports are more likely to excel in life and that participation is an important driver of advancement in society.
“I’m grateful for what seems ‘normal’ now in women’s sports and that most girls who want to play sports have more access and opportunity than ever before,” Dr. Hillyer said. “But I also think it’s super important to continue educating girls about Title IX and the importance of being actively engaged and aware of policies that affect us all. ... There’s a lot to celebrate. And there’s a lot more to be accomplished.”
The GSMP delegates are all champions of women’s sport in their home countries, where they face similar or even harsher cultural climates working against their goals. They are Olympians, rugby stars, league or team executives, graduate students, and journalists who survived a rigorous screening process to be selected for participation. The delegates spend one week training in Washington D.C. before three weeks of off-site mentorship at a number of centers of expertise around the country and then one more week back in D.C.
The University of Connecticut’s sports management department, led by Dr. Laura Burton, is one of those off-site partners. Others include the Big East and commissioner Val Ackerman as well as folks from ESPN and ESPNW, a sponsor of the Women’s Empowerment program. The four participants to spend their off-site training in Storrs hailed from Lebanon, Vietnam, the Phillippines, and Uganda.
Dr. Burton’s research at UConn is focused on gender in leadership and how discrimination and stereotyping affect women in sports leadership. Danielle DeRosa, a Clinical Instructor for UConn Sports Management, AJ Newton, a PhD student, and Dr. Jennifer McGarry, professor and department head, work together to make the delegates’ experience as pleasant and impactful as possible.
“I have nothing but positive things to say about about that program and how it’s been sustained and led by Dr. Sarah [Hillyer],” Newton said.
UConn’s status as a major Division I athletic department offers a vast array of opportunities, for visitors and students alike.
“There’s incredible value in having UConn, not only because we have really dynamic and knowledgeable faculty... but also sport management is such a practical field,” DeRosa said. “To have [an internship with UConn athletics] on the resume really speaks volumes to their exposure to the sport industry, [and] to the caliber work that they’ll be able to do.”
While Storrs doesn’t offer the most vibrant or metropolitan experience to someone visiting from outside of the country, it does offer one of the world’s most unique attractions: the dynastic Husky women’s basketball team. In addition to learning from the sports management staff, GSMP participants in Storrs see first-hand the ways excellence in women’s sports can and should be celebrated.
“I lecture sport law and sport marketing,” Newton said. “When I’m bringing up examples, I don’t have to defend why I need to be bringing up an example of women in sport, or the excellence of women in sport. I can easily use UConn women’s basketball and I don’t have undergrads in the class challenging me on why women and not and not men and those sorts of conversations.”
It also helps that Geno Auriemma and his staff are supportive of this initiative, opening practice for the visiting delegates and making sure they’re able to attend a game. For visitors from other countries, this can be a particularly eye-opening experience.
“The support that there is, from the community, from the state, from the fans towards supporting this women’s team... they might not see that same support in their own country around their respective sports or just women’s sport generally,” DeRosa said.
“I think it’s surprising too,” Newton added. “When we pull up into Storrs it’s like, ‘Where are we?’ … Then they go to a game and... even though we’re here in the middle of nowhere, there’s this large support in sold-out arenas.”
For Newton, it is just as much of a learning opportunity for her to spend time with the delegates and hear about their lives.
“I think it’s been really powerful to see that even in different cultures and different geographical locations that I can bond with these women on my lived experiences,” Newton, a former basketball player at Colorado State University, said. “Learning about how this transcends borders is extremely eye opening and powerful.”
Both Tennessee and UConn’s sports management departments being female-led organizations also offered delegates positive examples of women who ascended into sports leadership.
“They’re part of this experience talking about the impact of sport as a tool for empowerment, and how women can be influential leaders in sport. And then that message is kind of underscored when they come to UConn when they see women faculty who are doing research,” DeRosa said. “There are still challenges that women face within sport, but there are these pockets in which this is happening.”
DeRosa, a Connecticut native with two degrees from UConn, is extremely keen on the intensity of the rivalry between the Huskies and the Lady Vols. But she was more than happy to put that aside in the interest of partnering for this larger cause, even if the on-court rivalry was renewed on the court, set to resume Thursday night for the first time in 13 years.
“The power of what sport can do kind of rises above what the rivalry is. So it’s always very funny and playful, kind of as we’re talking about this rivalry,” she said. “Of course, there are real feelings on stuff, I do want UConn to win, [but] at the end of the day, empowering women through sports is what this is all about. And we’re all on that team.”