In the minds of college sports fans, the Southeastern Conference tends to conjure up the same idyllic images. A lush, TP’d Toomer’s Corner. A jam-packed Neyland Stadium. Toe meeting leather on an opening kickoff. If the SEC “just means more,” that meaning is usually found down in the trenches of the gridiron on a breezy fall Saturday — not on the hardwood in the dead of winter.
But as ESPN’s new documentary series “Southern Hoops” has illustrated, the SEC need not only be understood as a pigskin haven. Led by coach Pat Summitt and her Tennessee Volunteers, women’s college basketball’s biggest and brightest stars staked out a slice of the Southern sports scene during the 1990s — and, in the process, changed how people viewed women’s participation in basketball.
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Summitt’s success was impossible to ignore: Her Vols put up 310 wins, 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, five Final Fours and four national titles during her run in the ‘90s. While most of the attention in Knoxville was directed toward the football team — which led a mini-dynasty throughout the latter half of the decade, winning a national title in 1998 — the best show in the foothills of the Smokies was found at Thompson-Boling Arena. And all the Volunteers’ opponents could do was sit back and marvel at their misfortune, especially when the calendar flipped to March.
”I have never seen a team like this,” said Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer in 1998, after her team was dispatched by 32 points in the regional semifinals of that year’s tournament. ”It is the greatest group of athletes, depthwise, ever assembled.”
”People who are skeptical about whether women can play only have to see this team,” said Texas coach Jody Conradt.
Success wasn’t new to Summitt’s Vols — they had won two titles in three years during the late 1980s — nor was a single team’s dominance new to the sport, which had already seen a juggernaut emerge with Southern California’s back-to-back titles in 1983 and 1984. But there was something different about just how Tennessee did it. Led by future Hall of Famers like Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw, the Vols played with a pace, gusto and power that was unheard of in their sport, and it showed. To focus on the record was to miss the point, according to Jere Longman of The New York Times, who wrote:
“But beyond Tennessee’s statistical dominance lies an aggressive, attacking style that has redefined the women’s game and offered the sharpest departure to date from the stationary days when women relied mostly on set shots …
And Tennessee is the first women’s college team to explore the full possibilities of playing below-the-rim basketball.
Those stationary set-shot days are long gone, replaced by a thrill ride of finger rolls, turnaround jumpers, fallaways and lookaway passes. Players tall enough to play center in a previous generation now deftly bring the ball upcourt. Behind-the-back passes and between-the-leg dribbles have become routine practice drills, not flashy ornamentation.”
The effects of the Southern hoops renaissance were noticeable. Tennessee forged the sport’s biggest rivalry with Connecticut, as the Huskies started their ascent to national prominence right when the Vols were taking off. The Huskies drew first blood by beating the Vols for the 1995 national championship 70-64, and they prevailed again in Knoxville the following January. But Summitt and Tennessee would get their revenge in their last meeting of 1996, taking down Geno Auriemma’s squad in overtime of the national semifinal en route to winning their first of three consecutive titles.
By the time the decade was up, total attendance in the sport had nearly doubled, and millions of people were watching the women’s Final Four every spring. According to Val Ackerman, the first president of the WNBA and current Big East commissioner, the popularity of the UConn-Tennessee rivalry was one of the catalysts for the WNBA’s founding. It’s not a stretch, then, to say that Tennessee basketball helped create the women’s game as we know it today — and no wonder that it was named Team of the Decade at the 1999 ESPYs, along with the Vols sweeping the event’s last four Women’s College Basketball Player of the Year awards.
The Vols had challengers, to be sure. No discussion of ‘90s basketball in the South can be complete without talking about Dawn Staley and the Virginia Cavaliers, who met the Vols in three consecutive tournaments from 1989 to 1991, beating Tennessee once in the 1990 Elite Eight. But for Virginia, even a Most Outstanding Player performance from Staley wasn’t enough to slay the Tennessee beast in 1991, when the Volunteers squeaked by Staley’s Cavaliers in overtime to capture their second title in three seasons.
These days, Tennessee has faded back to relative anonymity. A run to the regional semifinals in 2022 was the program’s first trip beyond the first weekend since 2016, as the program has struggled to recapture the unfettered glory of the late Summitt’s heyday.
But there is a new pride of the SEC — replete with her own rivalry with UConn — as Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks have emerged as one of the most dominant teams in the sport’s recent history. After earning four consecutive No. 1 seeds in the tournament, the Gamecocks finally got their breakthrough in 2017, defeating Mississippi State for their first national championship. They would bring the conference back to glory in 2022, rolling to a second national title behind All-American Aliyah Boston, who was the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
For Staley, one tournament loss to Tennessee in 1989 particularly stands out as a seminal moment in her career. “We lost to them by 33 points, and it's etched in my memory,” Staley told reporters ahead of South Carolina’s “We Back Pat” game earlier this season. “From that loss is when I just vowed to myself and our team that that would never happen again."
Now, as Staley continues to shoot up the ladder of the game’s greats, we’re reminded of when the SEC helped put women’s basketball on the map — and the titans in Knoxville who made it happen.