When the No. 2 women’s basketball team faces the University of Hartford at Chase Arena as the visiting team on Saturday at 1 p.m. (SNY, UConn IMG Sports Radio Network), a bit of history will be made.
It will not be the first time the teacher, Geno Auriemma, faces his former student, Jennifer Rizzotti ’96 (CLAS), but it will be the first time they meet as members of an exclusive club, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
In July, Rizzotti was named to the Class of 2013 that will be inducted next year in Knoxville, Tenn. She is the second member of UConn’s first NCAA Championship team to join Auriemma, who was inducted in 2006 as a coach, in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Rebecca Lobo ’95 (CLAS) was inducted in 2010 as a player.
Rizzotti also will be inducted for her career as a player, which includes her role as the point guard on the 1995 championship team that finished 35-0. She was a GTE/CoSIDA Academic All-American, a two-time Kodak All-American and NCAA Regional Most Outstanding Player, and as a senior won the 1996 Wade Trophy, Associated Press Player of the Year and Big East Player of the Year. She went on to play as a professional for eight years in the American Basketball League, where she was a two-time All-Star, and in the WNBA, where she was a member of the 1999 WNBA champion Houston Comets.
“I’m certainly flattered and overwhelmed to be honored for it,” said Rizzotti, now in her 13th season as head coach at Hartford. “Just the memory in itself and my own sense of knowing that I was an important piece of that [UConn] program at that time is enough, but it’s never a bad thing to be recognized. It allows me to reflect back on my career in my playing days and really take a hard look at what it meant in the whole scheme of women’s basketball growing to the level it has nationally.”
The success of the 1995 Huskies women’s basketball team was followed by gold medals won by the U.S. women’s basketball, soccer, and softball teams in the 1996 Olympic Games, which are credited with helping to provide young girls with female role models in sports. Next, there was an explosion of participation in sports by young women and the start of women’s professional sports leagues, which led to the kind of opportunities promised by the passage of Title IX legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in education.
“I certainly am very aware of how Rebecca, myself, and all these succession of players have benefited from that law, but also all the players that have gone before us that didn’t have the opportunities that we had,” Rizzotti says. “I look at all the young women [today] who have continued their careers in coaching after they’re done playing and how many more opportunities there are now for women. It’s hard to think it can’t continue to get better, because it’s not just in athletics. I can only imagine what my generation can do to push to make the after-athletic experience even better for the next generation of women.”
Rizzotti’s image on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine – wearing knee pads, her eyes focused intently on the basketball she was chasing during the 70-64 win over Tennessee – reflected the fiery intensity she brought on the floor of the basketball court as the point guard responsible for carrying out Auriemma’s game plan.
Before the 1995 NCAA Championship game, the Huskies walked out on the court for their warm-up period and found the Tennessee players taking up both sides of the court doing their pre-game stretching. That did not sit well with Rizzotti.
“They were sitting down, circled up in the middle of the court, like they owned it,” Rizzotti recalls, smiling. “I told them to move, all right; they wouldn’t at first. I went right over to the scorer’s table and said they’re sitting on our side and we’re trying to warm up and they’re in our way. After a couple of times of trying to get them to move, someone came out and got them to move.”
Auriemma says more than any other student-athlete he has coached, it is Rizzotti who can be considered the iconic figure of UConn women’s basketball.
“When you think back, I don’t know that there’s been a single player that I’ve coached in all the time I’ve been at Connecticut whose personality, style, and spirit came to symbolize a team or a program,” Auriemma said earlier this week. “[When] people thought about the University of Connecticut they immediately thought of Jen Rizzotti. When you average 11 points a game as a senior and won the Honda Award, that’s a level of respect very, very few players get. For her wins as a college player, for her impact on creating what’s happened at Connecticut, for what she’s done beyond that in helping to grow the game, coach the game, it’s an honor that I knew some day would come. I’m glad it came sooner rather than later. I can’t take any of the credit with her when she was here, because she brought it with her. We just turned on the spigot and let it go. She did the rest.”
For Rizzotti, the memories of her time at UConn remain clear. Some are ever present.
“I’ll never forget getting chills every time I ran out of the tunnel to the Husky fight song warming up for a game,” she says. “There was just literally nothing better than playing in front of our fans in our building and the opportunity to get to play with my teammates every day. I remember the championship and I remember the trips, just those feelings. Maybe I’d remember things differently if I wasn’t still involved so closely. When I see these [current Huskies] play, I wonder if they realize how special the opportunity is. I don’t know that any of us really ever do.
“Having a chance to play in a great atmosphere, love your teammates and play for them, celebrate wins together, be on road trips in the hotel together and be goofy on the bus; it’s like you take it for granted when you’re going through it. Then you’re not doing it anymore and you realize how special it was.”
Creating those kinds of memories for her student-athletes is one of her goals as a coach.
“Do the banners matter to me? Do I want to win? Yes. I wouldn’t be here as long if I didn’t want to win,” Rizzotti says. “But when my first recruit gets married and I get invited to her wedding and 10 of her teammates are there and all we’re talking about it are memories they had about when they were here and joking about things that I didn’t know about, and there’s the trust and that relationship that still exists, that’s when I know I’m doing things the right way. That’s when I know that I learned what was most important at UConn: That treating people the right way, caring about them as people more than as players is going to be what ends up ultimately deciding your fate.
“I was given a lifelong career in basketball from playing and then coaching, and I was also given this great memory and these great relationships that will never go away, and I want to give that same thing to my players.”
That is why Rizzotti wanted to host the Huskies at Chase Arena, instead of playing at the XL Center in Hartford, which has been the site for previous games with the exception of a 2011 NCAA Tournament game in Storrs. She recalled a Hartford home game against Marist that was nationally televised and the energy in the building that day.
“When you’re a player you want to play in an atmosphere like that; you don’t care if the people are cheering for you or against you,” Rizzotti says. “Although we lost, it was one of the most fun games I coached in because of what it was like in this building. That’s what I think about when I’m trying to picture what it will be like when UConn comes in. The excitement of our kids walking out of the locker room to a full house, it’s going to be fun.”
Rizzotti also wanted to provide an opportunity for Hartford fans to see the Huskies in the intimate atmosphere of Chase Arena, which has a capacity of about 4,000. Auriemma immediately agreed.
“I thought if your fans are going to support it, which I’m sure they will; and they’re going to sell out the place, which I’m sure they will; and your kids get to play in that environment, even if it’s just once during their careers, then you’ve done an incredible thing for your program and I would be glad to be a part of it,” Auriemma says. “I’m really excited about it.”
To hear Rizzotti’s thoughts on being selected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and some of her memories of playing at UConn, click here.
To hear Geno Auriemma discussing Rizzotti’s role on the first national championship team and her induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, click here.