At a time when students are generally sleeping on a Saturday morning, former coach-turned-television analyst Digger Phelps is working the crowd of 3,000 UConn students and fans who have streamed into Harry A. Gampel Pavilion since 7:30 a.m. to be part of the first ESPN College GameDay centered around a women’s college basketball game – a Big East match-up between No. 1 UConn and No. 3 Notre Dame.
“There’s no school since UCLA that has the tradition in men’s and women’s basketball like Connecticut,” says Phelps. “I need your three best student cheers.”
Phelps hands the microphone to Navid Sharifi, a senior accounting major who spent the night outside Gampel Pavilion and was the first student in line, so he could lead the familiar UConn Huskies cheer that ends in a loud “Woof!”
“Be loud!” says Phelps, after approving of the cheers. “It’s your show! Let’s get it done!”
By the time the camera went on for the 10 a.m. national broadcast, the crowd sitting behind the ESPN GameDay desk was in a frenzy, helping the leading sports network to kick off its sixth year of basketball College GameDay. Many held up hand-made signs or giant head posters of the Husky players, and there was even an appearance of the ubiquitous life-size cutout of University President Michael Hogan.
“Ten years ago, if you said the GameDay crew would be in Storrs, you would think automatically it would be for our guys playing Georgetown or Syracuse,” said women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma. “To have them here today is such an incredible step for women’s basketball. It’s more about women’s basketball than it is about the University of Connecticut. We just happen to be the conduit.”
Members of the women’s basketball team also joined their fellow students by fully participating in the cheering and dancing encouraged by the television cameras before the game.
“We’re loving it,” said All-American forward Maya Moore. “We’re excited so many people showed up. I was having so much fun. I didn’t know what to expect because of our break, but everybody moved back in on campus to show up.”
Residence halls on campus opened earlier than usual for the spring semester to enable students to be on campus to support the top-ranked Huskies for both the morning event and the game. The GameDay also was promoted by ESPN, which provided video clips for Gampel and XL Center games featuring its top broadcasters who would arrive in Storrs – Phelps, Rece Davis, Jay Bilas, and Hubert Davis. The network’s top college basketball announcing team of Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale, joined by women’s basketball analyst Doris Burke, called the game.
Burke, who also broadcasts NBA contests, said she appreciated the historic nature of the first women’s College GameDay event.
“There’s two times I’ve been moved to the verge of tears before a game,” she said: “The first WNBA game I called between New York and Los Angles, and today. It was such a pivotal moment in our game’s history. You could feel the energy in the building. These fans are genuinely excited to be here. I had to blink back tears.”
The first ever College GameDay for basketball also took place in Gampel Pavilion in 2005, the year after UConn made history by becoming the only university to win both the men’s and women’s NCAA championships in the same season.
“I think it’s an incredible statement about the University and the basketball program when ESPN initiates the first basketball GameDay for men here, and then comes back and initiates the first women’s basketball GameDay on our campus,” said UConn director of athletics Jeffrey Hathaway. “It also says a lot about our students and the fans we have at our University.
“We understand where we fit within the University community, but at the same time we believe we can be the front porch, and expose people to the University of Connecticut who may not know it in any other way,” Hathaway added. “If they learn about all the great things we have at the University through an athletic event, then it’s positive. The exposure is immeasurable.”
Auriemma said that as he prepared to walk out on the court to be interviewed on camera, he paused in the tunnel leading to the floor, listening to the intensity of the crowd. He thought back to his early days, before the national championship banners and sold-out crowds like that for the Notre Dame game.
“Twenty-five years ago when I took the job here at Connecticut … There are more people working for ESPN here today than there were at our games then,” he said. “To see this happening, you can’t fathom that it’s come to that.
“You can’t deny when this [ESPN] crew comes in, college kids want to be a part of it,” Auriemma added. “The energy level this early in the morning on a Saturday, when school doesn’t start until Tuesday – they didn’t have to come back and they did. I couldn’t be happier.”
The Huskies won, 70-46.