KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Geno Auriemma and Holly Warlick have an idea for the format of the 2014 Women's Final Four. Forget a 64-team bracket. Just invite Connecticut and Tennessee to Nashville.
They were kidding, of course, but the coaches' amicable exchange underscored a significant thawing in the tension between the two programs, and longtime observers of the women's game expect the series to return relatively soon.
Auriemma and Warlick hosted a gala reception this weekend before the induction ceremony for the 15th class of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, a group that included two coaches in Texas A&M's Gary Blair and Chattanooga's Jim Foster and former players Jennifer Rizzotti of UConn, Sue Wicks of Rutgers, Peggie Gillom-Granderson of Ole Miss and Annette Smith-Knight of Texas.
Tennessee has a hole in its home schedule after Baylor declined to renew the series -- the Lady Bears instead added Ole Miss from the SEC -- but it is unlikely that the Lady Vols and Huskies would square off that soon.
They could meet in Nashville at the Final Four next April. UConn is the defending national champion -- Warlick saluted the accomplishment at the reception to rousing applause -- and Tennessee is highly motivated to be on the game's biggest stage in its home state.
"I am all for it," Auriemma said.
"I am, too," Warlick responded. "Let's don't play the tournament, and let's just go."
"You need to tell the other people that," Auriemma said.
"They wouldn't be very happy," Warlick replied.
"Actually, you can tell them any other two are welcome," Auriemma said. "The two of us, and we're not going to discriminate against anybody else. Whoever the other two are in the Final Four, we'll be OK with that."
When Auriemma entered the reception, he was immediately collared by the media, and it was Warlick who came to his rescue so he could mingle with a sold-out crowd of 300-plus attendees who had paid up to $200 for a ticket to the event at the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville.
The two exchanged a warm hug, posed for photographs and answered questions about why they hosted the benefit.
"We are trying to promote the Hall of Fame," Warlick said. "We both are very supportive of women's basketball. It's all about promotion of what we do. It was very easy, very simple for me to say yes."
Added Auriemma: "Hall of Fames, in general, don't make a lot of money. People think these events fund themselves. When they asked if I would be interested in doing something to raise money and help keep it going, it was a no-brainer. This was just another way that we could support it, because if we don't support it, why would we expect other people to support it?"
Television analyst Debbie Antonelli served as emcee for the reception, and she had both coaches sign a basketball -- Warlick wrote "Go Lady Vols" above her name, Auriemma penned "Best Wishes" -- and it was auctioned in less than five minutes with a winning bid of $2,500 from longtime Tennessee fan and local Realtor Traci Smith.
Auriemma has been back to Knoxville several times for WBHOF events, but his team last played here in 2006. The series ended after a 2007 game in Hartford because Pat Summitt suspected recruiting shenanigans that she didn't expect from an elite coach. Warlick, who has a well-developed sense of humor, made sure that Auriemma still felt welcome when the two addressed the group.
"I have gifts for Geno," Warlick said, and she extracted a bottle of "Volunteer" wine from a bag and a set of stemmed wine glasses topped with Mason jars.
Auriemma noted his mother used to preserve tomatoes in those types of jars, and "I never knew they could be used for anything else."
Auriemma said he has been warmly received in Knoxville on every trip, and the people who don't like him are on the Internet "and never outside."
Warlick sampled the wine over the weekend at an early birthday party for Summitt -- she will be 61 on June 14 -- who was in attendance at the induction ceremony and received rousing applause when recognized, along with Auriemma.
The six inductees and their families attended the reception and then made the two-block walk to the Bijou Theatre for the ceremony, hosted by Antonelli and featuring a live orchestra and choir. The evening opened with a tribute to the Wayland Baptist Flying Queens, a program that won four AAU national titles and 131 games in a row from 1953 to 1958.
Blair was the first inductee and his video introduction came from Joe McKeown, the coach at Northwestern who was born in Philadelphia. He crossed paths with Blair decades ago and thought his street-wise style would overwhelm the unwashed neophyte from rural Texas, who became an assistant at Louisiana Tech.
"Gary is being inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, and I am still trying to recruit Teresa Weatherspoon," McKeown said.
McKeown also noted his buddy never seemed to have any money when the green fees were due for a round of golf or when they pulled up to the cashier's window of a drive-through restaurant.
"I don't know if Joe was doing a tribute or a roast," Blair said during a surprisingly short speech (he is known to talk extensively and slowly).
Foster said he would be briefer than Blair -- the difference in a Philly five-minute speech and Texas time -- and he was. Foster opened his speech with the memory of meeting in Jackson, Tenn., years ago with Summitt when the WBHOF was trying to form.
"I knew anything Summitt-driven would happen, and here we are," said Foster, the longtime coach at Vanderbilt and Ohio State before taking the job at Chattanooga.
Foster had one of the better lines of the night when he said he paid Auriemma a salary of $1,000 to be an assistant at St. Joseph's and that is "now a good wine night for Geno."
The longest speech of the evening came from Gillom-Granderson, the all-time leading scorer (2,486 points) and rebounder (1,271) at Ole Miss and a Wade Trophy finalist in 1980. She was escorted by her sister, Jennifer Gillom, who also starred at Ole Miss and who was inducted in 2009.
She thanked everyone from childhood friends to high school coaches. She saluted her entire family and noted it was a clan steeped in religion with several siblings who were pastors and who had missed a Methodist conference in Mississippi to attend the ceremony in Tennessee.
Gillom-Granderson singled out a coach she initially identified as L.W. Mik. That would be former Ole Miss coach Van Chancellor, "the luckiest white man I know."
She even let loose, tongue in cheek, with the standard athlete line: "I'd like to thank all my teammates for giving me the ball I think I had maybe five or six assists a year."
Rizzotti, who led the Huskies to their first national title in 1995, promised to deliver a short speech because just before she went on stage, her 5-year-old told her he had to go to the bathroom, Rizzotti doesn't have as many siblings as Gillom-Granderson and she is not as old as Blair and Foster.
The jokes ended there, though, as an emotional Rizzotti had to ask for a glass of water to clear her throat, as she talked about her husband, Bill Sullivan, her coaching and life partner. She thanked her family, friends and Auriemma.
"I'm in the Hall of Fame because I played at the right school, at the right time with the right teammates," Rizzotti said, "and I was taught to be a champion by the best coach who's ever coached the game."
Smith-Knight got the biggest laugh of the night after she crossed the stage following a video introduction from Texas teammate Fran Harris, who said when she first saw Smith-Knight on campus she noticed a rear end that needed its own zip code.
"I know all of y'all are looking at my butt," said a still-in-shape Smith-Knight, who was wearing an elegant blue dress.
Smith-Knight, the all-time leading scorer at Texas with 2,523 points and a 1984 Kodak All-American, added, "It's been a very special day."
Wicks, the leading scorer at Rutgers with 2,655 points and the 1988 Naismith player of the year, closed the ceremony with an off-the-cuff speech because the task of preparing one proved to be too daunting.
"I would like to thank Pat Summitt for her vision for making this happen," Wicks said.
Wicks also thanked her family and coaches -- she said she seeks passionate people in all of her endeavors, thus her respect and love for Auriemma -- and she thanked her partner, Camille, a recognition that drew applause.
Wicks' speech was self-deprecating as she admitted trouble diagramming plays. An opponent once told her: "The joke in our locker room is you only have one play because you can't remember the plays."
Wicks' rejoinder: "The joke in our locker room is you can't stop that one play."