Pat Summitt's words fuel fire

In defending Bruce Pearl, Pat Summitt appeared to take a shot at Geno Auriemma. AP Photo/Dave Martin

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt got caught up in some rhetoric last week, which is bound to happen at least once in awhile when you speak as much to the media as Summitt does. But then she compounded the situation by taking a shot at Connecticut and coach Geno Auriemma.

Now she doesn't want to talk about any of it. Neither does Auriemma, nor the Connecticut athletic department. And the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) is in a bit of a pickle.

The WBCA has a code of ethics, put into place this summer, which obliges coaches to play by the NCAA's rules but also to "demonstrate honesty and respect toward colleagues."

Summitt, who leads Division I women's basketball in NCAA titles and career victories, publicly alleged that Auriemma, the WBCA's president, has compromised on recruiting regulations.

Do I think she truly set out to "go there" last week? I doubt it. But she did. Now, how does the WBCA deal with that? Does it try to mediate between women's basketball's biggest coaching figures in their ongoing cold war? Does the WBCA defend its own president? Does it ask Summitt about what she based her remark? If Summitt has no solid evidence of UConn recruiting violations, did she commit a code of ethics violation with the remark?

With the season soon to start, many fans are likely saying, "Oh, no, not more about of the Hatfields and McCoys of women's basketball." Believe me, I don't relish writing about the Tennessee-UConn feud. But the acrimony between these two titan programs seems to linger like a festering sore.

Here is what happened. At SEC media day in Birmingham, Ala., Summitt was asked a general question about recruiting and ethics, and she responded, "I've never compromised at all, and I wouldn't. And if I did, they should fire me."

She was speaking generally, but not surprisingly, many in Knoxville, Tenn., assumed she might be making a statement about her men's basketball coaching counterpart at Tennessee, Bruce Pearl. Who is currently working without a contract as he and the school sort out the issues he's having with the NCAA over misleading the organization about recruiting matters.

In an attempt to clear up matters, Summitt spoke with Jimmy Hyams of radio station WNML, explaining that she was very supportive of Pearl, that they were good friends, and that she did not intend her comment to impugn him. She said she wasn't even thinking of men's basketball when she made the remark.

If Summitt had stopped there, then there probably wouldn't be anything to write about. Save the sad observation that men's basketball recruiting is often such a cesspool that in order to peaceably live with it in an athletic department, other sports' coaches have to pretend that it doesn't stink to high heaven. Especially if they happen to genuinely like their men's basketball coach, which Summitt does.

The real problem, though, came with another remark she made to Hyams: "I didn't have Bruce Pearl on my mind. I probably had Connecticut on my mind. There's a reason we don't play them."

And with that, Summitt finally verbalized what she had not said before. When she ended the regular-season series with UConn in the summer of 2007, she did not discuss "why."

Back then, I wrote that the phrase that came up from the Tennessee side to explain her decision was to look at Auriemma's "body of work." Which I interpreted as the Tennessee belief that Auriemma had said too many things to tick off Summitt, the school and its fans over the years. And that the cumulative effect of those remarks -- combined with a feud over Maya Moore's recruiting -- had prompted Summitt to pull the plug on the series.

But Summitt never came right out and said that. Auriemma said it. He talked a lot about the situation. Which put us reporters in the strange position of not getting an explanation from the person who ended the series, but rather from the other party involved.

In the spring of 2008, ESPN reporter Shelley Smith obtained, through a public records request, a letter that Tennessee had sent to the SEC in 2006 detailing concerns over potential recruiting violations by UConn.

Among them was an arranged tour at ESPN headquarters for Moore -- now a UConn senior -- which the NCAA subsequently deemed a secondary violation by the Huskies. Nothing else has come from these allegations in terms of NCAA validation or a penalty.

Thus, Summitt's comment last week -- which, frankly, really surprised many people because she had steadfastly avoided the topic -- has riled up UConn fans. They feel that if Summitt has actual evidence of Auriemma and his program breaking recruiting rules -- beyond that realistically inconsequential secondary violation -- then she needs to explain what that is.

Saying, "There's a reason we don't play them," in the context of a discussion about recruiting integrity is a direct but utterly vague accusation. By leaving it so open-ended, it allows people to assume -- or at least consider -- the worst. That's not fair to Auriemma, his program or the university.

I asked Debby Jennings, Tennessee's associate athletic director for media relations, if Summitt had any additional comment regarding what she said to Hyams. Jennings responded, "It was off the cuff. She's not talking about it."

I asked Patrick McKenna, assistant director of athletic communications at UConn, if Auriemma or the Huskies athletic department had anything to say. He responded, "Nobody at UConn will comment on Pat Summitt's remarks."

It could be that the UConn athletic department is really too busy trying to help men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun dig out of his NCAA mess to worry about what they might deem just another passing storm cloud between Summitt and Auriemma.

That's the dark-comedy aspect of this situation: Only in the smaller world of women's basketball is this latest Pat versus Geno drama a big deal. In the overall scheme of college athletics, the huge issue is the serious NCAA trouble that both UConn's and Tennessee's men's basketball programs are in.

Saying that, I don't mean to dismiss the issues about women's basketball that this incident has brought up. But it's also important to examine the fact that what prompted the remark from Summitt was that she was scrambling in defense of Pearl.

Summitt is in a rough position with Pearl, no doubt. Women's basketball coaches are used to condescension, indifference and thinly veiled contempt from those who coach the men's game. That's what Auriemma seems to have gotten from Calhoun, whose program admitted to major NCAA violations earlier this month.

Pearl, though, understood that as big a presence as Summitt and her program are at Tennessee, they were absolutely no threat to him. You can imagine how much Summitt might value his supportive, respectful friendship -- how much any women's basketball coach would.

So Summitt finds herself having to rationalize Pearl's flagrant NCAA issues by making comments like, "The competition on the men's side is really tough, and they're doing the best they can to get to the top and win a championship."

Unfortunately, that's a real-world answer in regard to the two sports -- Division I football and men's basketball -- that simply do not fit in the ivory-tower world of the NCAA. As a vegetarian, I find the adage, "You really don't want to know how the sausage gets made" particularly repellent. Yet in regard to those two sports at the D-I level, it's a grotesquely appropriate statement.

I'm not trying to give men's hoops coaches a pass. Look, they all participate in what it has become. But I can see why, if she's being brutally honest, Summitt does hold her sport to a different standard ethically than she does men's hoops or football. We want to believe that it's different in women's basketball, and to a certain extent, I think it is.

Not that coaches don't bend (or break) rules, or say crummy things behind each others' backs, or play the homophobia card if they think it works, or the religion card, or take advantage of some teenaged girls' acute need for attention so that recruitment becomes uncomfortably like courtship. That stuff happens.

And all of those things are part of what prompted the WBCA's enthusiasm for the code of ethics. But in my communication with the WBCA, I gathered that, realistically, the organization is still working out the details of its enforcement process. Including how public it might be. The WBCA's heart is in the right place, but it's hard to say if that really means anything. The organization is not keen on publicly calling out anyone, let alone any of the biggest names in the sport.

The UConn fans and some in the Connecticut media very much want Summitt to be called out. They are demanding Summitt produce substantial evidence of UConn wrongdoing or be held accountable for suggesting it.

But the Tennessee faithful will say it's really not different than various Auriemma barbs and wisecracks over the years, such as the infamous (in Tennessee's view) "Evil Empire" remark.

To this degree, I think it is different: The context of Summitt's statement -- off the cuff or not -- was about unethical recruiting, and that really isn't the stuff of jokes or wisecracks. Auriemma and his fans have a right to be concerned about what potential damage that could cause to his reputation.

But they are probably not so willing to acknowledge that maybe this is Auriemma getting back some of his own medicine in undiluted form. UConn Nation always defended the one-liners that he made at Tennessee's and Summitt's expense. They'd say, "That's just Geno's humor!"

As a reporter who saw how many times he'd do this to entertain the media, I've often defended it, too, because Auriemma turns his barbs on everybody, even his own players. And they usually crack me up.

There were times I thought Tennessee was being oversensitive to a "funny" remark. I'd say, "Come on, he clearly meant it in jest." But in retrospect, I also can understand where the cumulative effect of them could be interpreted by Tennessee as negative recruiting: a way of casting aspersion on the school, the state and Summitt herself via constant wisecracks.

And perhaps I've always been too flip about the "Evil Empire" remark, for instance. I took it as a whimsical comment on the powerhouse that Tennessee was in the sport -- but that UConn also had become. So in past columns, I sometimes jokingly referred to the programs as "Evil Empire North" and "Evil Empire South."

But it was never funny to Tennessee. To Summitt and the Orange Nation, the "Evil Empire" moniker came across as character slam, a suggestion that they did things underhandedly in Knoxville, that "good" players should go someplace else, and that UConn represented the opposite of "evil."

Do I think Auriemma actually intended it to be a serious insult? No, I don't. But regardless, that remark, and all the others, were taken very seriously at Tennessee. They were seen by Tennessee supporters as Auriemma's deliberate attempt, while building up his own program, to tear down Summitt's. UConn supporters claim this is Tennessee's humor deficiency. And never the twain shall meet.

Women's basketball has this rivalry dynamic in a way that's unlike any other collegiate sport, in my view. Fierce rivalries exist in all sports, but there are usually several of those per sport. Not one that has separated itself to the point of defining the entire sport over a long stretch of time.

But in women's basketball, Tennessee and UConn did remove themselves from the pack for essentially the past decade and a half. From 1995-2010, these programs have combined to win 12 of 16 NCAA titles. One or the other or both has been in all but two (1999, 2006) of the Final Fours in that time period.

And while it was never a "friendly" rivalry, it has had its brief periods of détente, which are now long gone and seem unlikely to happen again. It is rancorous in the fashion of Yankees versus Red Sox, except that those two franchises meet multiple times in a season to allow their respective fans to burn off some hostile energy.

With the UConn-Tennessee series ending, and the programs having not met in the NCAA tournament since, the only battles in which they have engaged have come in recruiting and on fan message boards.

Summitt's comment infuriated both UConn fans and the Connecticut media. Editorials in the "Hartford Courant" make good points in defense of Auriemma and his enormously successful program, while legitimately questioning if Summitt has evidence to back up allegations against UConn.

However, these editorials also used loaded terms such as "frustrated," "bitter," "spiteful," "petty" and "shrew" in regard to Summitt -- language so condescendingly sexist, disrespectful and insulting that it undermines their editorial validity. Gee, guys, are you sure you don't also want to throw "post-menopausal crazy" in there, too?

By the same token, among many Tennessee fans, there doesn't seem to be even the most rudimentary respect for Auriemma as a coach or a human being, despite all his accomplishments -- including with the United States national team -- and the admirable student-athletes who've played for him and clearly cherish his impact on their lives.

Yes, we know Auriemma's wisecracks ticked off Tennessee followers. But it's as though he's such a loathsome figure that it's acceptable to accuse him of anything and everything with no need of proof. As though just being Geno is enough to hang him. That seems to me to be a different kind of sexism, and that isn't fair, either.

Yes, he could be tried and convicted as a smart-aleck. (I could be, too, which is why I empathize with him on that.) It was his choice to continue needling Summitt all these years. Who can really determine how much of that was calculated to give him a recruiting edge?

Which was partly why, as disappointed as I was to see the series end, I wasn't willing to excoriate Summitt for doing it. However, I did think she should have stated her reason(s) for ending it, and the criticism when she didn't was warranted. If people didn't agree with her, so be it. But I felt the dissolution of a matchup that was so compelling to watch merited a public explanation.

These are two towering figures in the sport of women's basketball, two legends in the profession of coaching. They have pushed each other and, thus, elevated the game. If you genuinely like and respect both Summitt and Auriemma, which I do, this enmity between the programs actually has become painful to witness.

This latest flare-up is on Summitt, period. I don't think she meant to do it, but she did. Not talking about it doesn't make it go away. If there are real recruiting violations going on with UConn, then they need to be investigated. If there aren't, then Summitt's remark was out of line and she should acknowledge that.

There is no worse place to be in a ground war than so-called "no man's land," because in this territory between battle lines, chances obviously increase that you'll get shot at from both sides.

However, for a journalist, the metaphoric "no-man's land" (or no-woman's or no-person's) is exactly where you are supposed to be. I'm always in no-person's land in the overall scheme of UConn versus Tennessee. I expect to catch hell from all sides.

Many UConn fans think I'm never adequately critical of Summitt. Many Tennessee fans think all media outside of Knoxville are Auriemma's puppets. Fans of all other schools say, "Why don't you just shut up about UConn and Tennessee?"

It would be nice if I could. A certain degree of animosity between rivals can be quite fun in sports. But this stopped being fun a while ago.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.