Titans return: High time UConn and Tennessee resume the game's greatest rivalry

There is no reliving the past. The UConn-Tennessee rivalry -- the most celebrated and influential series in women's college basketball history -- will return in 2020 and 2021, but it won't be the same. That's inevitable, of course, with one of the major protagonists no longer here.

But we're still glad to welcome it back. These programs, which have won a combined 19 NCAA titles, are legendary in college sports.

Renewing the rivalry won't turn back the clock, or take away the melancholy that remains from the death of former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt in 2016 due to early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. Now the matchup will pit UConn coach Geno Auriemma against Tennessee's Holly Warlick, Summitt's former assistant, who has been head coach since 2012 and just got a contract extension through 2022.

Still, it will be a major event when the teams face off Jan. 23, 2020, for the first time in 13 years. Twenty-five years will have passed since the start of the series -- which UConn leads 13-9 -- on Jan. 16, 1995. We have no idea if the game will live up to the hype, but the hype will be big, as it should be. We've waited a long time.

The Naismith Hall of Fame brokered the two-year, home-and-home deal -- 2020 in Connecticut, 2021 in Tennessee -- between the programs, with donations both years going to the Pat Summitt Foundation. In that way, Summitt remains a pivotal part of this.

That said, we're now in a different era in women's basketball. Since Tennessee and UConn last met -- on Jan. 6, 2007 -- other powerhouses and rivalries have blossomed.

Teams such as South Carolina and Mississippi State have jumped over Tennessee in the SEC standings, with the Gamecocks winning the 2017 NCAA title and the Bulldogs being national runner-up the past two years. They are among eight teams -- the others are Louisville, Texas A&M, Cal, Syracuse, Oregon State and Washington -- that have made their Women's Final Four debut since the last time UConn and Tennessee met.

Notre Dame became the Huskies' primary rival, even though the Fighting Irish and Huskies are no longer in the same conference. They've met 25 times since UConn-Tennessee ended, with six of those coming at the Final Four -- including this past season, when the Irish dramatically beat the Huskies in overtime in the national semifinals on their way to the NCAA title.

The UConn-Notre Dame rivalry goes back to 1996, and the Huskies have a 36-12 series lead over the Irish. But that matchup didn't develop its full, red-hot intensity until after UConn-Tennessee came to a halt.

However, the animosity between the fan bases has lived on, even without any games to fuel it.

Summitt ended the series in 2007. She disliked Auriemma's annual verbal jabs, not seeing them as just "jokes." But the breaking point had come during the programs' mutual recruitment of Maya Moore, who played at UConn from 2007 to 2011. Tennessee alleged recruiting impropriety. The NCAA found only a secondary violation, related to UConn arranging an ESPN headquarters tour for Moore.

The rancor wasn't resolved between the programs and fans; it came up in subsequent efforts to restart the series. Now, though, helping Summitt's foundation fight Alzheimer's disease seemingly became a bigger uniting point than the things that had divided the programs.

Tennessee won the past three games of the series, and the national championship in 2007 and '08. The teams were on track to meet in the 2008 NCAA final -- when Moore would have been a freshman facing the Lady Vols -- but the Huskies fell to Stanford in the national semifinals.

Then Tennessee beat the Cardinal for the title behind Candace Parker. That was the Lady Vols' last of 18 appearances in the Final Four. Meanwhile, UConn was embarking on a decade-plus of unprecedented dominance in women's college basketball.

The Huskies have been to the Final Four the past 11 years (2008-18) and won six titles, compiling a record of 406-16. During that time, they've had NCAA-record winning streaks of 111 and 90 games, and four perfect seasons. All three of their NCAA tournament losses the past seven years came in overtime, the latter two on buzzer-beating shots.

In short, the end of the series with Tennessee had no negative effect on UConn. Whether it contributed at all to any of the Lady Vols' struggles since then is harder to discern; playing UConn seemed to help elevate Notre Dame and Louisville, for instance. Since winning the 2008 title, Tennessee has had five Elite Eight appearances, but also an NCAA first-round loss (2009) and two second-round losses (2017, 2018).

But the biggest impact on Tennessee, of course, was Summitt's illness -- she retired after the 2012 season -- and death. It took away one of the pillars not just of this rivalry, but of college athletics.

Summitt and Auriemma were, like their programs, well-matched contrasts who also had a lot of similarities. When the series launched with a nationally televised game in 1995, it was North vs. South, an emerging power vs. a traditional one, a constantly wisecracking coach vs. one whose sense of humor, while well-developed, was quite different. They also met that year in the NCAA final, with UConn winning its first championship behind senior star Rebecca Lobo.

The "Pat vs. Geno" aspect of the rivalry hit a fever pitch in 2000, when the teams met for the NCAA title in Auriemma's hometown of Philadelphia, which had rival cheesesteak shops named "Pat's" and "Geno's" across the street from each other. Auriemma alleged "Geno's" was superior and found that particularly amusing; Summitt, not so much.

In their NCAA tournament meetings, UConn has a 5-2 lead, including 4-0 in finals (1995, 2000, 2003, 2004). The last of those was UConn star Diana Taurasi's final college game; she scored 17 points in a 70-61 victory.

Taurasi was one of the most colorful characters in the UConn-Tennessee rivalry. The high-quality play and fierce competitiveness of the players on both sides ultimately made the matchups what they were: from the point-guard battle between UConn's Jennifer Rizzotti and Tennessee's Michelle Marciniak, to the super trio of Tennessee's "three Meeks" (Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings, Semeka Randall), to players who are still All-Stars in the WNBA today, such as the Storm's Sue Bird, the Mercury's Taurasi, the Liberty's Tina Charles and the Sparks' Parker, all No. 1 draft picks, and the Dream's Renee Montgomery.

But Parker is the youngest of those at age 32. Former UConn standouts like Moore, Tiffany Hayes (Dream), Breanna Stewart (Storm), Morgan Tuck (Sun), Moriah Jefferson (Aces) and Gabby Williams (Sky) never played Tennessee. Same for Lady Vols in the WNBA like Glory Johnson (Wings), Shekinna Stricklen (Sun) and Diamond DeShields (Sky), who never faced UConn.

So while the coaching staffs, fans and media will bring many memories into the next UConn-Tennessee game, the players on the floor won't. It will be new to them. Unless ...

Maybe 2019 is finally the year the teams meet again in the NCAA tournament. What a twist that would be in this interrupted rivalry. One way or another, it's coming back.