Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Geno's And Geno

Mention the intersection of 9th, Wharton and Passyunk (pronounced "PASH-yunk," not "PASS-ee-unk") to anyone who has spent a great deal of time in Philadelphia, and they'll immediately have one thought and one question.

The thought? Cheesesteaks.

The question? Pat's or Geno's?

In the case of TigerBlog and his college friends, they were all Geno's people. TB has great memories of heading for late-night cheesesteaks, often in the freezing cold, often on nights when Frohman would eat the really, really hot peppers, often on nights when Mikus would eat, oh, four or five with. If you've ever been there, you know what "with" means.

If you haven't, it means "with onions."

Anyway, the Geno's in South Philly is easy to love. The Geno who coaches UConn women's basketball? Not always as easy.

There was Geno Auriemma Sunday, after his team defeated Ohio State 81-50 to win its 88th straight game, saying some interesting things about the state of women's college basketball and the chase for 88 straight.

The 88 straight wins equal the all-time men's Division I record, set by UCLA from 1971-1974. The Bruins' streak ended with a 71-70 loss at Notre Dame in a game that 1) UCLA led 70-59 with less than four minutes left and 2) TB watched at his Aunt Regina and Uncle Larry's house in Fair Lawn.

UConn's women go for No. 89 tonight against Florida State, a team that was ranked 14th before losing to a 2-8 Yale team Saturday and dropping to 22nd.

As an aside, ticket manager Stephanie Sutton and her daughter Mary attended the UConn-Ohio State game Sunday at Madison Square Garden, and that information led to having everyone in the Department of Athletics' weekly event meeting make a prediction for the game. TigerBlog predicted 81-52 UConn; the only person to pick Ohio State was event manager Steve Kanaby.

Anyway, after the game, Auriemma met with what was a much larger than normal media contingent and made some pointed comments:
"I just know there wouldn't be this many people in the room if we were chasing a woman's record. The reason everybody is having a heart attack the last four or five days is a bunch of women are threatening to break a men's record, and everybody is all up in arms about it.
"All the women are happy as hell and they can't wait to come in here and ask questions. All the guys that loved women's basketball are all excited, and all the miserable bastards that follow men's basketball and don't want us to break the record are all here because they're pissed. That's just the way it is.
"Because we're breaking a men's record, we've got a lot of people paying attention," If we were breaking a women's record, everybody would go, 'Aren't those girls nice, let's give them two paragraphs in USA Today, you know, give them one line on the bottom of ESPN and then let's send them back where they belong, in the kitchen.'"

Except for referring to the average male college basketball writers as "miserable bastards" and throwing out an unfortunate stereotype about the kitchen, Auriemma's comments are pretty close to right on the money.

And one point he might have missed is that it was John Wooden's record his team had just tied; he some obscure coach from the 1930s won 88 straight, it wouldn't have been as big a deal. Because of Wooden, the 88 straight wins became a number embedded in American sports history.

Contrast that with the people who last week said that you can't compare what UConn is doing now with what UCLA did back then, which TB couldn't disagree with more.

Actually, what UConn's women have done is in many ways similar to what UCLA did when it had its record win streak and when UCLA won 10 championships in 12 years between the 1960s and ’70s.

UCLA, at the time, was the place where the dominant players went, and that was it. If you wanted to win the NCAA championship, you went to UCLA.

It's the same in women's basketball today. If you want to win an NCAA championship, where are you going to go? UConn. Maybe Stanford or Baylor? Tennessee isn't what it used to be.

See, that's how Division I men's basketball used to be. There was one team that won every year (UCLA) and a few others who mounted a challenge.

Back then, it was largely because of how the NCAA tournament worked. UCLA won four games in 1964 to win its first NCAA title, knocking off Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas State and then Duke in the final. Also, the regionals were truly regional, so UCLA only had to deal with Western teams until the Final Four.

Even in 1975, in Wooden's last year, UCLA still only had to win five games, including wins over Montana and Arizona State.

Before that year of 1975, only one team per conference could go to the NCAA tournament, and there were many examples of great teams with great records who were bumped off by another great team in the conference tournament and therefore missed the NCAAs.

In short, for almost all of the time UCLA was winning the championship under Wooden, it was competing against the weaker teams in the West and had to play four or five games in the tournament.

Don't forget the impact of television either. Back then, there were a handful of games on TV on Saturdays, and almost all of them involved UCLA. To be on TV meant going to UCLA or one of the other elite schools chasing the Bruins.

It wasn't until TV began to mushroom and the tournament began to expand that more and more teams became legitimate contenders for the NCAA title. A cynic might point out that the money involved motivated many of the schools as well.

Today in women's basketball, UConn is what UCLA was. It's the school that's on TV and the school that wins the tournament every year. What great player wouldn't want to go there? It's a perpetuating model, and, as was the case at UCLA, it might continue until the coach goes elsewhere.

But that's not the complete crux of what Auriemma was talking about. Basically, what he was saying is that the hard-core sports fan doesn't care about women's basketball (and, if you read between his lines, mocks women's basketball).

Certainly there is truth to that. Television ratings for men's games dwarf women's games, and there can be no debating that the popularity of men's sports far exceeds that of women's sports.

This is in no way a statement about the value of women's sports or athletes. It's just making the point that to the general sporting public, women's sports have not caught on.

TigerBlog was already giving this issue some thought long before Auriemma's comments.

The Princeton women's basketball team went 26-3 a year ago and is off to another strong start this year. The Princeton men's team is building on its postseason success of a year ago and is off to its own excellent start this year.

Both teams are clearly worth watching and, for Auriemma's purposes, worth covering.

And yet the attendance and coverage for the men is on average three to four times what it is for the women.

Why is this? Why do so many more people come to watch and cover the men's team? What does it say about American sports, and American culture, for that matter?

It says, TB supposes, that it takes a long time for change in habits to come. Men's sports are working on a 100 or so - or longer - year head start on women's sports. Long before women played sports on a large scale, men's sports had already become widespread staples on the national psyche.

It's not just a gender thing. TigerBlog, for instance, is amazed that millions of people still go watch Major League Baseball every year. Why do they do it? It's part of the psyche, put their long before TB or anyone around now showed up.

Maybe it'll be radically different 25 or 50 years from now. On some levels, American sport bears no resemblance to what it was 25 or50 years ago.

Still, on other levels, not much has changed in a country where pro and college football and pro baseball still rule the landscape.

UConn has zero chance of losing tonight. When the Huskies pass UCLA with their 89th striaght win, a large segment of the American sporting public and media will shrug it off, largely because they don't care about women's sports.

Hey, TigerBlog was like that before he started working at the paper and later at Princeton, before he was exposed to people who taught him the worth of women's athletics, before he saw up close how serious women's athletes are.

A large portion of the rest of the world hasn't caught up yet. That's how it is. Today.

In the future? Who knows.

Maybe a few trips to Jadwin to see the Princeton women play would help the cause.

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