By STEVE MEGARGEE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jennifer Rizzotti savored the chance to finally hear cheers in the neighborhood of her alma mater’s rival.
Rizzotti received a standing ovation Saturday as the former Connecticut guard was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. She recalled a different reception from a Knoxville crowd her senior year in college after the Huskies beat Tennessee 59-53 to end the Lady Vols’ then-NCAA record 69-game home winning streak.
“I remember distinctly getting booed off the court,” Rizzotti quipped.
That long memory exemplifies the competitiveness that helped Rizzotti reach the Hall of Fame as part of an induction class that also included Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, Chattanooga coach Jim Foster, former Mississippi player Peggie Gillom-Granderson, former Texas player Annette Smith-Knight and former Rutgers player Sue Wicks.
Although she’s only 5-foot-6, Rizzotti had enough toughness and tenacity to make up for her lack of height. Rizzotti helped Connecticut go 35-0 in 1995 to earn the program’s first national championship. She was named the Associated Press national player of the year in 1996.
“We won a lot of games just because of the tone that she set,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. “She may have been the smallest player on the floor in a lot of those games, but she had the biggest presence on the floor in most of those games. That’s something very, very few people ever have.”
Rizzotti said she inherited that competitiveness from each of her parents.
“(My father) never let me win at anything until I was able to actually beat him,” Rizzotti said. “I do the same thing with my kids.”
Rizzotti, now the head coach at Hartford, thanked Auriemma on Saturday for teaching her how to become a quality leader and teammate.
“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.”
Auriemma had special interest in this weekend’s festivities. Not only did Auriemma coach Rizzotti, he also worked as an assistant on Foster’s staff at St. Joseph’s early in his career.
Foster and Blair both established Hall of Fame careers by showing they could build winning programs at plenty of different places.
Blair won a national title at Texas A&M in 2011 and reached a national semifinal with Arkansas in 1998, becoming one of only three Division I coaches to reach the Final Four at two different schools. Foster won over 200 games each at St. Joseph’s, Vanderbilt and Ohio State before taking over Chattanooga’s program last month. Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer, also a Hall of Famer, is the only other men’s or women’s coach to win 200 games at three different schools.
Foster said he appreciated how this weekend brought together players and coaches from each of the schools where he had worked.
“In no way did I ever think I’d have the opportunity to bring a lot of people from those circles together at one time where they can sort of meld together and spend time together,” Foster said. “That opportunity’s tonight. I couldn’t be happier to be in Tennessee. I’m really looking forward to whatever the future holds. This has been a great ride.”
Gillom-Granderson, Smith-Knight and Wicks all are the top career scorers at their respective schools.
Gillom-Granderson became the second person in her family to enter the Hall of Fame. Her sister Jennifer, who also starred at Mississippi, was inducted in 2009. Jennifer Gillom now works as an assistant coach with the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun, who had a game Friday night, but she made it to Knoxville in time for her sister’s induction.
“She got up so early to be here and her flight was canceled,” Gillom-Granderson said. “I didn’t think she was going to make it, but thank God, she made it.”
Before Saturday’s induction ceremony, Auriemma and Tennessee coach Holly Warlick hosted a reception to raise money for the Hall of Fame. At the reception, Warlick congratulated Auriemma on Connecticut’s 2013 national title and gave him a bottle of Volunteer wine — a Napa Valley-based brand she’d found in a local store — as well as two wineglasses shaped like Mason jars.
“We understand the rivalry between Tennessee and Connecticut,” Warlick said. “Try to understand that Geno’s a heck of a coach. He’s done a heck of a job. It’s about competition, and it’s about competitiveness. He’s outstanding. I appreciate that, and I understand that.”