PHILADELPHIA -- It was almost three years ago when Tennessee coach Pat Summitt called Villanova coach Harry Perretta and asked if she and her staff could come to the Main Line and learn the intricacies of the spread offense.
To say Perretta was nervous about meeting Summitt would be an understatement.
"I was a history major," Perretta said. "In history, you learn to never make eye contact with the queen."
Summitt quickly put Perretta at ease and what developed was a quick and easy friendship between the two legendary coaches.
"I’ve learned a lot of basketball from him," Summitt said as her Vols got ready to take on Rutgers tonight at the Liacouras Center with a trip to the Final Four at stake. "I like to talk basketball and anyone who knows Harry knows he loves to talk. I’ve just really enjoyed our friendship. For me, it’s been great. That’s what this profession should be about."
That year Villanova had its dream season, snapping UConn’s 70-game winning streak in the Big East Finals and reaching the Elite Eight, where the Wildcats lost to the Vols and Summitt.
This season Perretta won his 500th game, but it was that summer meeting with Summitt that put him on the national stage.
"It’s meant a lot to me," Perretta said. "It’s somebody to talk to about coaching. It legitimized me nationally as a coach."
Perretta has kept tabs on the Vols this season as they have put together another outstanding season, despite relying on several freshmen and suffering a myriad of injuries.
In a season in which Summitt passed Dean Smith to become the career leader in Division I coaching victories, she may be having one of her best seasons on the bench.
"Sometimes a person is a victim of their own success," Perretta said. "Because she wins so much and recruits the best players people think it’s easy. It’s not as easy as people think it is to coach great players. I tell people all the time, I’m not sure I could coach a team like that. It takes a unique person to motivate people like that. It takes a unique person to blend them together. That’s her strength."
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While Tennessee and Rutgers get ready for the regional final, Connecticut is never far from the minds of the coaches, who have both had run-ins over the years with Huskie coach Geno Auriemma.
The Huskies’ loss to Stanford Sunday night eliminated the three-time defending champions, leaving Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer with mixed emotions.
"People want to believe the Big East is not the beast it’s been in the past," Stringer said. "But for the sake of women’s basketball it’s good to have new blood."
Stringer and Summitt have no mixed feelings about tonight’s matchup. They both expressed their admiration for each other.
"We go back to her days at Cheyney State," Summitt said. "We’ve played her every place she’s been. It’s really special when you have the type of competitive games we’ve had and still maintain a friendship."
Summitt is also a fan of the way Rutgers plays.
"They’re just relentless," Summitt said. "I’m a defensive-minded coach and I admire and respect the level of defensive intensity they bring on every possession."
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Although Rutgers got the better of Tennessee in the matchup at the RAC in December, both teams have significant players back for the rematch.
Rutgers guard Cappie Pondexter played just 15 minutes in the 65-51 Scarlet Knights victory in her first game back, while Tennessee guard Loree Moore missed the game entirely. Moore will draw the assignment of keeping Pondexter, the tournament’s leading scorer, in check.
Moore will also be charged with trying to deal with the Rutgers defense, something the Vols couldn’t handle in December.
"Without Loree Moore it would be very difficult," Summitt said. "When we played them (earlier) we couldn’t run an offense. I don’t think our freshmen were at all ready for what they saw. Hopefully we’ll be better prepared."