A phone call changed everything. It was 1998, and Charli Turner Thorne was in her third year as Arizona State’s women’s basketball coach. She had begun to breathe some life into the program, but no one was paying attention.
So she sat down with then-athletic director Kevin White, and the two of them came up with a novel bit of self-promotion.
ASU would host the first women’s college basketball game to be played outdoors.
They settled upon a venue — Bank One Ballpark — and a date: Dec. 27, 2000.
Then came the hard part — finding an opponent.
It couldn’t be just any team. To maximize the publicity and draw the biggest crowd possible, Turner Thorne needed a big-time program and a well-known coach.
There were only two choices. Connecticut and Tennessee were the preeminent programs in women’s college basketball, and UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Tennessee’s Pat Summitt were the game’s most prominent voices.
Connecticut had a scheduling conflict, so Turner Thorne called Summitt.
The first thing she did was introduce herself.
Fast forward eight years.
The Sun Devils and Volunteers will meet Sunday at noon at Wells Fargo Arena. Both teams are undefeated and nationally ranked. Both teams are expected to make the NCAA tournament — and go far once they get there.
They’re not yet equals — Summitt has won six national championships, after all — but the college basketball world won’t be turned on its head if ASU beats Tennessee.
“Any game or any team we play now we expect to win,” Turner Thorne said.
That wasn’t the case in December of 2000.
ASU was an afterthought not only nationally and in the Pac-10 but on its own campus. The Sun Devils had suffered through seven straight losing seasons, and the crowds at games could have been an advertisement for a cell phone company — the friends and family plan.
Turner Thorne made a two-fold sales pitch to Summitt.
First, Tennessee would receive a nice payday to play in the game. Second, playing outdoors would be a great marketing opportunity for the sport.
“Pat really understands that to grow women’s basketball it’s not just about getting better players and coaching them well and winning games,” Turner Thorne said. “We have to do things out of the box. I knew she understood that.”
It didn’t hurt that Summitt and Auriemma were rivals. If an outdoors game was inevitable, Summitt didn’t want the UConn coach beating her up the mountain.
“I guess I liked the fact no one had ever done it,” Summitt said. “I wanted to be part of a first.”
Tennessee’s inclusion — the Volunteers were ranked No. 2 in the country — made the game an event. ASU handed out approximately 150 media credentials. The game was televised nationally by Fox Sports Net. ESPN’s Dick Vitale showed up to yell his approval.
“It was great exposure for Arizona State,” Summitt said.
The game-time temperature was in the mid-40s, but that didn’t stop a Pac-10 record crowd of 16,782 from attending. ASU’s average attendance that season: 2,384.
“The entire ambiance and atmosphere was almost electric,” said 6-foot-2 forward Leah Combs, a junior that season. “It was so original and unique to be playing under the stars. I kept thinking, ‘Gosh, we’re making history.’ ”
Well, it was the first women’s basketball game in which players wore mittens while they sat on the bench. “I tried to coach but I about froze to death,” Summitt said.
The Sun Devils lost, 67-63. But as they gathered for a group photo with the Volunteers after the game, they realized something about themselves. They could play with the best team in the country.
“From that point on, when we stepped on the court we thought, ‘We played well against Tennessee. Why shouldn’t we play like that again regardless of the atmosphere?’ ” Combs said.
And with that realization, a program took off.
ASU finished the season 20-11, shared the Pac-10 title with Washington and Stanford and made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991-1992.
The Sun Devils are now working on their seventh straight winning season. They’ve been to the NCAA tournament the last two years, and they should become the first women’s team in school history to be part of the field three straight seasons.
Can one game make that much of a difference? Can one night change the perception of a program — and its future?
Six years later, Turner Thorne is convinced it did.
“We were trying to get over the hump, and it was just an incredible boost for our program,” she said. “We absolutely used it to say, ‘Hey, we’re pretty good.’
“It was a turning point for us.”
No. 11 Arizona State vs. No. 5 Tennessee
When: Noon Sunday
Where: Wells Fargo Arena
TV: FSN Arizona
Records: ASU 4-0, Tennessee 2-0