Farmington’s Carol Stiff, who will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Saturday, was a pioneer in televised women’s sports

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Carol Stiff sat on her couch in Farmington, too sick to travel to Florida for the Honda Elite 4 tournament, where Penn State would face the No. 1 UConn women’s basketball team.

It was December 1999 and ESPN, where Stiff was a vice president of programming, was televising the tournament. They were experimenting with putting mics on coaches and they decided to put one on Geno Auriemma. The only problem was there was no delay and Svetlana Abrosimova wasn’t playing up to Auriemma’s standards.

“There’s a delay now,” Stiff said. “You have someone that pushes the button, sitting there listening for the F-bomb. We didn’t have it on this game. I heard Geno say something like, ‘You [bleep] European horse [bleep]’ or something. That was the second one. The first one was – [Abrosimova] wasn’t driving hard through the key, she just had a broken nose, the poor kid, and he said something. My legs come off the sofa. What did he just say? I called the truck. ‘Pull the mic.’ We pulled the mic.”

Stiff, who will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., has hundreds of stories like that from her 31-year tenure at ESPN, where she was hired in 1990 to help plan the network’s 10th anniversary party and retired on July 2 as one of the most influential people in women’s basketball.

Former UConn star Swin Cash, Tennessee great Tamika Catchings and the late NBA commissioner David Stern are among Saturday’s inductees. The ceremony was postponed a year due to COVID-19.

Stiff, 60, will also be presented with the Basketball Hall of Fame’s John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award, the most prestigious award outside of enshrinement into the Hall, for her contributions to women’s basketball, Sept. 9-11 in Springfield.

She has always been a player behind the scenes but everyone in the sport knows her.

“I think the average person out there probably doesn’t know her name, or even if they heard the name, they wouldn’t know what her impact was and will continue to be, even though she’s not involved with ESPN,” Auriemma said.

“They just enjoy watching the games on television and what they would be surprised to hear is a lot of those games that started this whole thing - women’s games being prominently shown on ESPN, on Monday nights, Thursday nights, the big intersectional games that people are used to seeing right now – those would have not happened if Carol hadn’t taken the initiative to go out and get those games and to have a relationship with coaches and talk to them about the importance of playing those games and growing the game through that.”

Stiff was there at the start – she convinced Tennessee coach Pat Summitt to play UConn on Martin Luther King Day in 1995 – and the rest was history. “For the good of the game,” Summitt told Stiff when she asked in May of 1994, “I’ll take it.”

The MLK Day game quickly became the most anticipated game of the regular season.

“That was the golden game: ‘Who’s playing MLK Day?’” Stiff said. “It was always UConn-LSU, UConn-whoever.”

She told a story of Summitt, who died in 2016 from complications due to early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, giving her a hard time about it once. “She said, ‘Carol.’ ‘What, Pat?’ ‘I didn’t know Martin Luther King went to UConn.’”

Stiff, who played basketball and field hockey at Southern Connecticut and coached at Western Connecticut, RPI and Brown before going to ESPN, took over the women’s basketball programming in the early ‘90s. ESPN had 24 women’s games on one network. CBS televised the Final Four and one other game and that was it.

After UConn’s run to the national championship in 1995 and the launch of the ABL and WNBA, there was increased interest in women’s basketball. In 1996, the network purchased the rights to the NCAA Tournament and in 2003, ESPN increased its coverage to the entire tournament, regionalizing the first and second rounds.

That was the year Stiff almost quit. She had no idea how she would televise all the games on only two networks (ESPN and ESPN2). After her resignation letter was pushed back to her by her boss, she enlisted the help of some of the network’s technical people who figured out how to do what was called “whip-around coverage,” moving from game to game, rather than staying with one game.

Stiff pushed for big games to be placed in better time slots. For a while, after CBS took over the UConn-Tennessee games, Stiff added a second regular-season UConn-Tennessee game during Rivalry Week in February.

She also cultivated relationships with coaches and players, conference personnel and athletic departments. When Auriemma and Summitt were on the outs after Summitt canceled the UConn-Tennessee series, Stiff remembered the two coming to Bristol to tape a promo with North Carolina State coach Kay Yow, who was battling Stage 4 breast cancer.

“There’s Kay and there’s Geno and Pat,” she said. “They weren’t talking to each other. We had to get two green rooms for each one.”

Women’s sports have come a long way since 1990. Stiff, who is running a sports media consulting business, likes what she sees for the future,

“We’re only in the first quarter,” she said. “That’s how I feel. I am thrilled to see all the social awareness, acceptance of so much, more hours of women’s sports on ESPN. I love it. I think the future is bright.”

Lori Riley can be reached at lriley@courant.com.

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