UConn-Providence rivalry has long, sometimes sordid history, highlighted by ‘Ryan Gomes game’

Photo of David Borges
Providence’s Ryan Gomes, right, dominated Emeka Okafor and the rest of UConn for 26 points and 12 rebounds on Jan. 24, 2004, in an effort that led to one of Jim Calhoun’s most famous postgame rants.

Providence’s Ryan Gomes, right, dominated Emeka Okafor and the rest of UConn for 26 points and 12 rebounds on Jan. 24, 2004, in an effort that led to one of Jim Calhoun’s most famous postgame rants.

Associated Press file photo

There is no current Big East rivalry longer than UConn-Providence.

The programs, separated by a mere 50 miles, first met on Jan. 21, 1928 (a 29-21 UConn victory) and have played 74 times over the years. That’s more than the Huskies have played Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s or any other current Big East foe.

Yet if you ask the respective fan bases if UConn-PC is a rivalry, you’ll likely get very different answers. No doubt, Providence fans view the Huskies as one of their chief rivals, and Jim Calhoun thinks he knows why.

“They had some very good teams, good players,” the Hall of Fame ex-UConn coach said of the Friars. “And then, when we started to really get good, I mean nationally good … in some ways, we kind of switched spots.”

Indeed, UConn has won four national championships over the past 23 seasons. PC has won exactly one NCAA tournament game over that span.

Ask a UConn fan who their team’s main rival is, and the answer is more likely Syracuse, Georgetown, even Duke. Providence? Merely an irritant on the way to multiple national titles.

But there have been some memorable battles over the years. There was a game in 1990 where PC star Eric Murdock spat at Tate George (allegedly over a girl, who was a UConn student), and Marvin Saddler punched Rod Sellers in the back of the head.

There was Donny Marshall’s infamous “sarcastic clap” that got him a technical foul against the Friars in the mid-1990s. There was what can best be described as a “marital aid” tossed onto the Dunkin’ Donuts Center floor in a game against UConn about a decade later.

And while UConn boasts a 45-29 overall record against the Friars, the matchup hasn’t been as one-sided in more recent years. Since March 5, 2003, when PC spoiled the Huskies’ Senior Night at Gampel Pavilion, the Friars actually boast an 8-7 overall record against the Huskies.

And easily the most famous of those games came on Jan. 24, 2004, at the XL Center (nee Hartford Civic Center). It will simply go down as “The Ryan Gomes Game.”

Gomes, the pudgy Waterbury product, torched the fourth-ranked Huskies for 17 first-half points, and when Calhoun switched national Defensive Player of the Year Emeka Okafor on him for the latter half, Gomes remained productive and finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds in a 66-56 PC win.

But it wasn’t Gomes’ game performance that drew the most attention. It was Calhoun’s postgame performance.

Former New Haven Register sports columnist Dave Solomon asked Calhoun: “Jim, recruiting is hardly an exact science. What does Gomes do now that blows you away?”

You could see Calhoun bracing for a fight with each word.

“He just had to hear the name ‘Ryan Gomes,’” former Providence Journal reporter Kevin McNamara recalled on this week’s UConn Report podcast, “and I think anyone with a pulse who follows UConn or Big East basketball has heard Coach Calhoun’s response. It certainly is one of the all-time classics.”

No need to delve word-for-word into Calhoun’s expletive-laden response, in which he pointed out that UConn didn’t recruit Gomes because it was too busy getting guys like Okafor and Caron Butler (“They’re not bad!”). Let’s just say his rant went viral before things even went viral.

“I suppose it got me a couple of million hits on YouTube,” Calhoun said on Thursday. “In all honesty, I find it funny now.”

Not so much at the time, however. Calhoun felt Solomon, who died in a car crash in August, 2011, was needling him a bit about failing to recruit Gomes, the in-state product.

“When I’m out there trying to compete, I was in the ring,” Calhoun noted. “I put my gloves on and for 40 minutes, I tried to kick the hell out of you. The passion carries over. When you have a great team, that went on to win a national championship, people are questioning your recruiting. ‘Why didn’t you …?’ There’s a lot of reasons I didn’t. Today, I find it much more humorous.”

The following morning, Calhoun called Solomon to air things out and apologize.

“‘What were you doing?,’ that kind of thing,” Calhoun recalled. “I might have used a couple of other words. ‘You question my roster, with a great team …’ Not a big deal. Dave was a good friend, a good guy, a tragic death. He was kind of fun to be with, because he was bright and sharp. He went a little overboard, so I wanted to join him in the water, I guess.”

Calhoun is a native New Englander and sports historian. He remembers the glory days of PC basketball, rattling off names like Joe Mullaney, Dave Gavitt, Ernie DiGregorio, Marvin Barnes and Kevin Stacom. He remembers when the Providence Civic Center (now the Dunkin’ Donuts Center) “was the Mecca of New England college basketball.”

“It was a different world,” Calhoun remarked.

Indeed, it was. UConn, with its four national championships, has been the superior program for some 30 years now. But PC has had the upper hand in the programs’ head-to-head matchups for nearly 20 years, even splitting last season in UConn’s return to the Big East.

It may not be the rivalry UConn fans look forward to the most. But it is a rivalry, perhaps the best one UConn has these days. And who knows what kind of spats, “sarcastic claps” and postgame rants could be in the future?