Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Guru Special Report: Immaculata Era Had No Blueprint for Success at the Outset

By Mel Greenberg

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- The stately Villa Marie Hall and its two adjoining halls on each side in the center of Immaculata's campus seems to serve as a signpost to onlookers in the direction of Malvern that behold here is a special place in which history was made.

And while the architecture seems to give the impression of a place frozen in time, the legacy of what became the Mighty Macs is also a living history that has managed to flow through the rivlets of time from those female basketball players who ruled the sport in the early 1970s to today's high-powered game played at the collegiate, professional and Olympic levels.

The next several days the echoes of the past will reunite once more, this time to be celebrated in here in Springfield, Mass., with enshrinement as a 1972-74 era of excellence into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

It's a big year for the group that won those first three Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) championships.

Besides this weekend's events, the group will be inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in November, and then next June at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., they will be noted with a permanent display as part of the Trailblazers of the Game exhibit following this past June's celebration of the 1976 U.S. Olympic women's team.

Former Immaculata coach Cathy Rush waa inducted individually in Springfield in 2008 while she is also a past inductee along with former stars Theresa Grentz and Marianne Stanley in the Women's Hall in Knoxville.

Rush will be the presenter at Friday night's ceremony in Symphony Hall.

Several years ago when the movie The Mighty Macs was heading for theaters in the fall of 2011, one got the impression through the various interviews that although virtually everyone involved with the era had local ties, the many facets came together by accident.

The nuns then running the small Catholic liberal arts college that later became a university and went co-ed in 2005 had no idea just who they were bringing aboard when they hired Rush in 1970 for a paltry sum of money.

For Rush was a competitor and being married to men's basketball referee Ed Rush at the time, she had a partner who understood the game and also had a sense of marketing the product.

Then there were the key components.

Theresa Grentz, the first dominate center in the modern era who led Archbishop Prendergast to a championship, was not originally ticketed for Immaculata.

"I was suppose to be going to Mount St. Mary's," she said. "But then we had a fire at the house and I needed to be nearby so I ended up commuting to Immaculata."

While Grentz was a mainstay responsible for the first title, of which the movie focused on, the following year another Prendergast product, Marianne Stanley, a fiesty point guard in the acclaimed Philly style was bound for West Chester until a few days later she changed her mind.

"I had gone out and enrolled and three days later dis-enrolled," Stanley said earlier this week in Washington, where she is now an assistant coach with the WNBA Washington Mystics.

"But I then just realized I didnt need a physical education degree to coach," Stanley recalled. "I knew I wanted to work with young people. It just wasn't a fit at West Chester. A liberal arts college would do the job.

"My early role models were the players in the Big Five and the 76ers, you really didn't have female stars to look up to, but it wasn't till I got to college that I thought I could pursue a coaching career," she added.

Mike Flynn, who runs the nationally prominent Blue Star AAU program based here highlighted by the Philadelphia Belles, was back there in time working with the women's game.

"When they got Theresa, she was her own little island of success," Flynn recalls. "But when I saw Marianne was going there, that's what made them an era.

"I thought, Damnn, they could be really special."

Rush remembers it a little differently saying everyone thought Stanley was going to transfer to West Chester after the first year but then in a critical game with the Golden Rams she got a little roughed up and proclaimed in the locker room afterwards, "I'm never going there."

And there were the touches that made the whole program unique.

Rene Muth Portland, another key player, had a father in the hardware business.

So when the nuns at the university finally decided the whole thing was fun, it was Mr. Portland who supplied them with washboards and buckets to become a unique version of a school band.

"I remember as a freshman at UCLA going to the early tournaments," Hall of Famer Ann Meyers-Drysdale said and then grinned at another memory. "It was very exciting to watch them play. And then those nuns, with the buckets, the tournament officials weren't really thrilled with the noise coming from the Immaculata section."

And then there's the fact that they even in the first place got to go to the initial 1972 tournament, which, unlike today's setup, was a 16-team circus in which the squads played games at 10 a.m. and then came back several hours later to play the next round in the afternoon.

Immaculata had gotten routed in regional competition by nearby West Chester, then one of the dominate programs of the day.

But the committee putting together that first tournament to be held in Illinois decided to give Immaculata the one at-large slot and made them the last seed.

In the end, the Mighty Macs overcame the placement and avenged the loss to West Chester in the national title game.

"I always felt we were like the Grinch who stole Christmas," Rush said of taking the acclaim once monopolized by the Golden Rams.

"So much of what occured really was by happenstance. If you want to use the word destiny, what better place to harness it then at a catholic institution."

Meanwhile, many believe that putting the whole team into Naismith at one time -- they follow as the second women's team the Redheads inducted several years ago -- became a compromise.

There's been a push in recent seasons to get Grentz inducted as a player -- in fact her family and other supporters have put together a book on her exploits loaded with statistics that would take a month to digest.

When the women's subcommittee met last winter to move as many as the limitation of two candidates forward, it seemed a good year to give Grentz consideration.

But then as they met, suddenly someone had submitted Stanley as a candidate, causing a division on which way to go.

However, the entire Immaculata era landed on the table of consideration and so rather than have one cancel the other, this was now a way to get both Stanley and Grentz notoriety.

Although Rush is going to present the Immaculata team, there are two other inductees Friday night with local connections -- former Temple great Guy Rodgers will be presented by Earl Monroe while former Maryland coach Gary Williams of Collingswood will be presented by former 76ers player and coach Billy Cunningham.

Meanwhile as more attention got paid to the Mighty Macs -- when they won the first title they got local media coverage because they were a success sports story at a time when things were pretty absymal -- Rush and her husband began looking for projects to showcase the team.

A game in Madison Square Garden was played against archrival Queens College coached by the legendary Lucille Kyvallos.

A first-ever TV game was played at Maryland.

"We were going to get killed but we had to have them," former Terrapins coach Chris Weller once recalled.

And then came the camps in the Poconos begun in 1970 that became a place to harvest the seeds for the future.

"It was amazing you had all these young kids who stayed for eight weeks and later when there became a need for women's coaches, unlike the process used to search and hire today, the calls kept coming to us for candidates," Rush noted.

Suuch future notables were either campers or counselors as UConn and Women's Olympic coach Geno Auriemma, Virginia coach Debbie Ryan, who was from Trenton; future Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw was a Saint Joseph's player and camper; future Saint Joseph's men's coach Phil Martelli's future wife was Judy Marra, who was a Mighty Mac.

Grentz on Thursday during the interview session following the jacket presentations at the press conference said of the coaching tree stemming from Rush and through several levels: "You have some 2000 victories there and that doesnt count those who coached at AAU and CYO and their players went on to success.

Incidentally, Tina Krah, who works in the NCAA women's basketball administration, played briefly with the Mighty Macs during the glory days and she will be here for the ceremony.

Meanwhile, after the third championship as players began to graduate, things began trend downward from the peak.

A new program from Mississippi with a star center Luisia Harris of Delta State ended the run in 1975.

"We knew they were very, very good and we just had to play the best we ever did to beat them," Harris said recently of ending Immaculata's rule.

Stanley was still an undergrad so Immaculata was still in the title mix, but Delta State came back and won again in 1976 beating Immaculata in the title game at Penn State.

The next fall the future Associated Press women's poll was launched as an initiative at The Philadelphia Inquirer and in the preseason vote from a panel of coaches, Immaculata was still near the top and stayed in the top 10 that first season.

But the effect of Title IX and the dawn of athletic scholarships that large schools could afford was becoming apparent.

Such basketball powers that existed in the poll in the front end of that first season of voting such as Queens, Southern Connecticut, William Penn in Iowa, and a few others began to give way to places known for men's football and basketball as Maryland, Texas, North Carolina State, LSU, and a few others.

Then at the end of the 1977 season, in the AIAW tournament, in the national semifinals the Mighty Macs fell to LSU, which had two Australian stars, one of whom became the mother of futher WNBA great Lauren Jackson.

There were consolation games back then and Immaculata got to play an up-and-coming program that had fallen to eventual champion Delta State in the other semifinal game.

So for third place, Rush's team fell to an SEC school with a relatively new coach who happened to be Pat Summitt with Tennessee.

Symbolically, that game became the handoff of the titan of the present to the titan of the future.

A few days later, saying she didn't think Immaculata with limited funding could compete against the new wave of large state universities, Rush stepped down.

It was the end of the era on the court but the Immaculata legacy was beginning to manifest itself in a new way through its former stars on the sidelines and it has thrived over a period of four decades leading to Springfield and Hall of Fame stature.

"We are ready to party, " Grentz proclaimed during her formal remarks Thursday at the press conference.

- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad


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