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.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Guru's Musings: Old Dominion's 1000th Win Triggers Many Memories

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

The milestone of Old Dominion becoming the fourth NCAA women’s team to record 1000 victories earlier this week has triggered recollections by those around the program for a large number of those triumphs, including two by Vicki L. Friedman well written for ESPNW and her own Lady Swish Blog.

By the way you should know that before she ever knew ODU and her life would intertwine Vicki spent a summer in The Philadelphia Inquirer sports department as one of the early recipients of internships given out by the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM).

That happened to coincide at the time when we were going through the Cecil B. DeMel period of yours truly producing haha videos for various parties of celebration for various things in the Camelot Days on North Broad Street.

One particular shoot involved a film to salute an editorial assistant, predominantly in sports, who was leaving for Burlington, Vermont, and a reporter job at the local paper.

Anyhow, to make Vicki part of the production, the Guru had her do the opening in which she stood outside with the mike, ala TV style, with the building in the background and Vicki doing the intro to take the viewer to see behind-the-scenes planning for the party.

Anyhow, to return to the flashbacks, the Guru’s life had some funny and poignant moments as the Lady Monarchs began to rise to join Tennessee and Louisiana Tech as one of the powers of the late 1970s moving forward.

The Guru’s path, in part for having started the Associated Press Poll and running the operation through the 1994 season, actually began through involvement with the Queens College crowd in New York and a school many expected local high school sensation Nancy Lieberman to attend.

Had she done so, legendary coach Lucille Kyvallos, a recent Lapchick character award recipient, might already be off the waiting list of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville.

But Nancy, whose acquaintance with the Guru was set through his friends at Queens, and who still is the only high school player to date to play on the USA Olympic squad, decided to go to ODU, setting the seeds for what was to come along with the roster addition of another future Hall of Famer in center Inge Nissen.

Pam Parsons was then the ODU coach but she was off to South Carolina before the program began taking up space at the penthouse level of the sport.

After her departure, the Guru’s phone rang one day and the voice on the other end introduced with the greeting, “Hi. Mel. This is Dr. Jim Jarrett. I’m the athletic director at Old Dominion and in town here for a meeting.”

In the early days of running the poll the Guru seemed to be the only one astonished at receiving these kinds of calls.

Anyhow, in considering Parson’s successor, Dr. Jim Jarrett was weighing a choice between going young with an Immaculata assistant by the name of Marianne Stanley, who had been an all-American with the Mighty Macs and a more seasoned coach from out West and wanted an evaluation.

The Guru, at that time didn’t know the other coach, but said that Marianne had tremendous upside. Ironically, Stanley later in life replaced that coach following her retirement.

And so through that conversation the Guru went on to pretty much get to know all the Norfolk, Va., notables as the program began to grow.

The style of the Lady Monarchs made for powerful play well above the level of much of the rest of the country like a certain program today operating out of the state of Connecticut.

The Guru was able to cover many big games on weekends down there and a Philadelphia local school in the same 24-hour period because he could get his game done on a Saturday afternoon, and then zip off to the airport for a quick flight to Norfolk on the weekend deals by the former USAir, then Allegheny Airlines.

The paper had little problem with the Guru doing so since the airfare deal was actually cheaper then claiming auto miles to Rutgers in those days. Travel budgets were also much larger.

Many times it took a visual readjustment upon return for local games because of the difference from what was seen in Norfolk compared to a lower level at home. There was also the sellout crowds in the old fieldhouse or larger Scope, one of the state of the art arenas of the time, compared to sparsely attended games at most area schools.

A big moment that occurred for the Guru and for ODU is when the Lady Monarchs in the 1978-79 season hosted UCLA, the AIAW defending national champs.

A win would make ODU number one for the first time. The Guru flew down the night before and lo and behold heading into the game people acted like Dick Vitale was on the scene with the local papers taking yours truly to lunch and dinner for interviews and electronic media also wanting to get comments.

Old Dominion took control of the game and as it neared the end, Dr. Jarrett was seated next to the Guru on press row. With a win about to become official, the crowd began chanting, “We’re No. 1, We’re No. 1,” at which point he turned in my direction and said, “You realize they’re talking to you.”

Trips to Norfolk were great in the down time because one could take a quick ride over to Virginia Beach for good seafood and a walk on the boardwalk, though later eclipsed as the waterfront in town began taking on the same status as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Prior to Debbie White’s arrival, who later became the longtime postgame media press conference moderator at NCAA final fours, Betsy Van Sickle was the women’s SID for ODU.

The Guru was coming to a big game but Van Sickle was worried about a storm predicted for that morning and was able to facilitate a switch to get in the night before.

When the Guru landed, the plane, which usually takes 40 minutes from here, was a little late.

As we left out a back country road, Betsy noticed her car was on the verge of running out of gas, causing the Guru to think, “Gee, these guys will do anything to stay number one.”

You should also know Norfolk has a high military presence because of the naval base.

A few minutes later she also admonished, “By the way, don’t ever be late again. I was propositioned twice waiting for your plane to land.”

After ODU had won its first title that season, the Guru was at the school’s championship dinner and came with a plaque to signify the school’s number one finish.

All night Dr. Jarrett kept bragging about the school’s coming expansion by three revenue producing sports.

When the Guru got up to make his presentation, he told the audience that Jarrett’s math was off by one. He then told of the rainy night arrival and Betsy’s wrist slap.

At which point the Guru pointed in her direction with the remark, “And so there she is your fourth revenue producing sport,” a remark that actually brought blushes from the team and Stanley.

In the early days to Norfolk, technology had yet to come and so the Guru hauled his sleek olivetti typewriter, which many writers owned at the time.

After writing the account of the game, he had to call the Inquirer and dictate what he had written so they could have a physical copy.

On this particular trip he began the dictation, “Dateline Norfolk, Va. …” But when he returned to Philadelphia to see his story in print it began this way: NORTH OAK, Va. – Old Dominion’s top-ranked women’s basketball team stayed ubeaten at home last night … “

Of course before Guru’s local Drexel team ended ODU’s longtime domination of perfection in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament in 2009 to signify a change of the guard, there are others to note such as the passion for the game by coaches Wendy Larry, who later became president of the WBCA, and current coach Karen Barefoot.

Carol Hudson was also great as the head media relations person in the department (a male by the way to not let the name make you think otherwise).

Dr. Jarrett was also one of the original members of the NCAA tournament committee and the Guru remembers Norfolk for the excitement over hosting the first NCAA Women’s Final Four, the scramble to get a sellout after ODU got upset in the regional, which opened the door for the C. Vivian Stringer-coached Cheyney team to an easier path to the finals.

And then came the poignancy, one of many involving Stringer over the years, with this one being her baby Janine being misdiagnosed of her meningitis and Stringer’s shuttling back and forth from the hospital and her team.

There was also the fact that the national core of reporters attending numbered about five or six of us. At the same time, by the way, the last of the AIAW tourney’s was being held back in Philadelphia at The Palestra on Penn’s campus with Rutgers, coached by Theresa Grentz, beating the Jody Conradt’ coached Texas team for the title, in a Final Four that also included Harry Perretta’s Villanova squad, which he still oversees today.

There was Ticha Penicheiro’s performance in 1997 in Cincinnati, leading to the upset in the national semifinals of top-ranked Stanford.

And there was Stanley coaching ODU to the title over Georgia in 1985 in Texas that was also a highlight.

An epilogue to some of this comes several years ago when the Guru was still at The Inquirer and was also covering the Drexel men.

The Dragons doing quite well that season resulted in the Guru going to Norfolk for a key CAA men’s game at the still relatively new Ted Constant Convocation Center that replaced the fieldhouse.

Oldtimers in Norfolk, not knowing of some of the Guru’s newer duties were shocked to see him show up at an ODU men’s game with Drexel.

When asked, the Guru replied that like many other places implementing similar actions across the country in the workplace, the Guru had chosen ‘Bru (Drexel coach Bruiser Flint) as his sensitivity training project at The Inquirer’s gender equity initiative.

-- Mel

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