Long before Pat Summit and the University of Tennessee or Geno Auriemma and UCONN ruled the ranks of women’s college basketball, there was another team at the top of the standings.
It’s a team you’ve probably never heard of —Immaculata College. The tiny Catholic women’s school, located in Pennsylvania, was the national powerhouse in the pre-NCAA days.
The Mighty Macs won Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national titles in 1972, 1973 and 1974. The 1972 title was the first national title in women’s college basketball.
The Macs put women’s basketball on the media radar, and Immaculata is now considered to be the birthplace of the modern women’s game.
“The Mighty Macs,” a movie about Immaculata’s rise to prominence opens Oct. 21. It’s a female version of “Hoosiers,” a team of decided underdogs who win the championship. It’s also a trip back to the “old” days when female basketball players work tunics and played in cracker box size gymnasiums.
In 1970, when 22-year old Cathy Rush, whose husband, Ed, was an NBA referee, accepted the coaching position at the school, the odds were definitely against her. The school’s gymnasium had burned down so practice had to be held elsewhere, including a small recreation area used by the postulants. The players had to provide much of their own equipment and funded one trip by selling toothbrushes.
The Immaculata vs. University of Maryland game was the first to be nationally televised. Several Immaculata players — Theresa Shank Grentz, Marianne Crawford Stanley, Rene Muth Portland, quickly come to mind — went on to become prominent college coaches.
I’ve got an Immaculata story of my own. In the 1970s and early 1980s, I was a basketball official with the Baltimore Board of Officials for Women’s Sports. I was positively thrilled when I was assigned to officiate a Towson vs. Immaculata JV game. It could have been the national finals as far as Gloria Eby, my officiating partner that night, and I were concerned. An Immaculata game was really big stuff in those days.
If you’re free this weekend, go to the movies.