(This article was originally published in the program book for the 25th Anniversary of the First National Women’s Collegiate Basketball Championship in 1997)
By Randall S. Shantz
Nothing about Immaculata College basketball was normal after Normal.
That’s Normal, in Illinois, home of Illinois State University, site of the 1972 national basketball championships.
The story of the precocious Macs (not yet anointed with the “mighty” designation that would soon become part of their nickname forever) and their implausible run to the first of three consecutive national championships needs not be retold here in detail because, as monstrous as that title was, it became but a small part of the school’s bequest to women’s college basketball.
The basic facts are:
- Immaculata entered the tournament as the second-place team from the east behind West Chester State after losing to the Golden Rams 70-38 in the regional final.
- The Macs opened championship play with a 60-47 victory over South Dakota State, survived a second-round scare to defeat Indiana State 49-47, and then held off defending national titlist Mississippi State College for Women, the top seed in the 16-team field, 46-43.
- In the championship game against old nemesis West Chester (which had sent its third team to play the Macs during the regular season), Immaculata rose to the occasion and avenged the 32-point regional loss a week earlier with a 52-48 victory.
But in order to put that first championship and Immaculata’s overall contribution to the women’s game in the proper perspective, it is necessary to consider not only what that team accomplished but what it wrought as well.
Following in the footsteps of the 1972 team, the Macs:
- Played for and won the 1973 and 1974 national championships, becoming one of only two teams to win three straight titles.
- Appeared in the championship games again in 1975, 1976, and 1977, becoming the only school to ever play on six consecutive finals.
- Reached the Final Four in 1977, the last year of coach Cathy Rush’s unparalleled seven-season career that concluded with a 149-15 record and a .909 winning percentage.
Immaculata’s legacy is far from limited to wins, losses, tournament appearances, and championships, however. Beginning with the success enjoyed in 1972, Rush and the Macs became the drum-thumpers for women’s basketball, igniting interest in the sport throughout the tri-state region and attracting a fanatical following that was the envy of all women’s teams and many college men’s programs in the Delaware Valley.
Sellout crowds at area high school gymnasiums and the old Villanova Fieldhouse as well as a berth opposite Queen’s College in the first women’s game played at New York’s Madison Square Garden were testaments to Immaculata’s drawing power and introduced throngs of young girls to the increasingly popular world of women’s basketball.
Just several years removed from the six-players, half-court game that had been played by women for years, the fast-breaking, pressure defense employed by the Macs mirrored the much more popular style played by men.
The influence of the Macs on their sport will be perpetuated by two players from the 1972 team who continue to play vital roles in women’s college basketball – Theresa Shank Grentz, former head coach at St. Joseph’s University and Rutgers University and now head coach at the University of Illinois, and Rene Muth Portland, a former assistant to Rush and now head coach at Penn State University.
The examples they set not only attracted quality players to Immaculata over the next few years but served as the impetus for several others to enter the coaching profession when their playing days ended.
Marianne Crawford Stanley also served as an assistant to Rush before taking head coaching jobs at Old Dominion (where she won three national championships), the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Southern California. She is now head coach at Cal-Berkeley.
Mary Scharff began her coaching career at the high school level, served as an assistant at Villanova, and is now Immaculata’s head coach.
Tina Krah made the most of her collegiate career. She was an assistant coach at Michigan State before becoming head coach at San Jose State University. She is now in private business.
Two former Mighty Macs assistants also went on to collegiate head coaching stints. Dottie McCrea was the head coach at Stanford in the late 1970s, and Mary DiStanislao went from Immaculata to the head position at Northwestern University and then Notre Dame.
Immaculata’s position as a major players on the national level ended when Rush resigned following the 1977 season, but with the advent of Title IX and the increasing emphasis being placed on women’s sports by the large scholarship institutions, the string of big-time successes would have run out on the Macs anyway.
But for those six glorious years beginning in Normal in 1972, things were anything but normal.
(Randall S. Shantz covered Immaculata basketball for the Daily Local News in West Chester and, like the Macs, made friends everywhere the team went, particularly in Cleveland, Mississippi.)