On Sunday morning, July 22, Immaculata alumna Rene Muth Portland ’75 passed away. Rene played on all three Immaculata Mighty Macs women’s basketball championship teams and went on to a successful coaching career.
Standing 5’ 10” tall, Rene Muth Portland was a presence both on and off the court. She came to Immaculata College from Villa Maria Academy and helped lead the Mighty Macs to all three of their national championships. She won three Outstanding College Athlete of America awards and a New York Press All-American Citation. After earning her degree from Immaculata in 1975, she stayed at the college for another year as an assistant to her coach, Cathy Rush.
Portland then coached for two years at St. Joseph’s University and for two years at the University of Colorado. Penn State’s Joe Paterno took notice of her commitment to women’s athletics and hired her to coach the Lady Lions. Portland held this position for 27 years, helping the team gain their first No. 1 ranking in 1991 and their first appearance at the Final Four in 2000, which was held in Philadelphia. She was twice named Coach of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA), and was named Big Ten Coach of the Year twice. In 2007, she won her 600th career victory.
Patricia Canterino, vice president for Student Development and Engagement at Immaculata, was the coach of the Mighty Macs when Rene Portland brought her Penn State squad to Philadelphia for the NCAA Women’s Final Four. Canterino recalls that Portland called her to say that she had 20 tickets to the championship game that she wanted to give to the IHM Sisters; two Sisters in particular: Sister Mary of Lourdes, who was president of Immaculata in 1972 when they won the first championship, and Sister Cor Immaculatum. It was up to Canterino to find the remaining 18 Sisters.
“The day of the game, I’m escorting the Sisters into the arena…getting hotdogs and drinks. The Sisters are literally sitting in the first row, across from the Penn State bench.” Canterino explains that when Rene’s husband sees the Sisters, he gets Rene’s attention and points over to all the Sisters. It must have been satisfying to Portland to know that once again, the IHM Sisters were in the stands rooting for her to win. It was reminiscent of her playing days, when Immaculata’s faithful fans jammed into tiny auditoriums with their buckets blaring. It is no secret that Portland’s father supplied those very buckets from his Upper Darby Paint and Hardware store!
Graduating from Immaculata with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and teacher certification in secondary education, Portland made $200 a year as an assistant coach at Immaculata and as a part-time admissions counselor.
With the success of the Mighty Macs and the great experiences the team encountered, it was no wonder that Portland wanted to come back to Immaculata upon graduation. In a 1975 article in the Chester County Post, Portland said she was delighted to be back at Immaculata. “I wish college was like the Army, and that I could re-enlist for another four years,” she added.
Former Immaculata University President Sister Marie Roseanne Bonfini, IHM, who was vice president for Academic Affairs in 1974 when the Mighty Macs won their 3rd championship, insists, “Our team had spirit.” Sister Roseanne recalls that Portland was instrumental, along with her teammates, in dedicating a game to James (Jimmy) Brazes, who was a mentally disabled, long-time college custodian at Immaculata. She explains, “It was his birthday and the team presented him with a cake and dedicated the game to him.” According to Sister Roseanne, that was evidence that Rene and the entire team had true spirit.
“It was a privilege to see Rene last November at her induction into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame,” says Janelle Cronmiller, interim director of Athletics and Recreation at Immaculata. “On a night where her many basketball accomplishments and contributions were at the forefront, it was humbling to see her stay completely in her role as a wife, mother, and grandmother; at one point she was speaking with fellow-honoree Andrea Kremer and the next moment kneeling down in a dress and heels engaging with her granddaughters.”
Looking back on her legacy in 1999, Portland told a reporter for the Penn State student newspaper, the Daily Collegian, “There is not a Final Four that you don’t see a blip about that Immaculata team. It was the beginning; it had a positive effect on us. We went from the outhouse to the penthouse.”
Her teammate from the championship teams, Denise Conway Crawford stated, “Rene was not only a wonderful teammate but a very good friend. Her priorities were straight. She valued her faith and her family above everything else. She was loved and will be missed by many.”