Mighty Macs at 50: Immaculata changed women's basketball and the world

MIKE SIELSKI
Trophys from Immaculata's 1972 to 1974 women’s basketball championship titles are on dipslay outside of the gymnasium at Immaculata University.  Immaculata's 1972 team won the first-ever national women’s college basketball championship title, the first of three consecutive championships for the university and the Mighty Macs.

Glass encased in glass, three Waterford globes glowed with warm light, the sun's rays filtering through the lobby of Alumnae Hall one morning here at Immaculata University, catching the crystal just right.

The history and achievements that made famous this Chester County campus of fewer than 1,800 undergraduates and less than 380 acres — this place of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, this place of a mighty and revolutionary athletic tradition and a diligent Catholic one, this modest little place — are kept as fresh and vibrant as possible. The gym even has bleachers now.

It did not in the spring of 1972, 50 years ago, when Immaculata initiated the modern era of women's college basketball by winning the first of its three consecutive national championships — the first three official national championships in the sport. Cathy Rush, who was the team's coach then and is a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member now, and several of her players returned for a reunion last week, a Friday luncheon giving them an opportunity to reconnect, reminisce, and contemplate again a story that stands alone in basketball.

That story, their story, was born of a unique confluence of people, circumstances, religious values, and basketball culture. That first championship, on March 19, 1972, predated Title IX; President Richard Nixon wouldn't sign it into law for another three months. The rules of women's basketball had only recently evolved to allow all 10 players on the floor to cross the midcourt stripe. "I didn't even know they'd gone full court," one television reporter said after Immaculata's first national title.

Most of the players hailed from Philadelphia's adjacent towns and suburbs, Delaware County in particular. Their uniforms were light-blue tunics with wide white collars. Three of them — Theresa Shank Grentz, Rene Muth Portland, Marianne Stanley — went on to become accomplished coaches themselves. The school's fieldhouse had burned down in 1967. The athletic department sold toothbrushes to raise money so the team could travel. The sisters and students banged buckets and lids to show their support — the " Bucket Brigade," they were called. The team's nickname — the Mighty Macs — was coined by George Heaslip, a sportswriter for the Daily Local in West Chester. There was a book about them in 2003 and a movie about them in 2009, and the '72-74 teams were inducted collectively into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2014.

All for an all-women's college — Immaculata attained university status in 2002 and began admitting men in 2005 — that had just 800 undergraduates at the time.

"How many schools around here," asked Karen Matweychuk, Immaculata Class of '83 and the university's director of alumni relations, "had a movie made about them?"

Lydia Szyjka, director of communications, puts a women’s basketball jersey from 1972-1973 on a mannequin inside her office at Immaculata University.  Immaculata's 1972 team won the first-ever national women’s college basketball championship title, the first of three consecutive championships for the university and the Mighty Macs.

“Every leader is a woman:” Hear enough of those anecdotes, dwell enough on the details that now, with the passage of time, have become antiquated and in some ways unbelievable, and it's a short descent into the stereotypes and presumptions that drive some of the Mighty Macs crazy to this day.

The nuns must have been basketball-ignorant battle axes, and the fathers and husbands and boyfriends must have been he-man woman-haters who resented even the notion, let alone the reality, that their daughters and wives and girlfriends would assert themselves through athletic excellence.

"It's a neat story. It's an innocent story," said Grentz, who grew up in Glenolden and lives in West Chester. "There's a simplicity to it. When we stepped on the floor, the team belief in each other was, 'We will not disappoint each other, and we will not disappoint the school.'"

As high school players, most of them had experienced the thrill of packing The Palestra for big games in the Philadelphia Catholic League: Archbishop Prendergast green on one side, Cardinal O'Hara navy on the other, the power of a single-sex education revealed once the women moved on to and beyond Immaculata. There were no men or men's teams to compete with for attention and resources. The athletes were more than athletes; they were presidents of their classes and captains of their teams.

"At an all-girls school, every leader is a woman," Rush said. "That has importance, also. We were in games where there was almost no doubt that we were going to win. You had a sense of 'Been there, done that. We've got this.'

"You look at the women on this team, and what they've ended up doing: doctors, dentists, lawyers. It's just amazing that this was a part of their life, but it wasn't their whole life. Everybody looks at Theresa and Rene and Marianne, who ended up coaching basketball. But I had one girl who's now a pediatric cardiac transplant specialist. I can hardly say it, let alone understand what she does. It's unfathomable. You bring all of that together, and you're not going to win every game, but your chances are pretty darned good."

Rush, who had previously coached junior high and high school basketball and whose husband then, Ed, was an NBA referee, was under no illusions about why Immaculata had hired her. She was young, and she came cheap. She was 24, and her annual salary as the college's head coach was $450. The words prime time had no place in women's basketball then. You wanted to see the Macs? Clear your schedule for 3 p.m. on a Monday. Oh, and if you were driving to the game and had room in your car, could you maybe take one of the players? No team bus for them. They carpooled.

Archival images of Immaculata's 1972 women’s basketball team (left) and game action of the 1974 women’s basketball teams are photographed at Immaculata University in Immaculata, Pa. on Thursday, March 3, 2022.  Immaculata's 1972 team won the first-ever national women’s college basketball championship title, the first of three consecutive championships for the university and the Mighty Macs.

There and back: The 1971-72 Macs won 20 consecutive games before West Chester State — their rival, its campus just seven miles from Immaculata's — walloped them, 70-38.

Both teams were among the 16 to qualify for the inaugural championship tournament of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. The tournament, held at Illinois State University, would be a will-tester for the team that won it: four games over a 48-hour period, Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon. But there was an even greater challenge for the Macs: getting to the tournament, and getting home from it.

As supportive as the nuns generally were, Grentz said, "I know for a fact that not all the good sisters were in favor of spending money to send a basketball team to Illinois. There was no line in the budget for postseason travel."

 But a pep rally for the team and those toothbrush sales raised $3,000. Rush paid for her own plane ticket. And Sister Mary of Lourdes McDevitt, Immaculata's president, scraped together enough money to cover the cost of 11 other tickets, most of which were stand-by. The college could afford to send a total of 12 people to the tournament, which meant three players — including Judy Marra Martelli, married for 44 years to former St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli — had to stay behind, trying to pick up the games on some staticky radio station. "Imagine Jay Wright doing this," Grentz said.

At O'Hare International Airport, the players bought a couple of Chicago newspapers, then read up on their opponents during the two-hour ride to Normal, Ill., convening a bare-bones scouting session as their rental cars rumbled south. Does anyone know anything about this team? Has anyone heard of this player? No one did. No one had.

Maybe their lack of information was an advantage. They didn't know enough to raise any doubts in their own minds about their chances. They beat South Dakota State by three in the first round, Indiana State by two in the second, and top-seeded Mississippi State College for Women in the semifinals. Waiting for them in the final was West Chester State. Grentz, 6-feet tall and multi-skilled — "The greatest player of that era," Rush said — scored 26 points, and though West Chester State had its full complement of players, the shorthanded Macs wiped out a five-point halftime deficit and won, 52-48.

"If we had played them 100 times, we would have lost 99 times," said Janet Ruch Boltz, a guard on the '72 Macs. "You're coaching and have 12 players on their bench, and you're looking at these eight players you had beaten the week before by 30. If they had full-court-pressed us, they'd have killed us. We were exhausted."

Exhausted ... and potentially stranded. Their plane tickets had been one-way. But Sister Mary of Lourdes, a savvy negotiator who oversaw an aggressive expansion of Immaculata's campus during her 18-year tenure as president, called one of the college's benefactors, Caswell "Cas" Holloway: a businessman and real-estate developer, a father of 10, and a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre. Fly them home first-class, he told her. So the Macs sat in the front of the plane. Behind them, in coach, was the entire West Chester State squad. When the plane landed at Philadelphia International Airport, the pilot asked the Macs to remain on board. Waiting at the gate were 500 Immaculata students and supporters.

"West Chester had to walk through us," Grentz said. "I felt very badly for the players who had to do that."

Perfect timing: In March 1972, the Phillies were about to begin a season in which they went 59-97, and they won that many games only because of Steve Carlton. As the year progressed, the fortunes of Philadelphia's professional sports franchises only worsened. The Eagles went 2-11-1. The Flyers, by losing in their season finale to the Buffalo Sabres, missed the playoffs. The Sixers were on their way to compiling a 30-52 record, then would go 9-73 the following season, distinguishing themselves as the worst team in NBA history. In a sports-mad city with column inches to fill in three daily newspapers — The Inquirer, The Daily News, The Bulletin — the Mighty Macs came out of nowhere at just the right time, a dynasty that no one expected, that demanded attention, and that now occupies that enduring and mystical space between fact and folklore.

"We didn't have any dreams or ambitions to win a national championship," Martelli said. "There was no championship to be won when we started playing. So we didn't go in with any expectations or hopes. I remember saying to someone when we were going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, the men in the room grew up hitting the shot to win the national championship in their minds and dreams. No woman ever thought that back in the '70s."

No, they didn't. Not then. But by the time the NCAA assumed control of the women's national tournament in 1982, Immaculata had won its second and third championships, and it had, in 1975, played Queens College at Madison Square Garden in the first nationally televised women's basketball game. Nearly 12,000 fans attended it.

Last year's national-championship game, between Stanford and Arizona, averaged 4 million viewers on ESPN. And Theresa Grentz, who turns 70 on Thursday, who won 681 games over her 33 years of college coaching at St. Joseph's and Rutgers and Illinois and Lafayette, who was the head coach of the 1992 U.S. Women's Olympic Team, who played in the Soviet Union and coached in Yugoslavia and Israel and Taiwan — a half-century since, she said, whenever she disembarks a plane, no matter her destination, she glances around the arrival gate, expecting to see 500 people banging on buckets and dressed in the color of the sky.