Immaculata - the first women's basketball dynasty

Updated: October 19, 2011, 4:53 PM ET
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Long before Tennessee and Connecticut, Immaculata College was the original women's basketball dynasty.

And unlike Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma's teams, which have dominated the women's basketball landscape in an age of growing fan interest and TV coverage, coach Cathy Rush and her Mighty Macs built title winners out of grit and determination alone.

The all-girls Catholic school just outside of Philadelphia had virtually no money. It didn't even have a home court to practice on after the gym burned down before Rush's first year in 1971. The Mighty Macs were forced to work out at local grade schools and play all their games on the road.

Now, 40 years after its incredible run started, Immaculata's story has been made into a movie ("The Mighty Macs") that will open nationally Friday. But no film can quite capture what an underdog that team was.

Katie Hayek, who stars in the movie portraying a character based on Immaculata star Theresa Shank Grentz, admitted with a sheepish smile that she didn't know much about the story before taking the role.

"It's insane what they did, winning three championships and having no money," said Hayek, who grew up in nearby Lancaster, and was a star basketball player in the area before earning a scholarship to Miami. "They hate being called the pioneers of women's basketball, so I like to call them catalysts. Without them I probably wouldn't have had a chance to play."

Things were so bad for Immaculata that it had precious few basketballs to practice with, so when the team went to other schools for games, the Mighty Macs would "exchange" one of their bad balls for a new one.

"We had a whole collection of basketballs emblazoned with other school's names," Grentz recalled, laughing.

Yet despite those and many other hardships, the 23-year-old Rush coached her team to a spot in the first-ever women's national college tournament in 1972. The Mighty Macs, as a 15th-seed, upset three teams to reach the finals in Illinois.

Even then, the Mighty Macs had hurdles to overcome.

Immaculata couldn't afford to send everyone -- despite fundraising with toothbrush sales and raffles, so three players were left behind. Even at less than full strength, Immaculata won the title, upsetting West Chester -- which had beaten the Mighty Macs by 32 points a week earlier.

"It was Camelot, I don't know that it will ever happen again the way it happened," said Grentz, who became a successful college coach at Rutgers and Illinois. "So many things have changed, per diems, strength coaches, academic advisers, your own jet for travel. We didn't have any of that."

Rush and her Mighty Macs paved the way for the great teams to follow, winning the next two titles and appearing in five of the first six championship games.

And then, in the blink of an eye, they vanished from the national scene -- a casualty of Title IX, which required colleges to offer women athletic scholarships. Once money played a major role in women's sports, the champs of women's basketball suddenly couldn't compete.

"Immaculata is the only school adversely affected by Title IX," Rush said laughing. "I said we needed to give scholarships and they said we don't want to be a jock school."

At the time Rush was disappointed by the school administration's decision to not offer scholarships, but as she says, it was just the arrogance of her youth.

"I was 25 at the time and thought they were so wrong, but they were so right," she said. "That sized college wasn't going to continue to be successful against UCLA, Texas or whomever. Those schools were going to attract the better players. I didn't see that."

Rush could have made a move to a bigger program, and her coaching credentials remain unparalleled. She won an eye-popping 91 percent (149-15) of her games over her tenure at Immaculata, including coaching the first undefeated national champion in 1973.

Yet after she resigned in 1976 from the 500-student school, the Hall of Famer never coached again.

"I had a lot of offers, but my children were starting school and I wanted to spend time with them," Rush said. "My original plan was to take a year off and then I'd go back the following year and go someplace else. It never did happen. I was really happy being a mom."

She didn't completely give up basketball, though, beginning a Future Stars camp that she still is involved in. Rush rattled off a Who's Who of college coaches who have worked at her camp, including Auriemma.

"Immaculata was the founding fathers of what college basketball is today," Auriemma said. "They were a team that was way ahead of their time. They left and then added to the game and that to me is an incredible legacy for them."

Rush and Immaculata were trailblazers. The school was part of the first women's game at Madison Square Garden. Now, the Maggie Dixon Classic is annually held there, drawing over 15,000 fans last season.

The Mighty Macs were also part of the first nationally televised game in 1975, playing Maryland. Now over 250 games are broadcast on the ESPN networks, including the last 16 national championship games.

Rush also was an innovator in marketing the game. After drawing over 4,000 fans for a Monday afternoon game, she thought about charging admission in order to raise money for the program.

"I think of colleges today that don't draw 3,000-4,000 to their games," she said. "If we could do it, they can do it."

Immaculata has changed over the years, going coed in 2005 and seeing the enrollment grow. While they haven't made the national tournament since the glory years, the Mighty Macs were on the verge last season of making the Division III NCAAs. They lost in the finals of the Colonial States Athletic Conference tournament.

"We were so disappointed last year because we were so close," current Immaculata coach and athletic director Patricia Canterino said. "It would have been huge for us."

Canterino also played for Immaculata from 1989-92 and makes sure that the current athletes are aware of the team's storied past. It's hard for them to miss it with the championship trophies and banners on display around the gym.

The current Mighty Macs also honor Rush every year when they wear pink jerseys with her name on the back in their annual Pink Zone game in February. Rush is a breast cancer survivor.

"We still have such great support of the women's basketball program from the sisters," Canterino said. "They still come to the game and sit in that same section right by the door as you come in."


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Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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