In the summer of 1968, 200 women took to the streets of Atlantic City outside the convention hall where the Miss America pageant was being staged. In a symbolic act, they tossed bras, girdles, hair curlers, and false eyelashes into a trash can and set them on fire. Their actions captured front-page headlines across the country and fanned the flames of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement.
But at tiny Immaculata College, 90 miles northwest of Atlantic City, the young women who played basketball for newly-hired coach Cathy Rush in 1971 were hardly concerned with all the changes swirling outside their campus. Immaculata was an all-girls Catholic school still firmly rooted in the traditions of the 1950s. By and large insulated from the issues in the “real” world, they still wore pleated wool tunics and sashes over their white blouses. They attended Catholic mass before games, started every game with a prayer to the “God of Players,” and fully expected to become wives and mothers when their college days came to an end.
Yet the “Mighty Macs” — as they would come to be known — did more for the “cause” of women’s basketball than any other team of their era. They captured the imagination of male and female sports fans and catapulted women’s basketball onto the national stage by winning three improbable national championships from 1972-74 (they were runners-up in two others). Immortalized in the 2011 movie, Mighty Macs, the real, live “Mackies” as they were called on campus, were inducted as a team into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in August, 2014. They joined their coach, Cathy Rush, who was inducted in 2008.
“This is the ultimate,” said Theresa (Shank) Grentz on the eve of the induction. “The things we had, the time we had was a Camelot. It was very special….We didn’t have all the material things, but we had what it took.”
With an enrollment of about 400 girls, Immaculata College was a liberal arts institution with a strong fine arts and home economics program and no physical education major. Yet women had played basketball at Immaculata since the 1930s due to its proximity to Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love was a Roman Catholic stronghold where Catholic Youth Organization leagues encouraged girls to build Catholic values through athletics. The CYO leagues channeled girls into Catholic high schools, and from there, many matriculated to same-sex Catholic universities such as Immaculata.
One of the products of this system was Sister Mary of Lourdes McDevitt, who led her inner-city Philadelphia high school, the oldest Catholic girls school in the country, to the Catholic League basketball championship in the mid-20s. When she became president of Immaculata College in 1954, she would often stop by the women’s basketball practices to shoot some hoops, and she never missed a game during her 18-year tenure as college president. Sister Mary of Lourdes broke with tradition in 1962 by hiring a coach who was not a member of the faculty — and was not even Catholic. Under Jennipher Shillingford, the Mackies earned a reputation for playing tenacious, street-ball defense and employing a give-and-go offense (even given the restraints of the six-player game). They began to attract the best CYO League players and many Catholic girls from outside the Philadelphia area, who were surprised by the level of play and the support given to the basketball program.
When Shillingford retired and became athletic director in 1971, she and Sister Mary of Lourdes made the hire that would be the catalyst to Immaculata’s national acclaim a year later. Cathy Rush — a Baptist no less — hadn’t imagined being a basketball coach when she graduated from West Chester State College in 1968. She’d played basketball at her high school near Atlantic City, but after her freshman year, the administration cut all girls’ interscholastic programs, so she made the switch to intramural gymnastics. At West Chester State, she majored in physical education and played basketball for two years. Those were fortuitious years, as she was coached by one of the pioneers of the women’s modern era, Lucille Kyvallos.
Kyvallos, who had grown-up in Queens, New York, the daughter of factory-working parents, was a no-nonsense coach who taught her players to understand the x’s and o’s of the game. After leaving West Chester State, she moved on to her alma mater, Queens College, where she had her pick of inner-city girls who had honed their skills playing against boys on the playgrounds of Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Most college women’s teams made the switch to the five-player game in 1969, and while other colleges were still playing zone defense exclusively, she taught her teams man-to-man defense. The results were impressive. “That first season we won 10 out of 12 games,” she recalled. “But more importantly, the women were learning the discipline necessary to be committed athletes.”
At Immaculata, meanwhile, 22-year-old Coach Rush employed the same no-nonsense approach as her mentor. Her two-hour practices consisted of 90% drills and wind sprints and very little scrimmaging, and they gave Immaculata the edge over most opponents when it came to conditioning. For all its conditioning, though, Immaculata might never have made it to the national stage had it not been for their 5-11, 156 pound center, Theresa Shank (Grentz), who was a freshman the year Rush arrived for the 1970-71 season.
Shank had led Cardinal O’Hara High School in Philadelphia to the CYO and citywide championships three years in a row. She was quick and agile, with a soft shooting touch and a sixth sense about the direction in which a missed shot would bounce off the rim. Shank was actually a bit bored by girl’s basketball in her high school years because of the six-on-six rules that limited dribbling and running. But by the end of the 1960s, physical education leaders made the changes that brought the women’s game more in line with the men’s game. In 1966, the unlimited dribble became official. In 1969, the five-player game was instituted on an experimental basis, along with the 30-second shot clock.
Shank had a full academic scholarship to attend Mount St. Mary, a liberal arts school in Newburgh, NY. That’s where she was headed until March 15 of her senior year when her family’s row house burned to the ground.
“It was the Ides of March. I was the oldest of five and I made the decision that afternoon to stay home,” she recalled. She had cancelled an interview with Immaculata after Mount St. Mary accepted her, so she borrowed a suit and some shoes, rescheduled the interview, and started commuting that September. With Shank leading the way, the Mackies won their first eight games in Rush’s first season. But Shank broke her collarbone in an auto accident while rushing to get to a game. She was out for the rest of the season and the team went 2-2 over the last four games.
That inauspicious start actually bode well for the 1971-72 season. With Shank back at full strength, the Mackies went undefeated in the regular season and discovered that they were eligible for post-season play. Before 1969, there was no postseason in women’s basketball. By the end of the 1960s, 80% of colleges had women’s basketball programs, but the NCAA still wasn’t much interested in supporting them. So the Association of Interscholastic Athletics for Women (AIAW), a governing body that formed in the mid-1960s, decided to organize its own postseason tournaments. The first basketball tournament was a single elimination, invitational affair, held at West Chester State College and played by six-player rules. West Chester State, coached by Carol Eckard, won that tournament and was runner-up in 1970 and 1971.
In 1972, the AIAW decided to expand the tournament by holding regional qualifying tournaments like the men’s tournament did. Rush’s Mackies won their first three games, but then were trounced by West Chester State, 70-38.
The team initially believed that its season was over, but by virtue of their undefeated season, they were seeded 15th out of 16 teams anyway, one of six teams nationally that actually lost a game in the regional qualifiers. It is the stuff of legend now (thanks to the 2011 movie “Mighty Macs”), how the team spent the next several days selling toothbrushes and otherwise beating the bushes to find the money to send them to Illinois. When it came time to board their plane, they’d only raised $2,500, enough for Rush and 8 of her 11 players to fly standby, sleep four to a room, and spend $7 a day for meals.
As they winged their way west, Immaculata’s players had no great expectations. They were relaxed and just happy to be on a road trip. And what a road trip it was. They started out by beating South Dakota State 60-47. The next day, they narrowly defeated Indiana State 49-47 — and then later that day, they defeated the top seed and defending champion Mississippi State College for Women, in another squeaker, 46-43, to reach the final. In that semifinal game, the Mackies were down by 14 at the half, thinking their run was about to come to an end. “We were a little down in the locker room when Maureen Stulman jumped up and said, ‘Hey, you know what? All we need is seven baskets,’ ” recalled Shank 43 years later. “And sure enough, we went out and that’s what we did.”
Another moment of doubt crept in when they saw West Chester State’s name on the top line of the bracket across from theirs for the final game. Rush, though, viewed the rematch as a chance to change strategies and take West Chester by surprise. She made a bold move by starting 5-10 freshman Rene Muth (Portland). Muth teamed up with Shank to keep all but one of West Chester’s players from reaching double figures. With Shank scoring 26 — five of them in the closing minutes — and Muth and Stuhlman adding 10 apiece– the Mackies won the rematch and the national championship, 52-48.
Rush had been relaying results back to Sister Mary of Lourdes throughout the three-day tournament. When she heard the news that they had won the championship, Sister Mary of Lourdes was in the middle of a meeting of alumnae. She got several donors to underwrite first-class tickets home for the team, where 500 fans were waiting for them at the airport.
“The reception was something that I will never, ever forget in my whole life,” Rush said during a reunion of the team before the movie came out. “When we got off the plane and saw family, friends, all the Immaculata family, we all cried. At that point, it became bigger than it had [been] after the game…..It was the first time it struck me that my little low-key job was not going to be a low-key job anymore.”
Some 3000 fans packed the Queens College gym for the championship. Reporters from the New York Times, Newsday, and Sports Illustrated were there to cover the event. Shank, who scored 104 points in four tournament games, led Immaculata to a 59–52 victory, which was actually a 59-37 blowout until Rush cleared the bench with a couple of minutes to go. A week later, Shank was dubbed the “Bill Walton of women’s basketball” by Sports Illustrated. That article, by a pioneer in women’s sportswriting, Jane Gross, was 0ne of the first — if not the first — to feature a female basketball player in the pages of the magazine. Readers found out that Shank and her teammates celebrated with Cold Duck champagne after the championship game, that she worked at Rush’s basketball camp in the summertime, and that she announced her engagement (to her high school sweetheart Ken Grentz) during a huddle in a midseason game.
The Mighty Macs went on to win a third national title in 1974, even after suffering a midseason loss to Queens in a game that would have extended their win streak — over two seasons — to 36 games. The team was heart sick at losing to their nemesis — on Ash Wednesday no less — but many viewed it as a divine intervention, meant to keep them pointed humbly in the right direction. “That game helped us to remember that some of God’s greatest gifts are his refusals,” Shank told the school’s magazine, the Immaculatan. To their surprise, the players returned to campus past midnight that night to find lights blazing in the rotunda of the main hall and 500 students chanting “Once more in ’74!” There had never been an impromptu pep rally after a win — and the show of support carried over to the national tournament 25 days later (on Easter weekend) as the Mighty Macs survived a two-point game with William Penn College in the semifinals to win their third national title in a row against Mississippi State College, 68-53.
Those who follow the women’s college game today would be surprised to find schools such as the University of Connecticut and Tennessee absent from the list of tournament contenders in the mid-1970s. But in the pre-Title IX era, college athletic departments typically spent only about 1% of their budget on women’s sports. Without athletic scholarships and recruiting budgets, any college coach had an equal chance of developing a winning team simply by finding the right combination of players. Once Title IX began being enforced in 1974, — and UCLA offered the country’s first full scholarship to a woman (Ann Meyers) — the handwriting was on the wall for schools such as Queens, West Chester State, and Immaculata.
The tiny Catholic school continued to play on the big stage for a few more years and, still the darlings of the media, recorded some auspicious firsts. On February 22, 1975, 12,000 people saw Immaculata defeat Queens, 65–61 in the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game ever at Madison Square Garden. The event was such a success that the college officials continued to schedule games in large arenas. That year, the Eastman Kodak company began sponsoring an All-America team, chosen by coaches from around the country. The fact that Kodak, a major US corporation, spent $3000 to lend its name to the women’s game spurred other companies, such as Avon, New Balance, and Adidas, to ride the wave of growing popularity of women’s sports. The 1974–75 college season also saw women’s basketball garner its first national exposure on a major television network. On January 27, 1975, a game between the University of Maryland and Immaculata was televised. The 1975 AIAW championship between Delta State and Immaculata (won by Delta State, 90–81) also was televised nationally, though on a delayed basis.
Immaculata’s Mighty Macs were runners-up in the ’75 and ’76 national tournaments. In her spare time, Cathy Rush led the U.S. Pan American team to a gold medal in 1975 (with Ann Meyers, Pat Summitt, and Lusia Harris on ther squad). In the fall, she went to the administration asking for money to recruit players in an effort to stave off mediocrity, but the school refused to turn away from its primary mission of developing hearts and minds, as opposed to bodies.
“Title IX really did in Immaculata because we didn’t have men,” said Grentz on the eve of the team’s HOF induction. “And that’s ironic, isn’t it?”
Rush decided to retire from coaching in 1977 to raise her family and run the highly successful summer camp program that featured basketball skills for both boys and girls she’d started with her husband in the early ’70s. Grentz, Portland, and Stanley went on to become successful Division I college coaches, amassing close to 2,000 wins and three national championships (One for Grentz at Rutgers, two for Stanley at Old Dominion University). Grentz coached the U.S. Women’s Olympic team to a bronze medal in 1988 and now runs an elite training school for high school athletes, while Stanley is still coaching in the WNBA.
“It was the end for us, but it was the beginning for someone else and that’s what life is all about,” Grentz said. “You have your time and you have your moment, and you have to write your signature on your work…..looking back, I like to think that’s what we did.”