The More Things Change
March 8, 2007
When Illinois and Penn State met in the quarterfinals of the 2007 Big Ten Women's Basketball Tournament, it was more than just a fiercely contested matchup between two teams vying for a lengthened postseason - it was a meeting of two of the greatest basketball legends in the conference.
Illinois head coach Theresa Grentz and Penn State head coach Rene Portland are the longest-tenured active coaches in the Big Ten, but they share much more than just lengthy careers as leaders on the hardwood. Both Grentz and Portland played their college ball at Immaculata University, the winner of the first AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) national championship in 1973.
Grentz graduated in 1974 as a two-time national champion while Portland graduated a year later as a three-time winner. But, despite all the success had by the Immaculata Mighty Macs, many people were still left wondering, they won that championship of what?
"When we won the AIAW national championship, everybody said, `What is that?'" Portland said. "And when we won the second one, everyone said, `That's nice, what do those initials stand for?' It was an identity crisis."
But just because people didn't understand the initials didn't mean they weren't going to see players like Grentz and Portland on the court.
"We didn't think we were little," Portland said. "The fire marshal stopped some of our games there were so many people coming to see us play."
Even though Immaculata was selling out women's games, it wasn't until the NCAA started its first women's sports championships in 1981 that women's basketball really gained national recognition.
"To the average man or husband, it was like, `We're not paying attention because of the initials,'" Portland said. "But then when we changed to the NCAA, our initials gave us credibility. It was like, `Well, if the NCAA likes women's basketball, then we might go look at it."
Portland feels that to this day, having women's basketball under the jurisdiction of the NCAA is helping the sport grow and reach new markets.
"We hear the NCAA music on ESPN, and it could be a women's game," Portland said. "You could trick people. You hear the NCAA music in March and you turn it on and you think you're getting a men's game, but it could be a women's game. And I do think being in the NCAA gave us that kind of acceptance, right or wrong, I think that's what happened."
And even though the AIAW has been out of commission for 25 years, it lives on in the form of the multitude of current and former coaches that were once its athletes. If it weren't for these coaches, the AIAW and many of its schools may be forgotten.
"I think it's unbelievable that the AIAW produced that many coaches," Portland said. "Theresa and I talk about that often that if we ever left coaching, people would forget about Immaculata and that's why we stay coaching."
The two Immaculata alumni share more than just a common alma mater. Portland points to a shared set of values regarding religion and family as well as the same beliefs for their players.
At the Big Ten's second Annual Talk of the Town on Saturday, March 3, Portland recounted a story of seeing her former teammate in church earlier in the day that their teams were scheduled to meet in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
"How did I know I'd find you here?" Portland said she asked Grentz.
But the chance encounter was really no accident at all for the two lifetime friends who have more stories to tell than there is time.
"We have great stories to tell," Portland said. "Our players love when we tell stories. We had a coaches clinic one time and at lunch, she and I just sat together and told stories and the audience didn't want to go back to the clinic.
"At the Final Four two years ago, they had a Lessons of the Legends segment, and they had three of us up there, and when it was over, they said, `Don't stop; can you give us another hour?"
Despite all their commonalities, the two also have very different styles and personalities.
"We are very different," Portland said. "Everyone's afraid of her, and everyone looks at me and smiles.
"But it's still the same thing that we went through in college where some teammates would come up to me and say, `Would you go ask Theresa for me?' And I'd say `Go ask her yourself,' and they'd be like, `We're afraid of her."
But throughout their differences, Portland and Grentz have forged a strong bond that transcends their competitive spirits on the court.
"We have remained friends, and that's really important to both of us," Portland said. For years, there were the ugliest articles written about how we compete and we don't speak to each other, and I was like, `Well, you only look at us for two hours, and we're not going to talk to each other during those two hours."
Portland also believes that their sisterhood is important because it is so uncommon in women's college basketball.
"Women coaches aren't as friendly as the men coaches," Portland said. "Not as friendly, not as supportive, not as willing to reach out. We have women coaches that get fired, but we don't see women coaches hiring them. But when a men's coach gets fired, somebody swallows him up right away.
"Their fraternity of coaches is so much stronger than our sorority of coaches, so it's nice to know that I have someone that will always be there for me, and she knows that I'll always be there for her."
That friendship has lasted over 30 years and nearly 60 head-to-head games as head coaches, including their latest in the quarterfinals of the 2007 Big Ten Women's Basketball Tournament.
"When I found out we were playing her, I just sent her a text message because I new not to call her, "Portland said. "But I just text her with `Can you believe it's us again? Congrats on a great season, NCAA bound.' And I text her, and she didn't text back, so she was down to business already. We have a great respect for each other, she wants me to win and I want her to win."
The friendship between Portland and Grentz has not only withstood the test of time, but has also weathered the winds of change. Since the two were teammates at Immaculata, women's basketball has not just gained recognition by the NCAA, but has grown enormously on the conference level.
Portland, who has been at Penn State since before the school joined the Big Ten, was one of the instrumental figures in gaining a conference women's basketball tournament.
"I was part of the committee that started this tournament," Portland said. "We didn't have one when we first competed. I remember flying to Michigan State trying to convince the Big Ten to give it to us, and the men didn't want it, so they were like, `What are you going to do for the women? The men don't want it.' And we said afterward, it would be good for us as women to do this. So we had the women's tournament before the men's tournament started. And I know the coaches worked real hard. We were willing to sell our souls to get it."
All that soul-selling appears to have paid off. Since the tournament's inception, the event has grown into a fan-friendly affair that is witnessed by around 30,000 people each year and allows Big Ten student-athletes to showcase their talents on a national stage.
But as the tournament has evolved, many things have remained the same throughout the years - Portland is still there, she's still enjoying herself, and she still has her long-time pal to lean on.