An Ingenious Inception: Penn State Joins the Big Ten Conference
Sept. 11, 2006
A first-of-its-kind analysis by the Sporting News in 1999 dubbed Penn State the top athletic program in the nation, but 10 years prior to that study, the Big Ten Conference took note of the program's caliber in a major way.
In a historic move, the 10 Big Ten universities voted to expand the conference for the first time in four decades, extending an invitation to Penn State to become its 11th member in December 1989. Regarded as one of the nation's leading public research institutions at the time, Penn State also had a successful broad-based athletic program to make a perfect fit for the Big Ten's revered company.
"Penn State is a strong academic institution with world-renowned capabilities," Big Ten Commissioner James E. Delany said at the time of the Nittany Lions inception. "It is also committed to a broad-based athletics program, and it sponsors a large number of varsity sports for both men and women students."
Then-Penn State President Bryce Jordan agreed. "An affiliation with the Big Ten Conference would create many exciting and challenging possibilities," he said. "We're delighted with this new relationship. It makes good sense to affiliate athletically as well as academically with institutions of similar academic mission and structure."
A decade later, the union continued to reap dividends. The Sporting News' report, which included various standards ranging from everything from fan support and size of athletic budget to graduation rates and Title IX compliance, also tabbed every Big Ten program in the top 21. No other conference made such a strong showing.
Integration of the women's programs for cross country, golf, gymnastics, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, indoor and outdoor track and field, and volleyball began at the start of the 1991 fall season, and the Penn State squads' success did not miss a beat.
Two of the most crucial participants in that transition and cornerstones in the history and growth of Penn State's female athletics were women's basketball coach Rene Portland and volleyball coach Russ Rose. They spent nearly 30 years each at the helm of their respective Penn State programs.
Calling Portland a veteran would be a gross understatement, but even when she entered her 12th season as the sideline general of the Lady Lions women's basketball program, she felt like a rookie.
With her squad entering its first season in Big Ten competition in 1992, Portland, now the sixth winningest Division-I coach of all-time, had to prepare for new teams, new coaches and new competition. The superstitious coach has a well-known habit of saving lucky pennies and she carried her money's worth with her that season. However, the fast flourish Penn State women's basketball - and the rest of the school's female athletic programs - found in the Big Ten was anything but beginner's luck.
Over her illustrious career, Portland has reached many milestones and accomplishments, but few are as special as the obstacles her team overcame in their transition to Big Ten competition. Before departing from the Atlantic 10, the Lady Lions won 15 straight games to reclaim the top ranking in the country in 1991, and Portland was later named the Converse USBWA Coach of the Year. The following season, Penn State played most Big Ten schools on the road as an independent before it could officially compete for the conference title.
The wait to battle in the league proved worthwhile. For the second time in three years, Portland earned National Coach of the Year honors in 1993 after surprising the nation by leading a team, which lost all five starters, to a 22-5 record and third-place finish in the Big Ten.
In February 1994, the women's basketball team claimed its 18th consecutive victory - a streak that made them the only remaining undefeated Division I team, men's or women's - and nailed another program first. That month's issue of Sports Illustrated honored the feat in a two-page article. A month later, Portland earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors after leading her squad to a share of the conference championship in Penn State's second year in the league.
"I've always felt for me it was like getting a new job and I didn't even have to move," Portland said. "It was great. I just didn't get ready for the season saying, `This is what we did last year.' The first few years we were in the league, I don't think I've ever worked so hard, and it was well worth it."
One night at dinner in December 1989, Portland got a call from then-Penn State Athletic Director Jim Tarman. He asked her to attend a meeting at the president's office the next morning to decide whether affiliation with the Big Ten was the direction to take, confirming a rumor Portland first heard from a reporter.
"I sort of laughed; it just seemed so far out there," she said. "I was busy raising teenagers, so I really just did my job and took care of my family. I was just flabbergasted. It was a world I didn't really deal in."
At the meeting, the face of Penn State athletics, and especially its priorities for women's basketball, was forever changed.
"The most positive thing happened for women's basketball because of our football coach," Portland said. "Our football coach (Joe Paterno) turned to the president and said, `They need an arena to compete in the Big Ten.' We couldn't compete in the Big Ten if we were still in Rec Hall though it was a great facility and we were selling it out. Because of that vote for us to go into the Big Ten, we got a beautiful basketball facility out of it."
A few years later, the Lady Lions moved from Rec Hall to the Bryce Jordan Center - a change that paid immediate dividends. En route to claiming its first conference crown, Penn State also finished tops among attendance leaders in the Big Ten in its first year at the new arena. The Bryce Jordan Center quickly became one of the toughest places to play in the country. The Lady Lions have seen two undefeated home seasons over the last four years and three undefeated Big Ten home slates over that same time period.
"I remember when there were 20 people in the stands," says Portland. "Now we are selling out the Jordan Center. We've won conference titles in both leagues, and we've been able to raise the program to one of national recognition."
Recruiting also changed drastically. With road games across the Midwest, the exposure put Penn State in the position to appeal to a much wider audience. In 1997, Helen Darling joined the Nittany Lions from the Ohio State Buckeyes' backyard in Columbus, Ohio. The first Lady Lion to claim Big Ten Player of the Year honors, Darling finished her career an All-American and the Co-National Player of the Year. Currently on the Lady Lions' roster, Indianapolis, Ind., native Adrienne Squire set an NCAA single-season free throw shooting record, making 80 of 83 last season for a .964 shooting percentage. The junior guard nailed a remarkable run of 50 straight free throws to open up the season.
"Penn State itself is really able to open doors all over the country. I've been here 27 years now, and Penn State is known all over the country," Portland said. "But the chance of a kid from Minnesota coming to Penn State became easier when we went into the conference. The fact that we have the opportunity and go in and represent ourselves well does help with our recruiting because the exposure has been only positive for us."
In her extraordinary longevity with the university, Portland has guided her teams to seven conference championships and eight league tournament titles. Her program has made more NCAA Tournament appearances, including 11 regional semifinals, than any other Big Ten school.
"I've been in it since day one. If you look at every other staff in the Big Ten, there have been two or three changes at every school except for Penn State," she said. "I have seen incredible transitions from other programs. When we go to the meetings and they tell me, `Rene, you're the veteran coach here,' I laugh because we're the team that came into the conference last."
Portland has watched her program flourish as one of the nation's perennially elite forces, but the distinguished advocate of women's sports recalls the support of her athletic department and conference for the development that has made her success possible. After more than two decades as Penn State's head coach, and with 10 years in the conference to her credit, Portland was able to fully relish what that 1989 decision meant for her program in one defining moment.
When Penn State's All-American guard Kelly Mazzante eclipsed Ohio State's Katie Smith's record as the conference's all-time leading scorer, Delany made the trip to Happy Valley to honor Mazzante's feat in an awards presentation in January 2004. She went on to eclipse Indiana's Calbert Chaney's career-points record to close her career as Big Ten basketball's all-time scoring leader, male or female. Mazzante was also named the Suzy Favor Female Athlete of the Year after leading Penn State to a conference title.
"When Commissioner Delany came to Penn State and acknowledged that Kelly actually did it, that very simple gesture made it all credible," Portland said. "That has to be a very valuable moment for us. The validation that Commissioner Delany gave to that moment really was super. Just being involved in women's athletics, sometimes it's a fight to get recognition. That particular occurrence really meant a lot to me as a person who is well-invested in the growth of women's basketball nationwide, historically and now in this conference. To have that kind of validation from the Big Ten office was really special."
After racking up its eighth-straight championship in the Atlantic 10, Rose's volleyball team was at the NCAA Championship national semifinals when he learned of Penn State's decision. The already storied program wasted no time raising the bar for Big Ten volleyball. The program, which has never finished worse than third in the conference, notched its first crown within one season of Big Ten competition. Rose's teams claimed four straight titles from 1996-99 and topped the streak with the conference's first-ever volleyball national championship.
After ending two straight seasons in hard-fought five-game losses in the NCAA Championship final, the squad returned to the tourney finale in 1999. The third time proved to be the charm. The Lady Lions swept Stanford to claim the program's first national title behind sensational performances from National Co-Player of the Year Bonnie Bremner and the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Lauren Cacciamani - a duo that garnered seven All-America honors during their careers. The championship win marked a 36-match win streak that included the Big Ten's first-ever 20-0 season.
The Penn State volleyball dynasty continued its dominance after the turn of the century, winning three straight crowns from 2003-05. The Lady Lions' most recent title culminated yet another perfect record in Big Ten competition. For Rose, who has piloted Penn State's program for 27 years, the transition into Big Ten competition was a nearly seamless one. While the legendary coach's uncompromising work ethic pushed the team to its best every year, Rose, like Portland, credits the university's untiring support of its female athletic programs as one of the biggest factors in potential.
"The demands and expectations of what you need to do to be successful in the Big Ten resulted in us having to work harder in recruiting and also coincided with the time when our university improved our staffing," explained Rose. "The success that we've had is mostly due to the commitment that the university has made to give us the opportunity to compete at the highest level and compete with some of the nation's top volleyball programs.
"Coaches don't make programs. Universities allow programs to grow and develop, so we were fortunate that those things happen."
For the Nittany Lions, their development of female athletics proved to be a worthy cause. Of Penn State's 43 overall national championships, more than half have been won by their women's programs since joining the Big Ten 13 years ago.
"Penn State's women's programs have achieved remarkable success, winning 30 conference team championships and five Suzy Favor Female Athlete of the Year Awards," said Delany. "Penn State's unwavering commitment to its development of student-athletes and tradition of integrity in athletics and academics has helped strengthen the Big Ten brand as one of the leading conferences in the nation."
After claiming four conference titles in field hockey, women's soccer, volleyball and women's swimming and diving during the 2005-06 season, Penn State's female athletics programs show no signs of stopping.
Penn State field hockey garnered its first league crown in 1994, and dominated tournament competition to win four titles in the first five years of the event's inception that same year. The squad claimed their fourth regular season title with its first-ever undefeated Big Ten campaign.
The Lady Lions soccer team notched its eighth-consecutive league crown and finished their season undefeated in 2005. Head coach Paula Wilkins, who was named the National Coach of the Year and is a three-time reigning Big Ten honoree, led her squad to a 23-0-2 record and a final national ranking of No. 2.
Through their eight-year championship span, Penn State has been led by several key players. Most recently, two-time M.A.C. Hermann Trophy finalist Tiffany Wiemer rewrote the Big Ten record books with 32 goals in her senior season. With a streak of 17 games with a goal, the three-time All-American took over the standard set by former Nittany Lion Christie Welsh. Now a member of the U.S. National Team, Welsh claimed the Hermann Trophy in 2001 and was also the first soccer player - male or female - to earn Big Ten Athlete of the Year honors.
Penn State's women's programs had just joined the conference during the its 10th anniversary celebration of women's championships, but the Lady Lions' contributions over the past 15 seasons have been invaluable to creating one of the country's most accomplished assemblies of female student-athletes.
For Portland, who has successfully ushered her Lady Lion program from its simple beginnings to national distinction while promoting the development of women's competition, the most important part of celebrating those achievements is a chance to move forward.
"It is so important to recognize the achievements that female student-athletes have made here at Penn State. The success we've had here has been an on-going process," she said. "When we joined the Big Ten, it just made it that much more exciting for us to feel like we're on a level playing field in our own conference. Our schools are similar, our programs are similar, and our desire to be in the nation's best is straight across the board.
"All of those positive things are extremely important. But we can't become complacent and say that the glass is half full because that attitude could set us back. There's no excuse for the glass not being totally full."