By Julie Glass
Rene Portland won a national championship as a member of the Immaculata Mighty Macs and built Penn State into a women’s hoops powerhouse during a 27-year tenure.
She died yesterday at the age of 65 after a three-year fight with cancer.
A year after graduating from Immaculata, Portland was named head coach at St. Joseph’s, leading her first team to a 23-5 record and the AIAW national tournament. Portland spent two seasons at St. Joseph’s and two at Colorado, racking up an 87-29 record and leading all four teams into postseason play. One of her star players at St. Joe’s was future Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw.
Portland coached the Lady Lions’ first All-Americans, achieved their first No. 1 ranking and reached their first Final Four. Of her 693 wins, 606 came as coach of the Lady Lions.
“The Penn State Athletics family extends our deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Coach Portland,” Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour said in a statement.
“She made a significant impact on women’s basketball, Penn State Athletics and the State College and Lady Lion Basketball communities.”
With dazzling point guard Helen Darling and stellar center Andrea Garner, Penn State reached the 2000 Final Four in Philly, upsetting Iowa State and Louisiana Tech before falling to eventual-champion Connecticut in the national semifinals.
Late in her career, Portland also faced accusations she discriminated against players whom she perceived to be gay, with a former player suing Portland and the school in 2005.
An internal school investigation led to a one-game suspension and $10,000 fine, although Portland disputed the findings. The lawsuit was settled confidentially.
She resigned as coach of Penn State in 2007.
Portland was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame last November. “Rene fought a courageous and determined fight against her cancer,” former Virginia coach Debbie Ryan said.
“She will be remembered as someone who gave her life to her family, her teams and her women. As a player, she was a fierce competitor at Immaculata and she carried that trait into her coaching career. She was a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother and friend who will be missed.”
Portland took over a successful program, and the Lady Lions finished 19-9 in 1981 in her first season. The next year, Penn State finished 24-6 and received an invitation to the first NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
The Lady Lions emerged as a national power in 1985, reaching the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament behind Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Kahadeejah Herbert and freshman point guard Suzie McConnell, who would go on to be an All-American and Olympic gold-medalist.
In 1980, Portland was hired by Joe Paterno to succeed Pat Meiser as head coach at Penn State — the only head coach Paterno hired during his tenure as Penn State’s athletics director.
“At the time, I thought she was right for Penn State, and I feel good about it,” Paterno said 22 years later.
“She’s done a great job, and she does it the way I think we want it done at Penn State. Her kids go to school, they graduate, they handle themselves well and they play well.”
Portland is survived by her husband John; daughters Christine, who played for Portland at Penn State, and DeLisa and sons John Jr. and Stephen. Portland also had seven grandchildren.