Rene Portland, who coached Penn State’s women’s basketball team to national prominence, has died after a three-year fight with cancer. She was 65.
Portland’s teams often dominated play in the Big Ten. She also coached at St. Joseph’s and Colorado, amassing nearly 700 wins. D’Anjolell Memorial Home of Broomall in Pennsylvania confirmed her death Sunday.
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 Women’s Basketball Coaches Association membership, board and staff mourn the passing of past president Rene Portland,” WBCA executive director Danielle M. Donehew said in a statement. “Rene was a pioneer of our game in the modern era. As a player on the legendary ‘Mighty Macs’ teams of Immaculata College in the early 1970s, she helped establish a standard of excellence to which national championship teams since have aspired.
“As head coach at Penn State, she was recognized by her peers as a WBCA National Coach of the Year in 1991 and 2004. And as our association’s president during the 1989-90 academic year, she united the WBCA community of coaches to pressure the University of Oklahoma administration into reversing its decision to discontinue its women’s basketball program. Rene’s contributions to our sport as a player and as a coach will never be forgotten.”
With dazzling point guard Helen Darling and stellar center Andrea Garner, Penn State reached the 2000 Final Four in Philadelphia, 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 though 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.
On Jan. 3, 1991, a Penn State team led by Susan Robinson beat top-ranked Virginia and Dawn Staley on the road, 73-71, and four days later the Lady Lions had their first No. 1 ranking.
The Lady Lions went into the NCAA tournament with a No. 1 ranking and a 29-1 record that year, but after getting a bye in the first round, Penn State was upset in the second round by James Madison.
Penn State again received a No. 1 ranking in 1994, but was denied a trip to the Final Four when it was beaten in the Midwest Regional final by Alabama. That was Penn State’s second season in the Big Ten, a conference the Lady Lions would dominate almost from the beginning.
The Lady Lions won three regular-season and two conference tournament titles. The same year Penn State reached its first Final Four, Portland signed perhaps the best scorer in school history in Montoursville native Kelly Mazzante. In 2001, Mazzante became the first freshman ever to lead the Big Ten in scoring, and as a sophomore Mazzante was a second-team All-American by The Associated Press.
Respected by her peers, Portland is a past president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and was one of 10 women’s coaches asked to help the NBA develop its first women’s professional league, the WNBA, in 1997. That same year, she coached the U.S. national junior team to its first-ever gold medal at the World Championships.
Portland’s pedigree stretched back to Immaculata College “Mighty Macs” – one of the first dynasties in women’s college basketball – where she played on three Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women national championship teams in 1972, ‘73 and ‘74, before the NCAA recognized women’s sports.
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.
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.
-- AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg contributed to this story.