The Mighty Macs, first women's champion, weren't even an NCAA team

The Mighty Macs, first women's champion, weren't even an NCAA team
The 1972 Mighty Macs, National Basketball Champions. Yes, they wore tunics. No scholarships, no funds. They raised funds themselves for travel costs and uniforms. Top Row: (left to right) Cathy Rush (coach), Janet Young, Sue O'Grady, Janet Ruch, Judy Marra, Rene Mack (student manager) Bottom Row: (left to right) Maureen Stuhlman, Rene Muth, Patricia Opila, Maureen Mooney, Theresa Shank, Denise Conway.Not Pictured: Betty Ann Hoffman

As the Women’s NCAA gets underway, with #1 seeds UConn, Notre Dame, South Carolina, and Baylor,  it’s important to remember that once upon a time, there was no Women’s NCAA tournament. No national championship for women. No star players. No WNBA. No scholarships. Or facilities for girls.

Just women who could shoot hoops. And the coaches who loved them.

At first, the women’s tournament wasn’t even sponsored by the NCAA. The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was founded in 1971, and governed collegiate women’s athletics in the US and administered the first nine women’s national championships. (see AIAW Champions, Wikipedia). Prior to the AIAW, there had been women’s championships since 1967, but they were played under “archaic” six-man rules.

Throughout the 1970s, the AIAW grew rapidly in membership and influence, in parallel with the national growth of women’s sports following the enactment of Title IX. It was the age of women’s liberation.

Equality in sports was new, and so was Cathy Rush, the newly hired head basketball coach at Immaculata College in Pennsylvania, coach of the ‘Macs.’ She was just 22 and newly married when she was hired at the school of 400 students, most of whom were commuters, and who had no gym her first year.

In an interview with Rush in 2011, the Tampa Bay Times asked:

“What kinds of disadvantages did the Macs face in 1972?

People ask if we had a small budget. We had no budget. Uniforms were handed out at the beginning of the year and taken back at the end. We traveled to games in private cars. There was no meal money. We’d play a game at 7 o’clock and I had no idea if anyone had eaten.

Immaculata was an all-girls school, so we were top dogs getting whatever resources the school could put together. When we went to the regionals (tournament) we went to the school (officials) for help and they looked at us like we were crazy. Nobody had ever asked for money before, for an athletic team.”

Mighty Macs Coach Cathy Rush, on starting out.

What made Rush so different from other women’s coaches of the era?

According to MightyMacs.com, at a time when women’s basketball used archaic rules (half-court, no shot clock, etc.), Rush taught her teams more aggressive tactics, similar to those used by men’s teams.

A 1976 People Magazine profile described Rush’s style as “a pressing full-court woman-to-woman defense and a run-and-gun offense. It takes advantage of modernized female rules which make for a faster-paced game than for male college teams. (The women employ a stall-proof, shoot-it-or-lose-it clock just like the pros.)”

Not all of her players were single, either. Marianne Crawford-Stanley, was “a flashy Pete Maravich-type guard,” by People Magazine. The author also noted that Crawford-Stanley “breast-feeds her baby between scrimmages.” As reported by American Catholic, Stanley later guided Old Dominion to three national titles and became a coach in the WNBA.; Denise Conway Crawford, honored for her contributions as a youth basketball coach; Judy Marra Martelli, who raised over $5 million for cancer research through an organization called Coaches vs. Cancer; Rene Muth Portland, who coached the Penn State women’s basketball team for 27 years; and Teresa Shank Grentz, who coached at Rutgers University and at the University of Illinois for 13 years before returning to Immaculata, where she now holds the title of vice president for university advancement.

Their goal was to get to Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, home of the Redbirds, for the AIAW tournament. 

Hall of Fame Coach Cathy Rush and Carla Gugino, the actress who played Rush in 'The Mighty Macs"

Hall of Fame Coach Cathy Rush and Carla Gugino, the actress who played Rush in ‘The Mighty Macs”

Anything can happen, when we are committed to our dreams

Cathy Rush

After an undefeated season, the Mighty Macs suffered their first defeat of the season in the regional tournament, when the West Chester State Golden Rams stomped the Macs 70-38 in the championship game. Despite the setback, the Macs were still an AIAW selection, entering the tournament as the second-place team.

According to Mighty Macs Fast Facts, they opened championship play with a 60-47 victory over South Dakota State, survived a second-round scare to defeat Indiana State 49-47, and then held off defending national titlist Mississippi State College for Women, the top seed in the 16-team field, 46-43.

In the championship game, they faced an unbeaten nemesis in rival West Chester College, Immaculata, who’d stomped them just the week before. The Mighty Macs avenged the 32-point regional loss with a 52-48 victory, taking the crown in a mighty upset.

The story of the basketball team was adapted into a movie, The Mighty Macsreleased in 2011, starring Carla Gugino and David Boreanz as her husband, Ed, an NBA referee. The Rushes had two children, later divorcing. They now have six grandchildren.

Her overall accomplishments, including a record of 149-15 (a .909 winning percentage), induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000.

Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame’s Head Coach, remembered Rush attending one of her high school games.

“I have such respect for Cathy and the program she built there, and what they were able to accomplish nationally. To bring women’s basketball really home to Philadelphia – it was a great time.  She was definitely a pioneer to accomplish what she did with practically no support at the time.”

Muffet McGraw, Head Coach, Notre Dame

But Rush’s work didn’t end with the Mighty Macs. In 1975, Rush  coached the U.S. women’s basketball to the Pan American Games gold medal. After retiring as a coach, Rush became the first female commentator for women’s basketball on national television in 1978. She has worked with NBC, CBS, ESPN, CBN, and PRISM. She and her husband founded Future Stars Camps, which more than 100,000 children have attended. She serves as founder and president.

And what happened to the AIAW? After hosting successful championship games throughout the 1970’s, they were in a vulnerable position that precipitated conflicts with the NCAA in the early 1980s. Following a one-year overlap in which both organizations staged women’s championships, the AIAW discontinued operation, and most member schools continued their women’s athletics programs under the governance of the NCAA, beginning in 1982.

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