Former Penn St women's hoops coach Rene Portland dies at 65

FILE - In this March 2, 2003 file photo Penn State women's basketball coach Rene Portland waves the net she cut down to celebrate their Big 10 regular season championship after defeating Wisconsin in State College, Pa. Portland, who built Penn State into a women's basketball powerhouse during a 27-year tenure, has died after a three-year fight with cancer. She was 65. D'Anjolell Memorial Home of Broomall in Pennsylvania confirmed her death Sunday, July 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Pat Little, file)

Theresa Grentz remembers Rene Portland as a national championship teammate and a fierce coaching adversary, but most of all as a friend.

A friend, as Grentz put it, who would do anything for you. It was a bond they shared.

“It was a friendship where if either one of us called the other, before we even knew what the other one wanted, we would say yes,’’ Grentz said. “We would do it. It was one of those friendships. It was complicated, it was different, but that’s just the way it was. When we were teammates, that’s what was instilled.’’

Portland, the celebrated former Penn State women’s basketball coach and member of three national championship teams at Immaculata College (now University) died last Sunday after a three-year battle with cancer. She was 65.

With Portland’s memorial service scheduled for today and her funeral on Monday, Grentz took some time to remember her friend, someone she called a dedicated family person, a pioneer and advocate for the sport of women’s basketball and a wonderful teammate who always put her team before individual accomplishments.

Grentz and Portland first met at Immaculata, where they were part of a women’s basketball dynasty. The Mighty Macs won three Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women national championships from 1972-74.

Later, Grentz and Portland went on to become two of the most successful women’s basketball coaches in history, both winning more than 600 games. Most of the time they faced each other in the coaching ranks came when Grentz was the head coach at both Rutgers and Illinois, while Portland had a 27-year run at Penn State.

Grentz said she believed she squared off against her former teammate a total of 64 times.

“The only reason I know that is that every time we would play each other, the game notes at Penn State would have that in there with the record of who was winning,’’ Grentz said. “And if it was in there, then I knew I was losing.’’

Grentz said she and Portland were closest when they were college teammates and then later after coaching. This isn’t to say they didn’t remain friends in between, but they were both ultra-competitive, and that came out when they faced off.

“When we were teammates, we were on the same team,’’ Grentz said. “When we were coaches, we became competitors, and those years were very different. That was a time when we really tried to beat each other, and I think we played quite a few times. It was truly intense. I was glad when it was over.’’

Grentz said there were definite trademarks of Portland-coached teams.

“They were always very, very well prepared,’’ Grentz said. “She always instilled in her teams a sense of camaraderie, a sense of fortitude and persistence. They were never going to beat themselves.’’

Grentz said there were times when they would face off in Big Ten competition that beating those Penn State teams was almost an insurmountable task. There were years when the best chance she had was to just take Portland’s plays and then run them right back at the Nittany Lions.

“They were intense rivalries, believe me,’’ Grentz said. “Sometimes you would have never known we were once teammates. It was intense. And then when it was over, it was over.

“It did put a strain on our friendship, though. We were young, we both had families and then children were born. We were doing our own thing, building our own programs, going our own way. Later on when we got older and we were both with Nike, we had more of an opportunity on some of those trips to be away from the competition and just be friends again.’’

When most coaches think of Portland, they think of her as being one of the pioneers who had a profound impact on the game of women’s basketball, taking it from its infancy stages to the game it is today.

She spent 27 of her 31 years at Penn State before resigning in 2007. She had 693 wins including 606 at Penn State. She was twice named the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) national coach of the year and was a four-time Big Ten coach of the year. She led Penn State to 21 NCAA Tournament appearances.

After she died early last week, reaction throughout the Big Ten in particular was heartfelt and emotional.

Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant called it a sad day for the sport.

“She was a tremendous mentor, leader and friend to so many in the profession,’’ Merchant said. “She coached with such passion and energy, and her Penn State teams played with such heart and toughness — a true depiction of who she was as a person and a coach.’’

Northwestern women’s coach Joe McKeown said Portland had a tremendous impact on the sport.

“Having spent the last 29 years as a head coach in both the Atlantic 10 at George Washington and now in the Big Ten, I saw first-hand how talented her teams were, how competitive they were and how well-coached they were,’’ McKeown said. “Rene was a tireless recruiter, fundraiser and promoter. But, most importantly, her family came first. Rene’s mom would greet me when we walked into Rec Hall, and she had a great husband and loved her children. She was a pioneer in our game and will be truly missed.’’

Purdue women’s coach Sharon Versyp said it’s hard to measure the impact of a coaching legend like Portland.

“I consider myself fortunate to have been able to learn from her when I joined the Big Ten,’’ Versyp said. “She taught people around her how to grow the game and recruit the right way. Her philosophies and contributions to the women’s game will last forever.”

Grentz had her own memories of what Portland meant to the women’s game.

“She was a fighter for Title IX and equality,’’ Grentz said. “She was not afraid to fight, and she was not afraid to speak up. And I’m sure there were a lot of feathers that were ruffled in the fray of it, but there are a lot of things in the women’s game today that she and others at that time were responsible for. And I think a lot of people today take that for granted.’’

Grentz recalled a time when Portland was president of the national women’s coaches association when while at the Final Four it was revealed Oklahoma wanted to drop its women’s basketball program. She said Portland got motivated.

“Let’s just say that no one was going to drop women’s basketball on her watch,’’ Grentz said. “She led a crusade that was unbelievable with little red ribbons and the whole bit.

“And Oklahoma didn’t drop its program.’’

Portland’s tenure as a college basketball coach wasn’t without controversy, too.

She faced accusations she discriminated against and refused to recruit players who she perceived to be gay. A former player sued Portland and Penn State University in 2005.

Portland was fined $10,000 and suspended one game after an internal school investigation, although Portland disputed the school’s findings.

In 2007, she resigned as Penn State’s coach and never coached again.

Grentz had little to say on the topic. What she did say was she and Portland never discussed those views.

“I can tell you that she and I never had a conversation about that,’’ Grentz said. “That was not discussed. I’ll just leave it at that.’’

When Portland resigned in 2007, Grentz also retired at the end of that season from Illinois. It was a coincidence. Later, Grentz came back and coached two more seasons at Lafayette through the end of the 2017 season.

She got up to 681 career wins, meaning she needed 13 to surpass Portland. Did she ever think about sticking around one more year to best her friend? Grentz said it was never a thought.

“I don’t think they’re going to put that on my tombstone,’’ Grentz said. “You know what they will, though? They’ll put on there that I was a Mighty Mac, and they’ll do the same for Rene. That will be what it is.

“It’s not about wins and losses. It never was. It was always about family and friendship. I think that’s the way both of us will be remembered.’’