Almost 40 years ago, young head coach Cathy Rush and the Immaculata women’s basketball team had no idea the impact they were about to make in college sports.

In the early 1970s, things were already changing for women’s college athletics.  Women’s basketball rules were modified, implementing a five-on-five, full-court game similar to the men’s rules.  Title IX was passed in 1972, which eventually began to open more doors for women in college athletics.

When the first college women’s basketball national tournament was held in Normal, Ill., Immaculata College was at the heart of it all.  The small all-women’s Catholic school about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia, Pa., won the first women’s basketball national championship – stunning an unbeaten West Chester State, 52-48, in the National Women’s Invitational Basketball Tournament held in Normal, Ill., in 1972.  The team was dubbed the “Mighty Macs”, and went on to capture the next two national titles in 1973 and 1974.

REVIEW: THE MIGHTY MACS

"The Mighty Macs" exemplified what can be done when someone with energy, talent, charisma, enthusiasm and spunk is hired, at a minimal cost, to be a college women's basketball coach. Hall of Fame coach Cathy Rush led a group of women with only a common goal of loving the game to three national collegiate championships.

I lived this experience from a distance in Virginia as a young coach at James Madison University. Now I'm able to relive the experience thanks to "The Mighty Macs," a movie about that ground-breaking program.

What a wonderful goal to set for my team -- to play and maybe even beat the Mighty Macs. Eventually that goal did come true, or at least part of it. Unfortunately, my James Madison team was crushed by a strong, quick and conditioned Mighty Macs team.

While "The Mighty Macs" is an historical drama, not a documentary, it does introduce collegiate, high school and youth sport players to an incredible story about some of the women who laid the foundation for the benefits they enjoy today. Players today don't sweep floors, wash uniforms, wear tunics and second-hand shoes, find their own rides to games, or utilize restrooms as locker rooms. But the Mighty Macs did.

No one back in the 70's, including the Mighty Macs themselves, had any idea what an impact the story of the Immaculata College program would have 40 years later. It is truly a real story, one that all movie-goers will enjoy. It is that rare sports film about women, similar to "A League of Their Own."

Rush, played in the movie by Carla Gugino, came into the women's game in the 70's with innovative ideas that were not used in other collegiate programs. I speak of things like continuous scouting, using male practice players and serious conditioning programs.

In some cases, Rush was said to coach like a man because of her tremendous emphasis on players giving everything they have toward the goal of doing their best and winning. Her philosophy truly was a foundation for the meaning of the women's game in 2012. 
 
I love sports movies and "The Mighty Macs" is one that I am adding to the list. Tim Chambers, who wrote, produced and directed the movie, did an outstanding job of selecting the cast and organizing the storyline. I cannot wait to take my nieces to see it It is definitely a movie for the entire family.

-- Betty Jaynes, Consultant, Women's Basketball Coaches Association

The Mighty Macs had no scholarships, washed their own uniforms, carpooled to games and had barely suitable facilities and equipment, yet somehow found a way to overcome all of those obstacles, win three consecutive national championships and set the wheels in motion for modern women’s college basketball’s incredible growth.

“I was 24 years old when we won the national championship,” Rush said.  “I don’t think any of us saw the impact of what we were doing.  Every place we went, we attracted the largest crowd they had ever had.  I don’t think we saw the big picture because we were in the middle of it – going to the next practice or game.  I don’t think anyone anticipated anyone would have the effect that it did.”

Their story has now been captured on film in The Mighty Macs, which is set to be released nationwide on Oct. 21. The movie centers around Rush, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, and her inspiring journey to mold a group of virtually unknown players into women’s basketball pioneers.

The year after Immaculata beat West Chester – Rush’s alma mater -- for its’ first national title, the two teams were scheduled to play contest on a Monday at three o’clock in the afternoon. It was then that Rush knew she was in the middle of making history.

“As I walked into the gym that afternoon, there was a standing-room-only crowd,” Rush said.  “We went from a few fans to 4,000 people on a Monday afternoon.  It just shocked me.  To me, that was when everything sort of changed and Immaculata became a happening event.”

Amazed, Rush began thinking about marketing the game and charging admission in order to raise money for the program.  Rush coached the Mighty Macs until 1977, and during the time the team became the first women’s college basketball team to play at Madison Square Garden, and one of the first two women’s squads to have a game broadcast on national television (against Maryland in 1975).

Amidst the buzz, Mighty Mac players were having the time of their lives. Theresa (Shank) Grentz was a three-time All-American and went on to a lengthy coaching career at St. Joseph’s, Rutgers and Illinois.  Grentz, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001, describes the period as Camelot. Perfect.

“What we did know was that we were great friends,” Grentz.  “They were virtuous friendships – we became better versions of ourselves being around each other.  We could see who we were, what we were about and who we were to become.  Those friendships have stood the test of time. That’s very special.”

Several of those teammates and lifelong friends also continued to make their mark within the basketball community. Like Grentz, Marianne (Crawford) Stanley and Rene (Muth) Portland went on to head coaching positions at large Division I universities. Tina Krah serves as the director of the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship, while Judy (Marra) Martelli is married to St. Joseph’s University men’s basketball coach Phil Martelli and is active as a volunteer for Coaches vs. Cancer.

Rush’s influence reached farther than just her former players. In 1971, Rush and her then-husband Ed, an NBA official, founded the Cathy Rush Basketball Camp, which she still operates (now named Future Stars Camps) with her son Michael. Many of the Philadelphia-area camp counselors are now well-known collegiate basketball coaches, including Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw.  Both have gone on to win NCAA titles at their respective schools.

McGraw, who played for Grentz during her first coaching stop at St. Joseph’s, remembers Rush attending one of her high school games and it being a very big deal.

“I have such respect for Cathy and the program she built there, and what they were able to accomplish nationally,” McGraw said.  “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.”

There have been many changes in women’s athletics since Immaculata’s ground-breaking run in the early 1970s, and college women’s basketball is thriving more than ever.  Talented players are a lot easier to find thanks to so many opportunities for young girls.

“Today, players have specializing earlier in their careers,” Rush said.  “It is a 12-month sport for them.  That really wasn’t happening 40 years ago.  The specialization has improved the level of play.  These kids are phenomenal.  In the 70s I might have had two or three great players.  The best teams today have seven or eight high school All-Americans – they’re very deep, they’re very skilled and they’ve spent many more hours on their game than our players did.”

Although women’s basketball has grown in many ways over the last 40 years, Grentz believes the soul of the game is still the same.

“Everyone says it’s not the same game, but let me ask you a question,” Grentz said.  “Today, do they shoot any higher percentage from the free throw line or have less turnovers than when we played?  There has been a natural progression of the game.  There are more opportunities to perform and to train and to hone your skills, and the uniforms and travel have changed.  But the coaching and the players haven’t changed.  In coaching, you still have to take people beyond where they can’t get by themselves.”

Grentz, who retired from coaching in 2007, is now the Vice President for University Advancement at Immaculata. Times have changed at Immaculata as well.  The enrollment has grown from less than 800 students in the early 1970s to 4,000, and the all-girls college is now a co-educational university.  The school began sponsoring men’s athletic teams in 2005.

Immaculata competes as a NCAA Division III school.  The women’s basketball program has never advanced to the national tournament since becoming a member of the NCAA, but was on the brink last season before losing in the finals of the Colonial States Athletic Conference Championship.

But the legacy of the Mighty Macs’ magical time still serves as an inspiration for current student-athletes like senior women’s basketball players Kelly Brown and Bridget Welz.

“When you look up at the banners in our gym, there’s really nothing that can make you work harder than that,” Welz said.

The current players also realize the impact their program made on modern women’s college basketball – years before they were even born.

“We’re so grateful for the way women’s basketball has made the turn for the better in our generation,” Welz said.  “We have so many opportunities.  When you want to complain, you definitely can look back and say if they could do it with their conditions then we shouldn’t even complain.  It is definitely an eye-opener and I’m grateful to play with such a tradition-rich program.”

“It’s really cool to be known for something that happened a long time ago,” Brown said.  “Every time I have on something that says Immaculata Basketball, people ask when the movie is coming out or ask about Cathy Rush.  It’s neat to be a part of something that changed everything.”

The release of the movie in the coming weeks will spread those important history lessons to the younger generations as well as attract more attention for the school.

“I think it creates a bigger fan base,” Brown said.  “I don’t know if everyone knew the steps they took to win the national championships.  The movie gave a better perspective of everything they went through.”

Although Rush’s stomach flipped a little the first time she saw actress Carla Gugino portraying her in a clip of the movie, she and the original Mighty Macs are looking forward to sharing the feel-good story.

“It’s surreal, it’s exciting, it’s disconcerting …,” Rush said.  “The more I see it, the more I like it.  I’ve been in a lot of screenings where they’ve shown it to coaches and different groups.  Their reactions have been fabulous.  There are a couple great lines, and the audience is laughing so hard that they miss the next great line.  It’s been so positive.  I’m so excited for [executive producer] Tim Chambers who put it together and Immaculata to be recognized and for all the things they’ve done.”

“People see it and then relate it to themselves and what it means to them,” Grentz said.  “Everyone takes different things from it.  I think it’s a timeless film that will long live after all of us.”