Rene Portland, who as the coach of the Penn State women’s basketball team for 27 seasons won more than 600 games but was accused of discriminating against lesbian players, died on Sunday in Tannersville, Pa. She was 65.
Her death was confirmed by the D’Anjolell Memorial Home in Broomall, Pa. She had recently received a diagnosis of peritoneal cancer.
Portland, who won three national championships as a star player at Immaculata College (now University) in the mid-1970s, was hired to coach the Penn State Lady Lions in 1980 after successful stints as the coach at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and the University of Colorado. She was the only coach hired by Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State football coach, who had a brief tenure as the university’s athletic director.
“The search committee came to me and said, ‘If we can get Rene, get her,’ ” Paterno told The Philadelphia Daily News.
During her tenure, Portland’s teams played in the N.C.A.A. women’s tournament 21 times and made one appearance in the Final Four, in 2000, when the Lady Lions lost to Connecticut. Penn State also won the postseason Women’s National Invitation Tournament in 1998.
“She was a great, excellent coach,” Theresa Grentz, a teammate at Immaculata who later coached at Rutgers University and other schools, said in a telephone interview. “Her teams were always well prepared, and there was always an extra wrinkle to her strategy.”
But almost from the start of her time at Penn State, Portland’s attitude toward gay players drew attention away from her on-court success. In an interview with The Chicago Sun-Times in 1986, she said she had raised the subject of “lesbian activity” when she recruited prospective players.
“I will not have it in my program,” she said. “I bring it up and the kids are so relieved and the parents are so relieved.”
In 1991, Patti Longenecker, who played at Penn State from 1983 to 1986, told The Philadelphia Inquirer: “She tells you flat out, ‘I don’t have any appreciation for the homosexual lifestyle. I won’t have that on my team.’ ”
But that year, Portland grudgingly agreed to follow Penn State’s new policy prohibiting discrimination because of sexual orientation.
“This is a policy I have to work under as an employee of the university,” she said at the time. “That’s all I’ll say about it.”
In late 2005 another former player, Jennifer Harris, filed a lawsuit against Portland in federal court accusing her of sexual and racial discrimination. Harris — who is black and not gay — said Portland had questioned her about whether she was dating women and threatened to remove her from the team if she were in a same-sex relationship; told her to change her appearance to look more “feminine”; challenged her friendship with a black teammate; and dismissed her from the team after her sophomore season.
An investigation by the university found that Portland had violated the school’s anti-discrimination policy and fined her $10,000 — she said the claims were “unfounded” — but she returned to coach during the 2006-7 season, when the Lady Lions had a 15-16 record.
She resigned, however, about six weeks after Harris settled her lawsuit. While subsequently responding to questions about her departure, Portland issued a statement that accused the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represented Harris, of spreading “damaging allegations while they attempt to exploit this case for their own agendas.”
Helen Carroll, the center’s former sports project director, said in a telephone interview that the lawsuit was a “turning point in bringing national visibility to the harmful effects of discrimination and homophobia against L.G.B.T. athletes.”
“It opened a national dialogue about what had been happening in women’s sports forever,” Carroll said.
“It didn’t stop the behavior,” she added, “but it empowered athletes and even coaches, who had been treated poorly, to speak up and get help on how to address what was happening to them.”
Portland was born Maureen Theresa Muth on March 31, 1953, in Broomall, Pa., one of seven children of Lou and Margaret Muth, who owned a hardware store.
Maureen played basketball at Villa Maria Academy High School in Malvern, Pa., and continued at nearby Immaculata, where the Mighty Macs won three Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women championships, from 1972 to 1974, becoming the first dynasty in women’s basketball in the era before the N.C.A.A. started its women’s tournament.
At Immaculata home games, her father would roll out a dolly filled with buckets and sticks and hand them out for fans to bang on. He collected the buckets and sticks after each game to distribute at other games.
The team was the subject of “The Mighty Macs” (2011), a film written and directed by Tim Chambers.
Two of Portland’s teammates, Grentz and Marianne Crawford Stanley, have been inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
“To look at the circumstances of Theresa, Marianne Stanley, Rene Portland, all the other wonderful players, myself, all to arrive at this place at that time, you have to think there was some divine intervention,” Cathy Rush, their coach at Immaculata, told ESPN in 2008. “And all of us believed that the faith that these nuns had in us and the power of prayer helped us do everything we did.”
Portland’s survivors include her husband, John; two daughters, Christine Mori and Delisa Portland; two sons, John Jr. and Stephen; and seven grandchildren.
Portland did not coach at the college level again after leaving Penn State, where she had a record of 606-236.
In all, her teams won 693 games and lost 265.
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