It took Hollywood to remind us. For three years four decades ago, the center of the universe for women’s basketball was a tiny college in the Philadelphia suburbs, and the game has never been the same since.
The Mighty Macs, a film that tells the story of the Immaculata College (now University) team that dominated the game from 1971-74, won the first three women’s national championships and compiled a record of 72 wins, two losses.
The movie was filmed on location four years ago and finally had its premiere, complete with red carpet at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center on Oct. 15, with general release to theaters Oct. 21.
The film, which focuses mostly on coach Cathy Rush (ably played by Carla Gugino), compresses the three years into a single season for artistic reasons. It tells how Rush, just one year out of college, quit her $6,000 a year teaching job to become Immaculata’s basketball coach for the magnificent sum of $450 annually.
Her own experience coming in was two years non-varsity play at West Chester State College and two years coaching junior high.
“I think I got the job because no one else applied,” she said at a press conference.
As it turned out, Rush, whose husband was a professional basketball referee, turned out to be very good, learning with her team as they went along. But she believes it was really 20 percent coaching and 80 percent talent.
At that time when archdiocesan high schools were huge, they produced great basketball teams, but there was no such thing as sports scholarships for women, and consequently they were not recruited by the big universities. The girls tended to go to smaller, cheaper colleges close to home.
In 1971 Cathy Rush found herself, almost by chance, with an incredibly talented team, mostly from the Philadelphia Catholic League.
“I think it was Divine Providence,” said Theresa Shank Grentz, a Cardinal O’Hara grad who was the star of the team and in Rush’s estimation, “the best women’s basketball player in America.”
She remembers looking around the gym at the first practice and seeing how all the stars had converged on Immaculata and remarking to Denise Conway, an Archbishop Prendergast grad, “We are going to play four years, and we are not going to lose a game.”
In fact they did lose two games, and “I’m still ticked about that,” said Grentz, who after a successful career as a college coach herself is now Immaculata’s vice president for university advancement.
The favorite film scene for most of the players involves one of those two losses, especially because it really happened.
It was the Mid-Atlantic Regional, and they were soundly defeated by West Chester. Disheartened, they returned to Immaculata in the middle of the night, and as they entered the darkened rotunda, the lights went on and there were the Sisters and all the resident girls cheering and singing, despite the defeat.
Money was tight, but the Sisters found a way to send the team to Normal, Ill., for the National Championship tournament, where they beat West Chester for the championship.
They went on to the three-peat, but they got something more from Immaculata, and that was the education and example given them by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
“We understood religious life and you don’t make comedic lines about it,” Grentz said. “They were a big part of our lives.”
For years there has been talk about a film on the Mighty Macs, but nothing came of it until a group of local entrepreneurs including Tim Chambers as writer, producer and director, and Vince Curran as executive producer, picked up the ball and ran with it.
“It’s really a Philadelphia story; it’s the fabric of the community,” Chambers said. “There has never been an inspirational story about young girls and the equality of dreams.”
Equality of dreams was realized as a result of Title IX in 1972, when the Mighty Macs were at their zenith. Under Title IX, if schools give athletic scholarships to men, they have to do the same for women.
While this is a good thing in the long run, it means small schools such as Immaculata cannot compete for players against the wealthier big schools.
There will probably never again be an equivalent to the Mighty Macs. “There is a cost to Title IX,” Curran said.
It doesn’t matter. It happened and they have the trophies to prove it.
Archbishop Charles Chaput, who attended the premiere, said, “I heard about the Mighty Macs a long time ago, but I didn’t know a movie was being made. It was wonderful to have so many people from the Philadelphia community at the premiere, sharing the joy of the Sisters, whom I think we need to praise because they provided the environment where this took place.”
“The Mighty Macs” (Freestyle)
Feel-good sports drama, based on the true story of women’s basketball coach Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino). In 1972, at age 23, Rush took a job at Pennsylvania’s Immaculata College (now University) and built its team from scratch, eventually leading the “Macs” to the national championship. In the process, she and her lady dribblers inspired the nuns of the faculty, led by a formidable mother superior (Ellen Burstyn), to join forces and save the school from closing. Director Tim Chambers’ family-oriented movie offers lessons in friendship, teamwork, trust and perseverance. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is G general audiences. All ages admitted.