Rene Portland, a fiery women’s basketball coach who built a powerhouse program at Penn State and championed gender equality in college athletics, but who was tarnished by allegations that she discriminated against lesbian players, died July 22 in Tannersville, Pa. She was 65.
The cause was cancer, said Greg Campbell, a spokesman at Pennsylvania State University.
As head coach from 1980 to 2007, Ms. Portland (her first name is pronounced REE-NEE) brought the Lady Lions their first No. 1 ranking and first Final Four appearance, en route to being named national coach of the year twice, in 1991 and 2004, by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
Led by all-Americans including Susan Robinson, Suzie McConnell, Helen Darling and Kelly Mazzante — the all-time leading scorer in Big Ten basketball history — her teams dominated the Atlantic 10 and then the Big Ten conferences, winning seven regular-season and eight conference tournament titles.
Ms. Portland, who amassed a 693-265 career record, urged her players to perform on the court as though they were “destroying buildings” and often told her teams that she expected total victory — a one-sided blowout rather than a single-digit win.
In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, one former assistant recalled that after one loss, Ms. Portland demanded: “Get on a plane and don’t come back until you get me some players.”
In part, she was simply looking for players like herself. At tiny Immaculata College (now University) in Malvern, Pa., she helped form the “Mighty Macs” dynasty that won titles in 1972, 1973 and 1974, all without athletic scholarships or a home court.
The team played in the first nationally televised women’s basketball game, during Ms. Portland’s senior season in 1975, and “ushered in the modern era of women’s athletics,” according to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which enshrined all three of the school’s title teams in 2014.
Ms. Portland, a former president of the WBCA, went on to become an off-the-court leader in women’s sports, calling for improved funding and practice facilities, and served as one of 10 coaches who were consulted by the NBA before the launch of the WNBA in 1997.
At the same time, she became closely linked with homophobia in college athletics. Current and former players told reporters that Ms. Portland had three primary rules for the team: no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians.
“I will not have it in my program,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1986, regarding homosexuality. “I bring it up, and the kids are so relieved and the parents are so relieved.”
Five years later, the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted former players who confirmed Ms. Portland’s unwritten policy against lesbian players. She responded, “I have training rules. And I will never have to say what my training rules are.” The university reportedly updated its anti-discrimination policy with a clause on sexual orientation, but it took no action against Ms. Portland.
In 2005, former Penn State player Jennifer Harris sued the university, the athletic director and Ms. Portland for discrimination. In court filings, she alleged that Ms. Portland had forced her from the team by “humiliating, berating and ostracizing her,” all because she believed — wrongly — that Harris was gay. Harris, who also alleged racial bias, said Ms. Portland suggested she “dress more feminine” so as not to appear gay.
“She almost acted like lesbianism is a disease that you catch. If you have one in the locker room, it’s going to spread,” Harris said in a 2009 documentary, “Training Rules.”
While Ms. Portland denied the allegations, saying Harris was dismissed from the team only for basketball reasons, an internal investigation found that she had created a “hostile, intimidating and offensive environment.” She was fined $10,000 and ordered to attend diversity training. At a news conference, she declared that the investigation was “flawed.”
Ten months later, in February 2007, the Harris lawsuit was settled out of court. Ms. Portland retired at the end of the season.
“That lawsuit was a real turning point,” said Shannon Minter, who represented Harris in the suit and serves as the legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “Before Jen Harris filed that lawsuit, there was very little coverage of homophobia in women’s sports. And almost no players and coaches would publicly identify as lesbian, because it was the end of your career.”
Since then, he added, players and coaches have begun coming out — including Portland State University’s Sherri Murrell, who in 2009 became the first openly gay Division I basketball coach.
Maureen Theresa Muth was born on March 31, 1953, and raised in the Philadelphia suburb of Broomall, Pa.
After graduating from Immaculata in 1975, she worked as an assistant for the school’s coach, Cathy Rush, and became the head coach at St. Joseph’s College (now University) in Philadelphia. She moved to the University of Colorado in 1978, where she grew an intramural team into a national contender, and in 1980 was brought to Penn State by football coach Joe Paterno, who was then also working as the athletic director.
Penn State received its first No. 1 ranking in 1991, after beating top-ranked Virginia on the road, 73-71, and finished the regular season with a 29-1 record. (They were upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament by James Madison.) The school advanced to the Final Four in 2000 — led by Darling, a point guard, and center Andrea Gardner — but lost to Connecticut in the national semifinals.
In addition to her work at Penn State, Ms. Portland coached the women’s national junior team, which she led in 1997 to its first gold medal at the World Championships.
Survivors include her husband, John Portland; four children, DeLisa Portland, John Portland Jr., Stephen Portland and Christine Mori, who played under Ms. Portland at Penn State; and seven grandchildren.
While Ms. Portland’s reputation suffered in the aftermath of the discrimination lawsuit, her prowess as a coach remained undisputed, even among players who described her as a tormentor. After Harris filed her lawsuit, she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Ms. Portland was “one of the best coaches in women’s basketball, without a doubt.”