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Title IX: First St. Joseph’s women’s basketball varsity team didn’t need much to be successful

Muffet McGraw and her former Hawks teammates explain what it was like bringing the program to life as Title IX was just becoming law.

Members of the early St. Joseph's women's basketball team getting together at a recent wedding (from left): Chrissy McGoldrick Zabel, Mary Sue Garrity Simon, Muffet O'Brien McGraw, Mary Maley, and Kathy Langley.
Members of the early St. Joseph's women's basketball team getting together at a recent wedding (from left): Chrissy McGoldrick Zabel, Mary Sue Garrity Simon, Muffet O'Brien McGraw, Mary Maley, and Kathy Langley.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Beware of agile neighborhood youths.

The sign hung by the window in the second-floor locker room, a warning for the brand-new varsity women’s basketball team at St. Joseph’s College to keep the window shut.

Brand-new team … not a brand-new locker room. Equal access for all, even agile neighborhood youths.

“I don’t think anyone ever showered in there,” said the new team’s first point guard, Muffet O’Brien, who became a coaching legend away from Hawk Hill. Muffet McGraw retired from Notre Dame after coaching the Fighting Irish to two NCAA titles.

A recruiting coup for St. Joe’s getting McGraw in 1973? Nah, it wasn’t like that at all, she said. You showed up on campus … is there a basketball team? There’s a gym. Let’s go find a game.

“That’s probably where it all started,” McGraw said. “There was no recruiting, no scholarships. We all just sort of ended up there.”

The previous season, St. Joe’s had fielded a club team heavily populated by night students, some of whom worked on campus during the day. The switch to varsity already was being planned when federal Title IX civil rights legislation was passed calling for gender equity at institutions receiving federal funds. But it would be years and additional landmark legislation before Title IX meant much for college athletic departments. St. Joe’s, coed for just a couple of years, was making its first moves outside of Title IX. We have women now. We’re a basketball school. We should have a women’s basketball team.

“It’s funny in hindsight,” said Cathy Ritchie Cosgrove, who was on the club team before it became a varsity program. “I went to Prendie. We were Delaware County. We already had a strong basketball background. We’d played at the Palestra. We were going to college. But there wasn’t that mindset [of] I want to go be an athlete in college. I’m sure they put up a poster [on campus] and said, ‘Come play basketball.’”

Switching from club to varsity, “I don’t remember it being a big deal,” Cosgrove said. “It wasn’t like they were all of a sudden giving scholarships.”

Interviews with a half-dozen players who filled the “Hawkettes” lineup in those first years show a different world in which talented players simply could show up because Philadelphia and its suburbs already were a hotbed for women’s basketball, with CYO rivalries and those high school playoff games at the Palestra. A roster full of Pennsylvania players, with one South Jersey import. It was no coincidence this area got out ahead of the college game and produced some of the top coaches in the history of the sport, including McGraw.

» READ MORE: Fifty years ago, Immaculata’s Mighty Macs launched the modern era of women’s college basketball.

Some of the first St. Joe’s players remember most of all how they found kindred spirits in one another.

“You know how Type A Muffet is,” said Kathy Langley, who showed up for the second year of varsity ball. “She was the extreme of us, but we were all like that.”

No starters allowed

It was a different time — there were no scouting reports, McGraw said. Somebody would show up and start scoring; no one knew Carol Blazejowski of Montclair State would be national player of the year. “Dang, who’s that?” Opposing teams also found out firsthand how this new St. Joseph’s team had some ballplayers.

“Some teams just canceled,” said Mary Maley, who showed up as a freshman for that first varsity season of 1973-74, when St. Joe’s lost its very first varsity game to Immaculata, about to win its third straight national title. The Hawks went 9-2 overall, beating Temple, La Salle, and Penn, only losing again to Manor College.

After adding a few more strong players the next season, ”We played one team — I can’t remember who — they said, ‘We’ll only play you if you don’t play your starters,’‘’ McGraw said. “The starters had to sit on the bench.”

The first season, Ellen Ryan was hired as the coach. She was remembered for building immediate team chemistry. Ryan also coached high school field hockey nearby at Sacred Heart Academy, and when a car accident killed several Sacred Heart players just before the second St. Joseph’s varsity season, Ryan made the decision to step down as the Hawks coach to devote her time to her grieving team. Ryan did, however, become the first St. Joe’s full-time senior women’s athletics administrator.

Needing a new coach, the St. Joe’s athletic director at the time, Father Michael Blee, was not oblivious to the fact that not many miles away, Immaculata was winning those national titles. Theresa Shank Grentz, three-time all-American and national player of the year, was newly married and teaching sixth grade in Delaware County at Our Lady of Fatima School. Her number was unlisted, she said, so she was shocked to see a message for her at the school from Father Blee. She knew his name from reading the papers.

She showed up surprised to see it was a full-blown job interview. As it ended, she was even more surprised when Father Blee told her, “Your team is waiting for you.”

You’ve got the job, get started.

“I’m in heels, in a skirt,” Grentz said.

“She comes in with, like, a trench coat,” Langley said. “I can distinctly see her. We’re like, ‘Oh, my God.’ My dad had taken us to see her play in high school when I was in grade school.”

“When Theresa came in, we were all so excited — we knew the train could get on a whole new track,” Maley said. “She was going to press us, and press us she did. We would have done anything for Theresa, and we did.”

At the time, there was only one court at St. Joe’s. And there was a men’s varsity and a men’s junior varsity and a men’s freshman team. Guess where the women’s varsity team started on the pecking order for court time?

“We had to wait for them [all] to be done,” Langley said.

“Sitting there waiting,” McGraw said. “Whenever they felt like finishing.”

Grentz negotiated for better times. Everything, she found, was subject to a little friendly negotiation.

“I didn’t have an office,” Grentz said. “My office was a stairwell.”

“It wasn’t like the men were leading the glamorous life,” Maley said. “The Big 5 was a big deal, and the St. Joe’s [men’s] teams were really good. But it wasn’t like they had private jets.”

After two years at St. Joe’s, Grentz went on to coach Rutgers to a national title and then coached Illinois and Lafayette.

“It was a constant conversation with athletic directors and administrators,” Grentz said of working for upgrades. “You couldn’t go into those conversations and bang your shoe on the table and say, ‘Hey, listen. You’ve got to give us what you give the guys.’ They would have shown you the door.”

The men’s coaches were almost uniformly easy to work with, Grentz said of her years at different schools. “Only one SOB.” (She has conveniently forgotten his name.)

» READ MORE: In men’s basketball, it’s easy to grade outgoing St. Joseph’s president Mark Reed

But coaching above the CYO level really hadn’t been her plan, and practice already was starting.

“What defense do I run?” she remembers asking herself.

Grentz took what she’d learned from Cathy Rush at Immaculata, but didn’t stop there. She’d been entranced by the summer-camps lessons imparted by Howie Landa, then coaching the men at Mercer County Community College. She visited him.

“You’re going to run a matchup zone,” Landa told her, but he would explain it all going 100 mph. Grentz remembers offering to drive Landa’s point guard home from practice to Philadelphia. Joe McKeown was a Father Judge graduate.

“I would pick his brain,” Grentz said of McKeown, who now is Northwestern’s women’s coach. “He would explain it. Our kids were smart enough to figure it out.”

One scholarship

As they won games, the St. Joe’s women attracted local attention. A 9-2 1974-75 season was followed by an expanded schedule and an 18-3 record with only two losses to Immaculata and one to Montclair State, featuring the great Blazejowski. (The Hawks eventually beat her a couple of seasons later.)

The top scorer those years for St. Joe’s was Mary Sue Garrity Simon, an Archbishop Carroll grad whose father had been a Hawks star. She showed up for the second varsity season. Immaculata had recruited her, she said, but had no scholarship money to offer. St. Joe’s couldn’t do much right away, but Grentz remembers St. Joe’s agreeing to provide one scholarship she could split up any way the coach wanted.

“I think Mary Sue was working at Sears — she was already at school,” Grentz said. “She was my best player.”

Both Simon and Grentz remembered Mary Sue telling her coach, “If you hadn’t given me the full ride, I would have gone somewhere else.”

There was a Daily News article noting that although St. Joe’s kept sweeping the Big 5 City Series, the school wasn’t allowed to use the term Big 5, “not even in a whisper,” the column by Mary Flannery noted.

“The term ‘Big 5′ is a registered trademark,” was the quote from a Big 5 official in the article. “Technically, it applies only to men’s basketball.”

The headline of the piece, “Hawks are favored to win Big Whatsis” … The former St. Joe’s players note the echoes of a similar argument just last year made by the NCAA over the term “March Madness.” Publicity eventually forced the change, as it had for the Big 5.

McGraw remembers showing the movie about the Immaculata Mighty Macs to her Notre Dame team.

“They were, like, horrified,” McGraw said. “They had to move furniture to practice? It was like prehistoric to them. It was outside the realm.”

This, Notre Dame players under McGraw probably could relate to: Hawks teammates had stories of how a St. Joseph’s freshman would cut through the lane, and they’d better be looking for the ball because Muffet would be zinging it at their heads.

“I remember thinking I was pretty good,” said Chrissy McGoldrick Zabel. “I was MVP of the Catholic League Southern Division my senior year. At that age, you think you’re all that. I got to St. Joe’s, Muff would wing this pass right past my ear. ‘You expect me to catch that?’ Yeah, I better catch that. We were all cut from the same cloth.”

“I was definitely the boss,” McGraw said. “I was the point guard. That’s because I couldn’t shoot; I couldn’t score. I needed to do something.”

Teammates also remember running upcourt and hearing the crowd noise, knowing what that meant without even turning around yet. McGraw had stolen another inbounds pass, converting it into two more points.

Ask any of these players about their own game, there’s this pride mixed with humility.

“I was 5-foot-9½, but I had ups,” Zabel said of playing center. “That’s all I had, but I had that, and I liked to box out.”

“We were not real tall, but we were very fast, and we pressed,” Simon said. “When I watch teams now, I don’t know why they don’t do more of it. We pressed a lot, fastbreaked a lot. Really pushed the ball. Why wait until you’re behind?”

Beer on the bus

Grentz talks of her immediate enjoyment being in the gym with those teams. They kept her on her toes.

“They spent so much time in the library,” Grentz said. “They were a brilliant group.”

Apparently, also a fun-loving group. The one big road trip, actually getting a bus instead of taking various cars, was out to Edinboro. Grentz remembers going down to the hotel lounge to have a beer. There was a band playing.

“There’s all my players, having a blast,” Grentz said. “The next thing I know, they just go by me one-by-one. They just danced their way out of the lounge.”

A postgame beer on the bus wasn’t out of the question, at least under Grentz. When she couldn’t turn down a Rutgers offer after two seasons, she was replaced by another former Immaculata player, Rene Portland, who was decidedly more no-nonsense.

First bus ride with the new coach, Zabel said, she went up and offered Portland’s husband a beer.

“That didn’t go over well with Rene,” said Zabel, who went on to medical school, becoming a family physician. “Rene stood up and lectured us. The whole time she did, this beer rolled up and down the aisle. Nobody touched it. It would roll up … roll back.”

The team kept winning, going 23-5 and 24-4 in Portland’s two seasons, before she moved on briefly to Colorado and then 27 seasons at Penn State. (Notice the pattern of state schools deciding to invest in women’s basketball and offering bigger salaries to these coaches who had gotten it done at smaller private schools.) An amazing aspect of all this was the depth of coaching talent that ran through Hawk Hill, already known as a cradle of men’s coaches, starting with Jack Ramsay. Jim Foster replaced Portland as St. Joe’s coach and he went on to the women’s basketball Hall of Fame. Foster briefly had an assistant named Geno Auriemma, then had McGraw herself on his staff before she became Lehigh’s head coach.

If the early success was almost accidental, the school soon saw a program worthy of a little investment. Four straight appearances in the national tournament under three different coaches couldn’t be ignored.

“I remember our senior year [in 1976-77], we got team Adidas,” Maley said. “That was the first time we got sneakers for free.” They had to last the whole season, she pointed out. Still, a milestone.

“Things became a little better, in terms of, like, a trainer who was going to do right by us,” Maley said. “Coach [Jim] Boyle [then a men’s assistant] was always nice with us, would ask about a game, how things were going.”

As a group, they’ve stayed really close, getting together when they can. They gave Grentz a lamp filled with words from newspaper clippings, not all written about them. (“Your hair ages faster … the grays keep coming.”) That lamp stayed with her all these years, Grentz said, moving to her new office at each stop, her meetings no longer conducted in stairwells.

Playing for two former Immaculata players, McGraw said, was a huge part of her own coaching foundation.

“I, for sure, was like a disciple of Cathy Rush,” said McGraw, who has joined Rush in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, with Grentz joining that two-for-two group this year.

Whatever she and her teammates got all those years ago on Hawk Hill, McGraw said, they were all grateful.

“We’re still grateful,” McGraw said. “That’s my generation’s problem. We just can’t help ourselves.”