Rene Portland raised bar for Penn State

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Rene Portland was laid to rest on Monday. The former Penn State women’s basketball coach passed away July 22 after a three-year battle with cancer.

She is survived by a large, loving family and a legion of Lady Lions who played for her.

The basketball career of the Philadelphia-area native personified the evolution of the sport for women athletes, from her trailblazing playing days at Immaculata to building the Penn State program into a national power.

The Mighty Macs won their first national title when Portland was a freshman in 1972 — the same year that Title IX opened the door for greater opportunities for women in college athletics.

By the time she graduated, Immaculata had captured three AIAW national titles, as well as the imagination of fans throughout the east. Women’s college basketball was on the map.

By way of St. Joseph’s and Colorado, Portland made her way to Happy Valley, hired by then-athletic director Joe Paterno in 1980, one year before the NCAA held its first national championship tournament for women’s basketball.

Portland often credited Paterno for much of her success, and he said that he’d hired her knowing she’d be a “squeaky wheel” for women’s athletics.

And that she was: advocating for improved opportunities, resources and facilities for her Lady Lions and other female student-athletes on campus. She elevated women’s athletics at Penn State, pushing the envelope in her requests/demands for better training tables, travel opportunities and television exposure.

She advocated for me to become a host of her coach’s show and play-by-play announcer for TV broadcasts when few women held those positions in Pennsylvania. She did the same for many others related to her program.

Coaches are often summed up by the numbers — wins, losses, championships, percentages, and Portland’s are impressive. She went 693-265 over 31 seasons as a collegiate head coach, including 27 with Penn State. She’s in the top 20 on the all-time D-I coaching victories list and made 21 NCAA tournament appearances, including one Final Four, while winning seven conference championships along with national and Big Ten coach of the year honors.

But as in all sports, the intangibles are just as important.

Overwhelmingly, Portland’s players graduated. Many became coaches themselves. Her teams were encouraged to give back to their communities through school visits and camps. Portland pioneered the first Pink Zone game, raising money and awareness in the battle against breast cancer.

Portland achieved all of this while raising four children with her husband of 42 years, attending games involving sons John and Stephen (who played at Bishop Guilfoyle), coaching her daughter Christine at Penn State and bringing adopted daughter DeLisa along to PSU games.

Portland’s career at Penn State was not without controversy and ended in 2007 when she retired shortly after a settlement was reached with a former player as part of a lawsuit aimed at her alleged no-lesbian policy. Details of the settlement were not released, and Portland and the university denied all culpability.

But it was likely a wake-up call to Penn State and universities across the country.

When Portland left Happy Valley, she didn’t look back: few interviews and few public media appearances until her 2017 induction into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, which recognized her contributions to the sport as a player and coach.

Portland will be fondly remembered and respected by many. Some also feared her, some disagreed with her, and some even disliked her.

That was probably OK with Portland. She was someone who above all else knew who she was: mother, grandmother, wife, coach, teacher and trailblazer.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.

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