Rene Portland was the head coach of the Penn State Lady Lions from 1980 to 2007, turning the team into a women’s basketball powerhouse. Under her leadership, the team won 606 games, earned their first Number 1 ranking, and reached their first Final Four.
Rene (pronounced REE-NEE) Portland was the nickname and married name of Maureen Theresa Muth, who was born on March 31, 1953, in Broomall, outside Philadelphia. She played basketball from 1972 to 1975 at Immaculata College at nearby Malvern, then a small Catholic women’s school. The “Mighty Macs” won the first three national championships of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, building the popularity of women’s basketball played with five-member teams running the full court, instead of six players limited to half the court.
A year after graduating from Immaculata, she was named the head coach at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She spent two years at St. Joseph’s and two years at the University of Colorado before being named the head coach at Penn State.
During her second season, Penn State received an invitation to the first NCAA women’s basketball tournament. In all, Portland’s teams played in twenty-one NCAA tournaments and made the 2000 Final Four in Philadelphia, where they lost to eventual champion, the University of Connecticut, in the semifinal.
In 1991, Penn State left the Atlantic 10 conference and joined the Big Ten. That year the team earned its first Number 1 ranking and finished with a 29-1 record. (They were upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament). The following year, Portland’s team won its first Big Ten title. In all, her teams won five Big Ten championships and two Big Ten tournament titles.
Penn State’s success under Portland’s tenure generated a loyal fan base and increased ticket sales, which regularly exceeded 15,000 per game. “Rene’s Dunkers” was a popular club for elementary school students and fueled the development of local girl’s youth basketball leagues.
Her roster of players included Susan Robinson, the 1991-92 Wade Trophy winner for national player of the year, Kelly Mazzante, the all-time leading scorer in the Big Ten, and four first-team All-Americans. Several players enjoyed successful careers in the WNBA and several went on to become collegiate coaches.
Portland herself won multiple Atlantic 10, Big Ten, and National Coach of the Year honors. She was president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and one of ten women’s coaches asked in 1997 to help the National Basketball Association develop its first women’s professional league, the WNBA. She was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in 2017. Her overall coaching record, over 31 years, was 693-265 (.723).
In 2005, a former player, Jennifer Harris, accused Portland of violating Penn State’s policy that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. Portland disputed the allegations, but an internal investigation found that she had created a “hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment.” Portland was suspended for one game and fined $10,000. The university confidentially settled the lawsuit with Harris and Portland resigned as coach in 2007. “Training Rules,” a documentary that explored the charges, was released in 2009.
Portland emphasized education and was proud that the seniors on the team graduated. She also valued philanthropy and community service, and her players often interacted with local organizations such as the Special Olympics, Easter Seals, and United Way.
In 2005, she was honored as Renaissance Person of the Year, an annual award recognizing the contributions of a local community leader. She and her husband, John, donated $500,000 to endow two scholarships for student athletes at Penn State.
After battling cancer for three years, Portland died on July 22, 2018. She was 65.
Penn State Lady Lion Basketball Yearbook, 2006-2007.
“Penn State’s Rene Portland dies after battle with cancer.” Associated Press, July 22, 2018.
Greenberg, Mel. “Rene Portland, longtime Penn State coach and “Mighty Macs’ star dies,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 22, 2018.
First Published: July 26, 2021
Last Modified: September 30, 2021