When the history books are written about the coming of age of women's basketball, Penn State Lady Lions coach Rene Portland may well be a footnote.
Or worse. Portland threatens to leave behind a shameful legacy for everybody -- particularly Portland herself, who had such promise when JoePa hired her. A three-time NCAA champion as a player for Immaculata College, Portland knew a good bit about winning when she landed at Happy Valley in 1980. And she's taken the Lady Lions from complete obscurity to a competitive program. With a handful of others, including Tennessee's Pat Summitt, Portland is in the vanguard of women's college basketball. Her résumé includes being named Big Ten Coach of the Year four times, and WBCA National Coach of the Year twice.
But while Summitt will be remembered for her ambassadorship and national titles (six and counting), Portland may be remembered for her off-court politics, rather than her coaching.
As anybody who follows Penn State knows, Portland doesn't tolerate lesbians in her program. It's a selling point in her recruiting. But last year, Portland was sued by a former player, Jennifer Harris, who alleged that Portland harassed her and eventually told her to find another place to play -- simply because Portland believed Harris was a lesbian. Harris says she isn't gay, but that's hardly the point: Portland thought she was. So she sought first to alienate Harris from her teammates, and then to dismiss her.
Not long ago, such discriminatory behavior was tolerated. But while other coaches have kept up with the times, Portland remains mired in the past -- just like those coaches who refused to recruit black players in the 1950s. History has shown those men to be not only morally wrong, but unpragmatic. Why wouldn't you want to field the best players available? Why not put your program in the best position to win?
In 25 years at Penn State, Portland has taken her team to the Elite Eight four times and the Final Four once; her overall career record is 578-204. That's nothing to sneeze at. But it's also not up to the standard of Summitt, whose lifetime record of 907-176 includes six national titles in 16 Final Four appearances. And Portland's inability to get her team over the hump may well have a direct correlation with her virulent crusade against lesbian athletes at Happy Valley.
Some players keep their sexuality a secret well enough to play for Portland. But there are others like Cindy Davies, who was emboldened to speak because of Harris. Davies left the team in the 1980s, when she says Portland threatened her about her "lifestyle." Grappling with her sexuality and a fear of being outed, Davies left PSU without explanation and went to IUP -- where she broke about every record in the book.
A local clinical psychologist with expertise with the gay/lesbian population says Davies' struggle isn't surprising. "Often there are internal conflicts, fears, mixed feelings about accepting oneself," says Michele Keffer. "In addition, if you are experiencing external pressure to hide who you are -- to not be who you are -- it can take a great deal of energy to manage the discrepancy between who you are and who you have to pretend to be. Like any other potentially life-altering secret, it's going to wear you out."
In Harris' lawsuit, Davies contends that Portland warned her that "if she was gay, Ms. Portland would tell Ms. Davies' parents, the University, and the media." Two athletes who played around the same time as Davies have told me similar stories. Imagine what such treatment might do to an 18-year-old, playing for a coach who purports to be a mother figure.
The energy Portland spends ferreting out lesbians could be better spent preparing game plans or recruiting. The energy some players spend in fear of her could be put to better use in the classroom, or on the court. How many gifted young women like Cindy Davies left Penn State? How many labored under Portland's onerous demands, unable to fulfill their potential?
Portland's Lady Lions will likely miss the NCAA Tournament this year. Would they be tourney-bound with a talented player like Harris on the roster? Say what you will about JoePa being old or out of touch. The man is a college-football legend, and you don't fire an icon. Portland isn't that good.