After March 19, 1972, women’s basketball would never be the same. On that day, Immaculata College, a tiny, Catholic women’s school located on a bucolic suburban campus just outside of Philadelphia, with an enrollment of just 550 and run by the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) sisters, would win the first-ever women’s national college basketball championship. They would forever change the look and culture of the women’s game.
In the 1960s, the women’s college game was barely a blip on the sports fan’s radar screen. The game seemed more like a friendly pastime rather than serious, competitive sport. Girls wore floppy tunics with box pleats—dresses, really—and were for the most part unathletic. They played a rigidly restrained game in cramped gymnasiums in which even the number of dribbles was controlled.
In fact, some schools were still playing with two sets of teams stationed on both sides of the court at the same time—one for offense and one for defense. The schedules were lousy, there were no scholarships and there was no entertainment value. The universal cry: No one wants to watch girls play.
“College basketball was a men’s club,” emphasizes Cathy Rush, the Hall of Fame coach who led Immaculata to that seemingly impossible 1972 national title. “Look, games were played on Monday afternoons at three o’clock. Nobody but the parents and a few friends even came. Nobody cared about women’s basketball. It was just our little thing.”
At the time, the women’s game didn’t even operate under the NCAA umbrella but was regulated by something called the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), the first organization to govern women’s collegiate sports. So, yes, Rush is right: College basketball was a distinctly men’s game.
Until that day almost 40 years ago. When the Immaculata team returned home in March of 1972 after winning the national title, the question was instantly raised: How many men are on Philadelphia’s best college basketball team? The answer: none.
The Immaculata basketball team was dubbed the Mighty Macs. Forty years later, the Mighty Macs have gone Hollywood.