Portland ponders leaving Penn St., sources say

Posted: March 22, 2007

Penn State women's basketball coach Rene Portland is considering stepping down, sources familiar with the situation said last night.

Penn State officials and the 54-year-old coach were not available for comment last night.

The news on Portland comes several months after an out-of-court settlement in a controversial case involving former player Jennifer Harris, who claimed Portland dismissed her from the squad in March 2005 because the Penn State coach perceived her to be a lesbian.

Since Harris' departure to James Madison University, the Nittany Lions have suffered two straight losing seasons, the first under Portland in her 27 years in charge of the program.

Penn State lost to Ohio State, 73-71, in the semifinals of the Big Ten Conference tournament to finish 15-16 this season.

Portland's possible exit would be the latest in a series of changes at major programs across the country.

Longtime Texas coach Jody Conradt retired two weeks ago after the Longhorns failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

Louisiana State coach Pokey Chatman quit after allegations by university officials that she had had an inappropriate relationship with a former player.

Carolyn Peck was fired at Florida, and other openings also exist at Arkansas and Washington.

Portland, a native of Broomall, starred at Immaculata in the early 1970s when the Mighty Macs won three national titles.

She recently completed her 31st season as a coach, including earlier stints at St. Joseph's and Colorado. She was hired by Penn State football coach Joe Paterno when he was the university's athletic director.

"I always said the best decision I ever made as an AD was to hire Rene Portland," Paterno has said numerous times.

Portland's overall record is 693-295, including a 606-236 mark at Penn State.

The high point of her career came in 2000 when the Nittany Lions advanced to their only appearance in the NCAA Women's Final Four, which was played at the Wachovia Center.

Among Portland's finest players was Suzie McConnell Serio, a native of Pittsburgh who went on to star in the 1988 Olympics and also with the Cleveland Rockers of the WNBA.

McConnell Serio coached the Minnesota Lynx but resigned late last season when the team faded from the WNBA playoff race. She recently indicated a desire to run a collegiate program.

Three other stars of note under the Penn State coach were Kelly Mazzante, the school's all-time scorer who plays in the WNBA; Helen Darling, another WNBA player; and Susan Robinson-Fruchtl, an assistant coach at Penn State.

Associate head coach Annie Troyan is a graduate of Archbishop Carroll who played for Portland at Penn State in the early 1980s.

In 1991, Portland's team earned its first No. 1 ranking in the weekly Associated Press poll. She was named the coach of the year by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association that season.

That same year, however, an article in The Inquirer noted the Penn State coach's negative attitude toward players who were gay.

The Harris controversy brought Portland's views back into the spotlight.

Penn State launched a six-month internal investigation and found that Harris' perceived sexual orientation by Portland caused the coach to create a "hostile, intimidating and offensive environment."

On April 18, 2006, university president Graham Spanier announced that Portland had been fined $10,000 and required to undergo diversity and inclusiveness training.

He added that Portland would be fired if she was found to violate the school's anti-discrimination policy.

Portland's response was to say the investigation was "flawed." She continued to contest the charges until an out-of-court settlement was reached.

A stipulation of the settlement was that neither side reveal the results.

Contact staff writer Mel Greenberg at 215-854-5725 or mgreenberg@phillynews.com.

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