The West Chester roots of women's hoops

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw grew up in West Chester and was a two-year captain at St. Joseph's, which was ranked at No. 3 nationally.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw grew up in West Chester and was a two-year captain at St. Joseph's, which was ranked at No. 3 nationally. (AP)
Posted: April 09, 2014

On Tuesday night, Nashville will shimmer like a country singer's wardrobe.

Down in Music City, 20,000 fans will fill Bridgestone Arena to see, for the first time in NCAA basketball history, two unbeatens, Connecticut and Notre Dame, vie for the women's national championship.

Meanwhile, 684 miles to the northeast, Tuesday night figures to be an unremarkable one in West Chester.

The old college town's leafy residential streets will be slumbering. Gay Street's bars and restaurants will be enjoying a midweek calm. The courthouse and county buildings will be closed.

And, on a night it helped make possible, Hollinger Field House, the 65-year-old gymnasium near the southern edge of West Chester University's campus, will be dark and empty.

Nashville's night couldn't have happened without West Chester.

The Chester County borough is at the heart of this 2014 championship game and of postseason women's basketball in general.

The high-profile coaches in Tuesday night's unprecedented title game, Connecticut's Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw, both have deep roots there.

And it was in West Chester, at Hollinger, where in 1969 the first women's tournament was conceived and born.

"West Chester is a women's basketball hotbed," said Deirdre Kane, the current West Chester women's coach.

Forty-five years ago, before Title IX, the women's game was little more than a cult activity, barely rising above the level of a gym-class pastime.

There were no standardized rules, no NCAA affiliation or national governing body, no postseason tournament, and almost no interest beyond the college walls.

Young women played in tunics. The number of dribbles was limited. In many states, it was a six-on-six game, with defensive and offensive players restricted to their respective side of the court.

But if there were a mecca for women's sports back then, it was the Philadelphia area.

"Way before anyone else, this area was at the forefront," Mimi Greenwood, a former athletic director at West Chester, said in 2000. "Since probably as far back as the 1940s, there were very successful field hockey, swimming and lacrosse programs around here. There was a kind of English tradition at work in the local schools, a feeling that athletics ought to be a part of a genteel woman's education."

And West Chester was more ready than most schools for the leap that women's basketball was about to make.

Because its education-based curriculum traditionally attracted women and because it had a respected physical education department, West Chester was a force in women's athletics, particularly basketball.

Future Hall of Fame coach Cathy Rush played there in the mid-1960s. Later Carol Eckman coached teams that were among the first to drop the six-player format in favor of men's rules.

Eckman was eager to test her team - and herself - against the rest of the nation. In 1969, she got her school's approval to do so.

"She divided up a map of the U.S. into regions that look a lot like today's," Kane said from Nashville, "and she invited 16 teams from around the country."

That March those teams traveled there for what Eckman would call the National Invitational Collegiate Women's Basketball Tournament.

West Chester won the event, which was played at Hollinger, Auriemma's home court as a collegian and the place where McGraw, then a teenager who lived only a few blocks away, often went to watch Eckman's women.

McGraw - Muffet O'Brien then - had been born in Pottsville but grew up in West Chester. One of seven children, she starred in basketball at St. Agnes parish school and at Bishop Shanahan High, then located in the borough.

She went on to St. Joseph's where she played for Ellen Ryan and as a senior was a guard on a Hawks team that was ranked as high as No. 3 nationally.

After graduating in 1977, McGraw coached at Archbishop Carroll before Jim Foster, by then the Hawks women's coach, hired her as an assistant in 1980.

Foster had been at Temple when he assumed the role of the Hawks women's coach. Needing an aide, he called his old Bishop Kenrick teammate, Auriemma.

"Out of the blue he calls and says, 'Hey, I'm coaching the girls at Bishop McDevitt. You want to help me?' " Auriemma said earlier. "I said, 'No way. I wouldn't coach girls for all the money in the world.' When I was at Kenrick, we wouldn't even let the girls on the court."

But Auriemma adapted and, after returning to coach Kenrick's boys with Phil Martelli, he became a Foster assistant at St. Joe's in 1978. His salary was $1,000.

"I said, 'This isn't going anywhere. I've got to get a real job,' " Auriemma recalled.

Auriemma and McGraw are just two of the Philly connections at Nashville's Final Four.

The multiple-national-champion Mighty Macs of Immaculata - like West Chester located in Chester County - are being honored there for their selection to the basketball Hall of Fame.

And on Monday, Nevada's Jane Albright received the Carol Eckman Award, presented to the coach who exemplifies Eckman's integrity and character through sportsmanship.

"There's been a lot of pride about Philly at this Final Four," Kane said. "Carol Eckman started the first tournament. And for Geno and Muffet to have such prominent West Chester roots . . . I've been putting it out there all over the Twitter-verse."

Both Auriemma and McGraw are competitive to their cores. With such similar backgrounds, and success, it probably was inevitable that at some point the two would clash.

That happened in March when the brackets pointed their teams toward this ultimate meeting. McGraw said she wasn't concerned, noting her team's recent success against Connecticut.

"We've gotten pretty good at beating them," she said.

That got Auriemma's Philly up.

"When you grow up in Philadelphia, you tend to exaggerate," he said. "I know that firsthand, trust me."


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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