In 2005, I began writing my second book, Sports in Pennsylvania (available at http://www.pa-history.org/publications/historyseries.html). While researching college sports, I came across Julie Byrne’s O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003) about the AIAW women’s championship basketball teams from the early 1970s. Congress passed Title IX in June 1972 (as part of Educational Amendments of 1972), so equal participation for women in high school and college athletics was in its infancy (in fact, the first women’s college basketball championship took place a few months earlier, and the NCAA would not offer women’s championships in any sport until 1982).
As a graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, whose Ladyjacks were nationally ranked while I attended in the late 1970s (and were occasionally #1 in the Sports Illustrated polls) and whose coach would have been the U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball Team coach in 1980 if the United States had not boycotted the Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I had a particular interest in women’s college basketball. As a result, the story of the Mighty Macs was one that intrigued me—and, when I found out that they would be making a movie based on the book (the movie was titled Our Lady of Victory when my book was published in 2007), I was thrilled, and I followed the progress of the movie on IMDB.
In Fall 2008, I required O God of Players as one of the required readings for HST 3265: History of Sports in American Society, which I teach at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. For the final exam, the students had to answer the following question:
O God of Players tells the story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs and their success in the early 1970s (pre-Title IX implementation). What impact did the Roman Catholic Church have on this women’s basketball team? What did playing basketball mean to the women at Immaculata College? What role did the college’s geographic location have on attracting players? In your opinion, what was the most important factor in the team’s success?
Little did I know when I asked that question that three years later the students would be able to answer this question not by reading Byrne’s book, but by watching the motion picture The Mighty Macs in theatres. And, since I use motion pictures as a way to teach my students about the history of sports in American society (in addition to reading books and academic articles and presenting lectures), the next time I teach the sports history class, students will be required to watch The Mighty Macs as they learn about how women have influenced sports in modern America.
This fall, I have been following (with pleasure) the publicity of this movie. It’s not often that a book I assign for my students to read becomes a motion picture (although it will happen again relatively soon). It already has won some awards—Best Feature and Audience Award at the John Paul II International Film Festival, Best Drama at the International Family Film Festival, and Best Picture from Positive Media. So, on October 22—the day after the movie officially opened—I went to a movie theatre for the first time since June 2006. The previews looked great, and they really did not do justice to the movie.
SPOILER ALERT! Do not read further if you do not want to know what happens in the movie!
If anything, The Mighty Macs exceeded my expectations. It is a wonderful story, and it was truly an enjoyable afternoon. I found myself laughing, cheering, and just completely mesmerized by the action on the screen. If you are a fan of sports movies like Hoosiers and Rudy, you must see it. It reminded me a bit like Hoosiers with the small school (college in this case) defeating the larger one in a championship game. It reminded me a bit of Miracle with the emphasis on the importance of teamwork in achieving a goal (the scene in the culvert definitely reminded me of when Herb Brooks had the hockey team skating back and forth on the ice until one of the players said he was playing for the team, and not for himself or his college). It also reminded me of Miracle because the Soviet team clobbered the United States in a hockey game before the Olympics then lost to them in the semifinals; this time, the Mighty Macs lost to West Chester State by 42 points in the regionals yet defeated the Rams in the finals.
It was quite interesting watching the Mighty Macs struggle early in the season as they dealt with inadequate facilities and financial support and the challenges of learning to work as a team. As someone who grew up in the 1970s (and who wore something similar to the Macs’ jumpers/uniforms in gym class when playing basketball), I certainly remember how those uniforms were the school’s attempt to make us be “lady like” when playing sports (although we were allowed to wear gym shorts). Clearly, Cathy Rush influenced the lives of her players; at the end of the film, credits list the names of the members on the championship teams in 1972, 1973, and 1974, and three of them coached women’s college basketball teams and then shared those lessons with their players (Marianne Crawford Stanley at Old Dominion University, Theresa Shank Grentz at Rutgers University and the University of Illinois, and Rene Muth Portland at Penn State).
Over time, the sisters at Immaculata got behind the team and became a strong cheering section (and, when they started singing, reminded me a bit of Sister Act). Selling the college’s one resource—the skin lotion—to raise money for the trip to Chicago for the national championship tournament was definitely unexpected, yet reminded me of door-to-door sales when I was in high school to fund travel to various activities (and I’m sure everyone has heard of selling and buying band candy, but it took a creative genius to think of selling hand lotion). I must admit, though, I did find it a bit amusing that two colleges that are about seven miles apart in Chester County, Pennsylvania had to travel to Chicago to compete for the national championship in 1972.
Overall, this was a great movie, and I highly recommend it. You don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate the story. Carla Gugino is magnificent as Cathy Rush; in fact, all of the actors are outstanding. It is quite inspiring in the way it shows the dedication of these college students, and it does an excellent job of portraying life in the early 1970s. Those of us who remember Volkswagen buses, rotary telephones, plaid sport coats with striped shirts, and Converse sneakers (as the only choice for athletic footwear) will appreciate the attention to authenticity in this film.