Imagine a young Vince Lombardi wandering into a tiny private college and agreeing to coach the misfit, no-budget football team for $450. That is the type of impact made by 22 year-old Cathy Rush, the greatest coach you’ve probably never heard of – until now – when she first set foot on Immaculata College in 1970. This weekend, The Mighty Macs arrives in theaters and will acquaint viewers with this charismatic coach and the team she led to basketball history.
In the opening scene of the film, Cathy (Carla Gugino), drives her VW van into the sleepy campus of Immaculata College, an all-girls school (at the time) in Pennsylvania. With curly blonde hair, megawatt smile, of-the-moment dress and sky-high heels, she is a stark contrast to the simply dressed college women and the nuns in full habit. Cathy sashays into the office of the Reverend Mother St. John (a remarkable Ellen Burstyn) to answer an ad for a women’s basketball coach. She is the only applicant and has no coaching experience but speaks passionately about turning the women into athletes. The Reverend Mother raises an eyebrow. “Just calm their hormones.”
Coach Rush is immediately beset with daunting challenges. The school’s gym burned down, so she is forced to hold practices in a tiny facility used by the nuns for exercise. The court is so small that the walls mark the boundary lines. Several women who show up for tryouts leave in a huff when asked to dive for the ball, declaring it “unladylike,” and the handful of players who remain are not particularly motivated to practice hard or adopt a winning attitude.
Introducing some rather unorthodox coaching practices, Rush gradually forms the team into a cohesive unit, but the obstacles continue to mount. She has no budget, no transportation and no fans to watch her players compete. The only uniforms available are blue wool jumpers that make the team look like a group of Dorothy-from-the-Wizard-of-Oz clones invading the court. Then there is added stress at home. Her husband Ed (David Boreanaz), an NBA referee, wants her to settle down and raise a family and has little faith in her abilities as a coach.
Like most true-to-life sports films, we all know where this is going and how it will eventually end. To be truly great, a Cinderella story must enchant viewers despite its known or predicted outcome, and The Mighty Macs delivers.
The combination of seasoned actors like Burstyn, Gugino and Boreanaz and the fresh-faced newcomers who portray the players (college students who both study drama and play ball) is effective in giving a dose of reality to the film. The game sequences are exciting and packed with action. Director Tim Chambers avoids heavy-handed sentimentality and includes frequent humorous moments. We root for Cathy Rush, the Mighty Macs, and the tiny underdog college in danger of being sold to the highest bidder because the characters are well developed and the script well-written. With a squeaky-clean “G” rating, the whole gang can share popcorn and enjoy a true family film.
I appreciated the movie’s portrayal of Catholic nuns. They all had unique personalities and a sense of humor and were not depicted as caricatures. (Interestingly, several of the real Mighty Macs players portray various nuns in the film.) It’s worth noting that The Mighty Macs script was the first to be approved by both Cathy Rush and Immaculata College (now Immaculata University), despite many past film proposals.
My only complaint is that the film dragged on a bit in the beginning before the actual games began, and I felt that the marital conflict between Cathy and Ed was wrapped up too neatly.
If you still need convincing that Cathy Rush compares to Vince Lombardi, you might be interested to know that her record as a coach was 149-15, including a 35-game winning streak. This was before Title IX and its effect on college recruiting of female athletes. An article on ESPN.com states, “Drawing from an undergraduate enrollment of 400 female students, without scholarships or even a physical education major, the Mighty Macs of Immaculata won the first three national championships (1972-74) under the banner of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).”
Although they did not win any more championships, Rush led the Macs to the Final Four the next three consecutive years. She was still coach when the Macs played in the first televised women’s basketball game and were the first to play in Madison Square Garden. Cathy Rush was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
Another mark of a great coach is that his or her players go on to become great coaches. Again, Cathy Rush excels. Many of her players, including Theresa Shank Grentz, went on to coach at all levels of women’s basketball, from high school to nationally-ranked college teams. As Rush stated in an interview on TrailerAddict.com, “Here’s a diverse group of women, all backgrounds, that came together and not only was the basketball great, but their lives became great. They believed in themselves. They had other people who believed and trusted them, and they went on to do remarkable things.”
Note: If you want a glimpse of the real Cathy Rush, pay close attention to the scene where Carla Gugino (as Cathy) cashes her paycheck at a local bank. Coach Rush is the teller who hands her the cash.
The Mighty Macs opens nationwide on October 21st. The film is rated G.
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