Head coach Grentz still teacher at heart

Head coach Grentz still teacher at heart

By Dave Fultz

Theresa Grentz walks out onto the court at the Ubben Basketball Complex before practice begins wearing her familiar orange and blue practice gear. The University of Illinois women’s basketball head coach strides confidently out to mid-court as her players stretch, preparing for a long afternoon of drills and conditioning.

With the first regular season game less than a week away, Grentz is also preparing for the long season ahead, this being her 12th year as head coach at Illinois – her 33rd year overall as an NCAA Division I head coach.

Grentz, already a Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame coach, has made quite a bit of noise as a player and as a coach over the last four decades. But a career in basketball was not something she aspired to at the beginning.

“I graduated (from college) in May, got married in June, and was going to raise a family,” she recalled of the summer of 1974.

But her plans quickly changed.

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“If you ever want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans,” said Grentz in an interview before a recent practice.

Sitting in her office, where a picture of her family at her Hall of Fame induction rested on a shelf, it was clear that Grentz is today many years and many miles removed from her first job as a head coach and from her days as a sixth grade schoolteacher. But she still considers herself a teacher at heart. And the players, to whom Grentz aims to teach winning lessons both on and off the court, agree.

“She’s a good motivator,” Illini junior forward Stephanie Chelleen said. “She always wants to know her players on a personal level. She’ll do anything for us.”

Grentz’s commitment to women’s basketball and to her players is as apparent as the confident, no-nonsense demeanor of the Hall of Fame coach. As the first woman to become a full-time head coach of a college basketball team, Grentz is indeed a pioneer and a legend in the sports world, though it was never her intention to become a college basketball coach. It was a journey that began in Glenolden, Pennsylvania, where she first learned to love the game.

Hoop Dreams

Grentz graduated from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania in 1974 after leading the Mighty Macs to three straight National Championships. In fact, the story of the Immaculata teams on which she played is currently making its way to the silver screen.

“They are combining the three years we won to make one movie and it is supposed to be out next Thanksgiving or Christmas,” Grentz said.

After Immaculata’s storied season of 1974, Grentz was named AMF Collegiate Player of the Year and was also drafted professionally. She chose, however, not to pursue a professional career, favoring instead to start a family and to take a job teaching sixth grade at an elementary school in Philadelphia.

“I never wanted to coach, I had no desire to, but I loved teaching,” Grentz said.

Then came the call.

St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia needed an interim coach for one year, Grentz explained. “And guess who they called,” Grentz said. “They found me.”

It was the players at St. Joseph’s who convinced Grentz to return for a second year. At the end of that year, Grentz got a call from Rutgers University, where she was hired in 1976 and became the first full-time women’s basketball head coach in the nation.

“I wasn’t even their first choice,” said Grentz, smiling in her office where pictures of family and friends line her shelves. “I was their third choice.”

Going for Gold

Under her leadership, Rutgers quickly became a national power, winning the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women National Championship in 1982, and her Lady Knights collected 434 wins for an astounding .743 winning percentage over almost two decades.

Her success at Rutgers paved the way for opportunities to coach internationally. On Sept. 10, 1990, Grentz was named the head coach of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team that would eventually take home the bronze medal in Barcelona, Spain.

“The ’92 Olympic Team was a great experience,” Grentz said. “It was the culmination of 10 years of coaching internationally.”

Three years later, Grentz was hired as the head coach at the University of Illinois and in only her second year led the Illini to the program’s first ever Big Ten title and their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in 1997.

Grentz’s Illini teams have only missed the postseason twice during her first eleven seasons. The coach’s philosophy is that developing a winner at Illinois starts with developing players both on and off the court. For her players, that translates into a lot of hard work.

“She’s always getting us to push it,” said junior forward Danyel Crutcher of her coach. “One of her great quotes is, ‘If you’re tired, get un-tired. Never let fatigue take over,'”

It is that kind of work ethic that apparently has helped Grentz amass 652 victories and six Conference Coach of the Year awards over 32 years as a head basketball coach. On June 9, 2001, Grentz was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Your classroom will be the world.”

Through it all, Grentz still managed to raise two sons, Karl, 27, a UI graduate in ’01, and Kevin, 20, a UI junior. She has been married to her husband, Karl, for over thirty years. He is a fixture at Illini games and has always supported Grentz since their days in Glenolden.

Grentz attributes her coaching success not as much to her own abilities as to the good help of others.

“You don’t do any of those things yourself,” Grentz explained. “It is really all about surrounding yourself with wonderful, virtuous people. Awards and things are just the final product of that environment.”

Those who surround Grentz see her value not only as a coach, but also as a friend and teacher.

“Theresa has a huge heart,” Assistant Coach Stacie Terry said. “She does her best to make sure that everyone is taken care of on and off the court.”

In the end, Grentz always hearkens back to something a principal at the elementary school told her as she was considering moving from sixth grade teaching to collegiate coaching:

“The principal pulled me aside and said, ‘We’ve watched you, and you are a teacher, but your classroom will not be the conventional classroom that ours is. Your classroom will be the world.'”