Gail Hook played just one season under coach Rene Portland for the Colorado women’s basketball team, yet the relationship forged that year proved to be an enduring one as Hook began her own decorated coaching career.
Hook, who is returning to her post as the girls basketball coach at Monarch following a three-season hiatus, remembers a day in May of 1980, just months after Portland completed her second and final season in Boulder, when she was tracked down on CU’s campus by a frantic and emotional Portland.
Hook’s family had been desperately attempting to reach her with the tragic news that her father had passed away back home in Maryland. In those pre-cell phone days Hook’s family resorted to calling Portland’s office, and CU’s coach then in turn was forced to find Hook to deliver the bad news.
It is a sad memory that Hook nonetheless has recalled fondly this week as news of Portland’s passing on Sunday has rippled across the women’s basketball community. Following two seasons at CU, Portland went on to compile a remarkable coaching career highlighted by 606 wins in 27 seasons at Penn State.
“I had a great experience with Rene,” said Hook, who transferred in to CU from Maryland. “I played for three college coaches and have obviously been around a lot of coaches, and I think she was one of the best motivating coaches. She was like a cheerleader and she found ways to really empower you as a player.”
Portland coached two seasons at CU — 1978-79 and 1979-80 — and put together a 40-20 record with the Buffaloes. After three seasons under the legendary Sox Walseth the CU women’s program finally rose to national prominence during the reign of former coach Ceal Barry. Portland followed a similar course when she left Boulder for Penn State.
Portland went 606-236 during her 27 seasons leading the Nittany Lions. Under her watch Penn State reached the NCAA Tournament 21 times with 11 Sweet 16 appearances, four Elite Eight berths, and one appearance in the Final Four in 2000. Portland led Penn State to seven regular-season conference crowns (combined in the Atlantic 10 and Big Ten) and seven conference tournament championships.
Hook was part of a westward migration of several East Coast-based players who transferred to CU after Portland led the Buffs to a 22-9 record in 1978-79. That group included Debbie Descano, who led CU in scoring in 1979-80 after playing for Portland during her previous stop at St. Joseph’s. Portland also is credited with helping to bring in one of the top players in the program’s history, Lisa Van Goor, though Portland had left for Penn State by the time Van Goor suited up for the Buffs.
Portland’s Penn State squads faced the Barry-era Buffs just once, with the Nittany Lions prevailing 76-57 on Dec. 2, 1995 in a game played in Hawaii. Portland was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
“She turned the whole culture around. She really did,” Hook said. “She came in and got this changed and got that changed. She really put things forward and really I thought put Colorado basketball on the map.”
Portland is survived by her husband John, four children, and seven grandchildren. Portland’s family has requested that any memorial donations be made to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund (kayyow.com).