Coquese Washington was introduced yesterday as Penn State's new women's basketball coach. She succeeds Rene Portland, who resigned last month after 27 seasons at State College.

Washington is a former Notre Dame star (1989-93) who served on Muffet McGraw's staff with the Fighting Irish for eight seasons, including the last two as associate head coach.

"I'm excited to be here," the 36-year-old Washington said from State College. "Penn State has so many fans and I'm looking forward to getting out in the community and meeting every one."

She becomes the first African American female head coach of any women's team at Penn State, according to university officials.

Washington's challenge will be to restore the Nittany Lions to national prominence and to move the Penn State program away from the controversies involving the 54-year-old Portland, who resigned on March 21.

Portland left with a 606-236 record at the school. The Nittany Lions appeared in the NCAA Women's Final Four in 2000, losing to Connecticut in the national semifinals in Philadelphia.

The team's record, however, has dipped in recent years. The Nittany Lions were 13-16 in 2006, their first losing season in 33 years. Penn State finished 15-16 this season.

Portland left a month after the settlement of a lawsuit. Former player Jennifer Harris alleged that Portland harassed her, perceiving that she was a lesbian, and tried to force her off the team.

Harris has said she is not a lesbian.

Yesterday, Washington addressed the positive aspects of the Portland era.

"Coach Portland was a pioneer as a player at Immaculata and as a coach," she said. "I stand on her shoulders and wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for her. I'm looking forward to building on the tradition that she established here."

At a news conference in State College, however, Washington also referred to the controversy.

"My values align with the university's policies and the university's values in terms of discrimination, so I don't really see that being an issue," she said.

Washington, a native of Flint, Mich., is married and the mother of a 2-year-old boy. Penn State first contacted her last week.

"I think this year she was ready to take a head-coaching job, but she wanted to jump in at a higher level than where a lot of people start," McGraw said. "For me, it's bittersweet because she's been with me for so long. It's like seeing your daughter leave."

Penn State will lose just two players from its current roster, Unionville High graduate Amanda Brown and Charity Renfro.

Washington played seven pro seasons, first with the American Basketball League, then with the WNBA. A graduate of Notre Dame Law School, Washington became the first president of the WNBA players' association.

"What a great hire," said Louisiana State coach Van Chancellor, who had Washington on his Houston Comets team in 2000. "I thought she was destined to be a head coach when she played for me. She was real, real sharp and smart. Penn State's getting a classy person."

Locally connected. St. Joseph's assistant Lynn Milligan will be introduced today as Rider's new coach. Rutgers associate head coach Jolette Law is scheduled to interview this week at Charlotte.

Contact staff writer Mel Greenberg at 215-854-5725 or mgreenberg@phillynews.com.