When in the late summer of 1969, three weeks after Woodstock, Mel Greenberg arrived at The Inquirer, women's college basketball was virtually invisible - widely viewed as an insignificant pastime for physical-education majors.

Very few women played the game, very few schools had teams, and very few media outlets even acknowledged its existence.

But today, thanks in large part to Greenberg, 63, who is retiring this week after 40-plus years at The Inquirer, that onetime shadow world is considerably brighter.

There are 338 women's teams in 37 college conferences. Their highlights are regularly featured on ESPN's SportsCenter. And in many places, such as Connecticut and Tennessee, women's teams are at least as popular and successful as their male counterparts.

"Mel is the godfather of women's basketball," said Geno Auriemma, the coach who has transformed Connecticut into the most recognizable team in women's sports. "He has been around so long that he wrote his columns by hand. In pencil.

"More then any other writer or member of the media, Mel made an impact on the way people viewed the sport and he's a huge reason why the game has attracted more coverage."

In 1976, four years after Title IX mandated equal athletic opportunities for women, Greenberg helped launch the first top-20 poll for women's basketball. In the process, he became the first writer to cover that sport for a major daily newspaper.

The indefatigable Northeast Philadelphia native quickly developed into the game's most passionate and visible advocate. Known as "The Guru," Greenberg promoted the sport, its stars, and coaches at every opportunity, even when it meant battles with editors who didn't always share his zeal.

That devotion was recognized officially in 2007, when Greenberg was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. And the Women's Basketball Coaches Association's annual award honoring the media member who contributes most to the sport is named in his honor.

"There probably couldn't have been a better person to embrace our sport," said Jim Foster, the Philadelphian who began his career at St. Joseph's and now coaches Ohio State's women. "Mel is a bulldog in getting and providing information. He's tireless."

Indeed, it often seemed that Greenberg never slept. He not only attended and wrote about games, compiled the poll data, and worked the telephone like a mad maestro, he also served as an editorial clerk with myriad unrelated duties at The Inquirer.

He famously acted as host for many of The Inquirer's hospitality suites at state and national conventions. He became the paper's official Pulitzer Prize courier, delivering the often-victorious entries to judges in New York. In the days before computerized returns, he ran election results from City Hall to The Inquirer building.

And, for a while in the 1980s and 1990s, he shuttled a velvet, garishly awful painting of John Wayne back and forth among the newspaper's top editors.

For years, when an editor turned 50, he could expect to get the Duke painting, often delivered in outlandish fashion by Greenberg.

In 1993, when the late Steve Lovelady hit that milestone, he was vacationing in a remote village in France. Then-national editor Ashley Halsey worked out an itinerary, and Greenberg, painting in hand, was dispatched to deliver it.

But by far his most lasting imprint at The Inquirer was as the nation's first women's basketball writer.

Three months after graduating in 1969 with a journalism degree from Temple, where he was the manager of the school's NIT-winning men's basketball team, Greenberg took a job as an Inquirer clerk.

In the early 1970s, while Greenberg was working in the newsroom, tiny Immaculata rose to prominence with its first women's national title in 1972, and followed that with championships the next two seasons.

The success of coach Cathy Rush's Mighty Macs sparked interest here and elsewhere, so much so that by 1976, Inquirer sports editor Jay Searcy had asked Greenberg to put together a women's poll that would mirror the men's rankings. At the time, most newspapers ignored the sport, not even listing its scores on the agate page.

"Immaculata put women's basketball on the map," Greenberg said. In 1978-79, the Associated Press began carrying the poll, crediting Greenberg and The Inquirer.

"All of a sudden," Foster said, "papers started printing the poll. Then came the scores. Pretty soon there were people covering our games and writing about them."

Foster said Greenberg was there, in an upstairs room at Doc Watson's Pub on 11th Street, when the Women's Big Five was founded. Greenberg, who wrote hundreds of stories on its games over the years, is now a member of that organization's Hall of Fame, as well as the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.

The College Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) made him the first women's writer to receive its Jake Wade Award, given to a media member who has contributed to collegiate athletics.

Having carved out his niche, Greenberg was tireless in trying to expand it. He would telephone coaches at all hours of the day and night. He wrote features, drove to games in Virginia, Connecticut, North Carolina, and pleaded for sports-section space for his stories. And anyone who was willing to listen to his enthusiastic spiels - as well as many who were not - got to hear about coaching vacancies, scoring records, and locker-room anecdotes.

"A few months into the poll, he was an expert in women's college basketball," Searcy recalled in 2007. "He knew every coach, or they knew him, and the poll was being picked off the wire and used nationwide. He was quoted, invited to black-tie parties, and to speak at banquets. He was an instant star among the coaches, but nobody at The Inquirer knew it."

Greenberg ceded control of the poll in 1994, but the Associated Press continued the rankings using media members, and Greenberg became a voter and maintains the poll's historical statistics.

"He's an icon," said Nancy Lieberman, a women's basketball legend who now works for ESPN. "The game owes him a great deal. Before anyone else cared about or covered women's basketball, his poll kept us all in touch."

In the 1990s, when the information revolution got rolling, Greenberg leaped on board. His Women's Hoops Guru blog, which he will continue in retirement, remains must-reading for the game's insiders.

He also has helped develop a new generation of journalists interested in the women's game, many of whom contribute to the blog.

"He has opened doors in the sport and for journalism," said Kayla Goldman, a University of Central Florida student who, because of Greenberg's help, has written on the sport for newspapers and blogs. "He did not open these doors for himself. He opened these doors for those that would follow. It's sad to see he's retiring."

Greenberg's reputation was such that, inside the sport at least, he was more popular than politicians.

When then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards gave the keynote speech in 1991 in New Orleans during a banquet at the Women's Final Four, she drew enthusiastic applause that lasted 45 seconds.

Greenberg then received his award. The enusing ovation lasted 90 seconds.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068