There probably isn’t a nicer way to be told that Coach C. Vivian Stringer has no time to talk than the way Rutgers University put it the other day.
“Coach Stringer has been slammed this week with preparation for our Ohio State and Indiana games,” said the school’s athletic communications department. “She’s revisiting the request again next week after we play Indiana and we’ll see what we can arrange. Thanks for your patience and understanding.”
We haven’t heard back.
But we knew it would be tough getting Stringer to talk to us on such short notice—her Scarlet Knights are in a heated Big Ten conference battle, after all. Still, we had to give it a try. If you’re doing any kind of profile on African-American coaches and players who helped shape this game we love, there’s no way you can do it without spotlighting Stringer.
Though the coaching legend who’s been leading young women on the hardwood since 1972 didn’t have time for us, she’s made a career out of going beyond expectations for others. An Edenborn, PA native who attended Slippery Rock University, Stringer showed this side during her first coaching job at Cheyney University (then Cheyney State, the country’s oldest historically black college).
“No one should feel less than for any reason,” Stringer told The Players’ Tribune during a recent reflection on her career. “It was my purpose always in life to make sure that every young woman could feel her sense of worth. Basketball actually offered me that platform.”
Cheyney didn’t have much equipment. Barely had uniforms. Stringer had to drive the girls to games. She didn’t even get a coach’s salary. But her love of the game was so strong, she did it anyway. The sacrifice paid off as the Wolves advanced to the first-ever women’s NCAA championship game in 1982. (Talk about pioneering. She wasn’t just the first African-American coach to make it to the NCAA title game; she was the first coach—period!)
After guiding Cheyney to 251 wins, Stringer moved on to the University of Iowa, a bigger institution with an actual budget and bigger facilities. But even more so than any of that, the university had the doctors who could care for Janine, Stringer’s daughter who contracted spinal meningitis as a baby, leaving her unable to ever walk or talk.
Stringer found peace in Iowa City. Though only 150 people were coming to games before her arrival, word spread around town that something special was happening in the gym. The Hawkeyes went 17-10 in Stringer’s first Big Ten season in ’83-84. An NCAA Tournament bid came in ’86. By season four or five, more than 22,000 fannies were in the stands for tip-off. And in 1993, Iowa made it to the Final Four.
Sadly, Stringer’s husband, Bill, died of a heart attack in 1992. She said that she never would have left Iowa had the tragedy not happened. But alas, after leading the school to 269 wins from ’83 to ’95, Stringer felt the time to move back closer to family had come.
Rutgers University, the largest institution in New Jersey, was no small fry in women’s college hoops before Stringer’s arrival, but the program had lost its way a bit. Vivian, who accepted the job without even looking at the roster, was determined to help the school find it.
Like the coast of Longport, things were a bit rocky initially. Stringer’s Rutgers teams went a combined 24-32 over the first two seasons. But she stayed the course. The school knew it had someone special holding the clipboard. Stringer just needed time to get things in order.
In ’97-98, Rutgers basketball took off. That squad, anchored by freshman Tasha Pointer, went to the Sweet Sixteen. The bunch the following season made it to the Elite Eight. And then in 2000, a group paced by Pointer and Tammy Sutton went all the way to the Final Four.
That appearance gave Stringer three Final Fours with three different teams, making her the first coach ever to accomplish the feat. In the 18-plus years since, there’s been another Final Four showing (2007) on top of so many other milestones—assistant coach on the 2004 women’s Olympic basketball team; University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame inductee (2006); Big East Tournament champion (2007); New Jersey Women’s Hall of Fame inductee (2012)—that the aforementioned media communications department may have run out of ways to call Stringer spectacular.
At the start of the 2018-19 campaign, Stringer had coached the Scarlet Knights to 477 victories. Add that win total to the 269 at Iowa and the 251 from Cheyney and you have 997 career wins. Only four women’s basketball coaches (Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell) had reached the 1,000-win plateau.
But if you’ve been even remotely paying attention to Stringer’s story, you know that reaching new heights is an old hat to her. So, on November 15, C. Vivian Stringer went about her coaching business as usual, leading Rutgers to a 73-44 win over Central Connecticut and etching her name in the history books yet again.
“When great things happen like this,” Stringer told ESPN after her 1,000th win, “it happens like it was instantaneously. It flashes in front of you and then it’s gone before you know it. So, I just want to take it all in and say thank you to everyone who’s wished me well. [There are] so many fans, coaches and administrators that supported me in this great passion of mine.”
And mind you, much of this brilliance has come in spite of ex-conference mate UConn’s absolute domination on the court and a few distractions away from it. With regards to the latter, there’s no reason to give retired shock jock Don Imus much airtime now, but to gloss over the on-air controversy he stirred after Rutgers’ appearance in the 2007 NCAA title game would be irresponsible.
“I was so hurt,” Stringer told The Players’ Tribune about Imus’ disgusting remarks regarding the Scarlet Knights’ physical appearance. “I was very angry. I couldn’t believe that somebody would do something like that.”
Stringer mentioned the incident in her Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech in 2009. She’s also said that Imus’ comments have cost Rutgers some recruits. Still, you won’t hear Stringer grumble. Be it racist DJs or personal tragedy, C. Vivian Stringer has always taken whatever hand she’s been dealt and played it.
She doesn’t have time to complain anyway. The Scarlet Knights have Big Ten battles yet to be played this season. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, Coach Stringer lets nothing get in the way of her game-day prep.
DeMarco Williams is a SLAM contributor. Follow him on Twitter @demarcowill.
Photos via Getty.