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C. Vivian Stringer has solidified Rutgers women’s basketball team as a dominant program, but her impact on the game, and her players, extends beyond the hardwood. As one of sports’ most prolific coaches, and a mother whose successes have been met with personal tragedy, her story inspires the award-winning short film, “Coach.”
Earlier this season, Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer spoke to the press following an important win over Northwestern. The victory was the second in what’s been a winning streak that’s extended to eight and pushed the Scarlet Knights firmly into the NCAA Tournament. She didn’t want to miss the big picture of that, but she also wanted to make sure that the media had noticed that one of her freshmen had forgotten to pack her regular jersey, and needed to wear a practice jersey when she entered the game.
“Did you notice that one of our freshmen didn’t even have her uniform?” Stringer says on the postgame ZOOM call, drawing howls of laughter from other Rutgers players just off-camera, all of whom have gone through the Stringer process. “She was being a freshman. But, did you notice? That’s what’s gonna happen. And it was just typical, but it is a freshman.”
This is the legacy of Stringer. Having coached for almost 50 years now, she’s had half a century of big wins, major accomplishments, and most significantly to her and the hundreds of young women she’s worked with throughout the years, in some cases multiple generations of the same family—she’s learned to do the little things right, on the court and in life.
Stringer has fought for what matters most since she was in high school. She successfully sued her high school for the right to be on the cheerleading team, banned due to her race. She won. She wins a lot. She won at Cheyney State, taking a tiny school that launched the coaching careers of both herself and John Chaney on the men’s side to the 1982 Final Four. She headed to Iowa and did the same thing in the midwest, leading the Hawkeyes to the Final Four in 1993. And after coming back east to Rutgers in 1995, she took the Scarlet Knights to a pair of Final Fours in 2000 and 2007, helping solidify a program that is never easy to face, thanks to her vaunted 55 defense, a full-court pressure attack from all five players on the court where no inches are given and no passes go unspared.
She’s won well over 1,000 games, and her Rutgers team still remains a dangerous dark horse picked to potentially win another national title. She’s a Hall of Famer—honored in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
None of this is what Stringer wants you to know about. She wants you to know about the people she’s turned from girls into women. She wants you to know the stories. And they want you to know, too, they want to be that voice for one another.
Arella Guirantes came back to Rutgers this season. She didn’t have to—she’d have been a top-six WNBA pick if she’d left school. But she had more to learn.
And while she’s doing it, she’s always hearing from Erica Wheeler, Rutgers product turned WNBA All-Star Game MVP, about how to satisfy the demanding, but purposeful Stringer.
“We understand that we’ve got to hold ourselves to a standard,” Guirantes says, adding that she and Wheeler talk regularly. “And also, when we leave, we’ve got to do the same thing. It’s just an ongoing cycle.”
That’s how Betnijah Laney ended up at Rutgers a few decades after her mother, Yolanda, played for Stringer at Cheyney State. That’s why you see Rutgers alums back in the gym to talk to the Rutgers players of tomorrow.
It’s basketball, sure, but it’s everything. Erica Wheeler had Stringer’s voice in her head when she went to buy a house. Betnijah Laney remembered Stringer’s words as she met with WNBA teams during free agency.
Even those who leave early are imprinted by Stringer forever. Epiphanny Prince went to the WNBA after her junior season.
“It was a very difficult decision,” Prince said back in 2015. “Coach Stringer was always like a second mom to me so I felt like I was disappointing her.
And Prince returned to Rutgers to get her degree, too.
Stringer is even felt in her absence. She missed much of the 2019-20 season due to health issues. Many feared this would be the end, and no one would have begrudged Stringer the chance to relax after a half-century of molding minds and defenses alike. But the biggest challenge proved to be limiting her input and getting her to rest. Her longtime assistant Tim Eatman took over, but the idea was simply to continue Stringer’s principles, knowing he’d hear about it if he didn’t. He’s been following her since he heard her speak when he was 19 years old, a coaching neophyte, in 1985.
“My life was changed,” Eatman said. “I went right up to her afterward and told her, ‘Hey, coach, I would love to work for you.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Have you finished college yet?’”
He hadn’t. But he did. And he’s been working with Stringer, on and off, ever since.
A Stringer player is neither entirely born, nor made, Stringer says.
“They understood our history, my history. That is something that they become. And so often I will say that you break them down to build them up. And you build them up so that they are just supremely confident in what they can do, and they know what is right. And so our mindset is that we’ve been molding them into the players that they can become. And, there has to be a willingness on their part to be as tough as they can possibly be.”
It’s a combination of nature and nurture. Nature is one Stringer has spent 50 years discovering, and the nurture has sent dozens into professional basketball, yes, but hundreds more into life. It is a legacy that will live on for decades and decades after she’s finished coaching, from generations who pass on her lessons.
But C. Vivian Stringer isn’t finished coaching yet. Not even close.
Coach: A Short Film from The Undefeated on ESPN+
C. Vivian Stringer is one of sports’ most prolific coaches. She is also a mother whose successes have been met with personal tragedy. Her story inspires this award-winning short film. Stream now on ESPN+.