Excerpt: Rutgers' rocky start allows for record growth

In her book, "Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph," C. Vivian Stringer shares her remarkable life story and inspires readers to find this fortitude within themselves. The following is an excerpt from the book.

It was obvious, right from the beginning of the 2006–2007 season, that we were not even remotely prepared for the road ahead.

On one hand, I felt very fortunate: my coaching staff was the finest and most experienced in the country. Jolette had been with me for 12 years; Carlene Mitchell, for seven; together, the two of them had put together a great recruiting class, and knew my every thought, sometimes before I did. Marianne Stanley, an esteemed coach with experience at both the college and the professional levels, had just joined us. They were great strategists and tacticians, with a genuine love for the game and the young ladies who had been entrusted to us.

But the team was a disaster.

We started out behind the eight ball, considering three of the few upperclassmen we did have -- there were no seniors on the team -- were hurt. Junior Essence Carson came back from USA Basketball with a knee injury and wouldn't start playing until November. Kia Vaughn returned from USA Basketball with a partially torn rotator cuff. Matee Ajavon, another junior, was recovering from a recurring stress fracture in her leg and would be out until late December. Those injuries robbed us of three very important starters, leaving only junior Katie Adams and sophomore Heather Zurich on the floor -- along with five freshmen.

My teams had always been made up of strong personalities. It could be a struggle, but at least you knew where you stood. This team seemed very passive, right from the beginning. At one of our early meetings, I gave them the following scenario: "There are two horses at the starting gate; one will need to be whipped to get started, while the other is chomping at the bit, waiting for the bell to ring." Then I asked each player in turn: "Are you a 'giddyap,' someone who needs to be pushed every inch of the way, or a 'whoa'?" By the time everyone was accounted for, there were about three whoas in the group; the other seven were self-proclaimed giddyaps.

"Yeah," I thought to myself, with my head in my hands. "That sounds about right."

Unfortunately, the freshmen were used to falling back on their natural athleticism and talent. Now, talent will get you through at a high school level. You can carry too much weight, or have slow feet, or a weak left side, and your natural gifts will sustain you. Frankly, just being tall in high school can be enough. But at the college level, everyone is really talented, and the contests are decided by effort, skill, conditioning, and intensity, not what the good Lord gave you. Mental weakness can make you a prisoner of your body; you can't even get into the physical condition you need to be in. If you don't commit to training, to building your skills, to working harder and better than everyone else out there, then you're going to see all those other really talented girls dancing circles around you.

These girls made every excuse imaginable to explain why what I asked of them was impossible. Of course, I knew that they could do anything they set their mind to; what they were telling me was that they wouldn't stop eating whatever they wanted to eat, and that they would be getting up when they wanted to get up. So it wasn't entirely surprising that Jill Pizzotti, a Nike representative who came to watch an early practice, told me afterward that she'd never seen a team so out of condition in her entire life. I couldn't be upset with her for saying it: it was the simple truth. Their minds were weak, and their bodies were making them cowards. We were preparing to play one of the toughest schedules in the country against some of the biggest teams, but we weren't ready, and I knew it.

I've had a rule ever since I began coaching: no player can attend the first day of practice unless she can pass three tests proving her basic conditioning level. In 2006, that deadline arrived, and only four of the players on the team could pass.

I've never been so mad in my life. It was as if they had figured out that there was strength in numbers, telling themselves, "Well, she's got to have five players out there on the floor, so what's she going to do if none of us make the grade?" For the first time in my career, I modified the rule and started practice. At least if we were practicing, I could make them run.

Chelsea Newton, our graduate assistant (she is now playing in the WNBA), was so frustrated with the team that she called some of her former team members, who flooded me with calls wanting to know if I was getting soft: "You never would have let us step out on that floor without those tests, Coach." In fact, Cappie reminded me that I'd kept her out of practice for a week.

Some of those players reached out to the 2006 team. Mariota Theodoris called Epiphanny Prince, one of our freshmen, and asked her, "Has Coach got you practicing the 55?" referring to the very difficult full-court press that is one of my trademarks.

"Nah, she said we can play the 50," Epiphanny told her, as if it were no big thing. These girls were so young, they didn't even know what they didn't know -- but Mariota knew exactly what it meant. "Don't you understand? Coach doesn't even think enough of you to put in the 55. She doesn't think you can handle it."

Our early results on the court were absolutely dismal. It hit the girls hard; they weren't used to losing. One freshman was in hysterics after our second loss; we were only two games in, and she'd already lost more games in her college career than she'd lost the whole time she was in high school. The kindest commentators called it "a building year" for us; I was less diplomatic and told them they were the worst team I'd ever coached.

Then, at the beginning of December, we lost our home opener to Duke. The score was 85–45. We lost by 40 points on our own court.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that it was one of the most humiliating defeats I have ever suffered in my years as a coach. As the time on the clock ticked away, I called a time-out, but it wasn't to talk Xs and Os. "Turn around," I told the huddle. "I want you to look at all those people putting on their coats and walking out of this game. Those are your fans, but you're not seeing their cheering faces; you're seeing their backs as they walk away from you. They are showing you no respect because you have not given yourselves respect. You don't deserve their support or their time."

After that game, I took action. If they didn't want to work to deserve the privileges they were awarded as part of the team, they could see what life was like without them. "You think you can show up with your natural skills and read yesterday's newspaper clippings?" I said. "Wrong: you don't automatically inherit the accolades of those who came before you. Privileges are conferred to the team. If you don't act like a team, they can and will be taken away."

In practical terms, that meant I didn't allow them in the locker room; they had to dress in a hallway or in a bathroom and return to the dorms to take a shower. I also took away their laundry privileges, so they had to wash their own clothes. Next I took away their practice uniforms, and if it hadn't been an NCAA rule that teams have to wear uniforms during games, I would have taken those away too. If you'd come to one of our practices in those weeks, you would have seen a bunch of ragamuffins wearing mismatched shorts and shirts, a Division I team looking like a bunch of bums off the street. To my mind, that was pretty darn near the truth. Why pretend to be a team? We weren't acting like it, or practicing like it, or playing like it. Teammates make sacrifices for one another, and these girls hadn't.

In order to succeed at this game -- or, I believe, at anything -- you have to see yourself as an essential part of the win. Years ago, when I coached at Iowa, I looked down the bench for someone to put into our Final Four game against Ohio State. I looked in particular at one kid and she looked away. Later, I asked her, "The night before that game, did you see yourself helping us? Did you see yourself sinking the winning basket? Did you see the sweat on your clothes, and the confetti?" She said that she had been convinced that we would win -- but that wasn't what I had asked her. She saw other people doing the work, she didn't see herself there, and, sure enough, when it came time for her to step in and make a difference, she couldn't do it.

I saw something very similar with this team. They had come to play for Rutgers because they wanted to be part of a program that was respected by everyone. But for each of them, there was a crucial piece missing: they didn't see themselves having to do the work to earn that respect. As they were learning, the Scarlet Knights can disappoint as much as any other team if the people on that team don't work hard to uphold the tradition.

I believe that there were three different turning points during the season. The first happened, appropriately enough, on New Year's Eve.

The kind of leadership I'd been looking for often comes from the seniors on the teams, so the coaches and I told the upperclassmen that we were making them all honorary seniors; maybe, we thought, we'll get the equivalent of one whole senior out of it. But our real senior leadership came from a surprising quarter: some of my former players.

We'd had a practice in the morning on New Year's Eve, and met up again at three for dinner in the locker room. At 4:30 p.m., I was lecturing before we went back out onto the court, when suddenly Tammy Sutton-Brown and Cappie Pondexter walked into the room. They'd just gotten off a plane from Turkey, where they'd been playing on the same team. Concerned about what they'd been hearing, they got right to work. Tammy shared with the team how weak in mind, body, and spirit she'd been when she came to play for me, and how much better and stronger she'd become. She talked about the kind of respect that the other players in the league had for a Rutgers University player and what it meant to be a meaningful part of a team.

I asked the two of them if they'd like to participate in practice. "That's what we came to do, Coach." When we got out to the floor, I saw that they weren't alone. There was Nikki Jett, who was working at the time as a basketball coach in New Jersey. There was Michelle Campbell, who had been playing in Israel. There was Maury Horton, back from playing in Europe. As soon as she saw them, Chelsea quickly changed from her office clothes into basketball shorts too. And before we started, each one of my former players took two of the younger ones to a corner or to a basket to talk.

The practice was an education. When the centers saw Tammy flick a chest pass almost three-quarters of the court with crisp precision, they finally saw why I'd been so impatient with the soft, slow, sloppy passes they'd been making. When they saw her cut across the lane and sit down in the post, so wide and so graceful and with such a powerful presence, they saw how different it was from the timid, small stance they'd been taking.

When Cappie ripped the ball out of Epiphanny's hands at half-court, she asked her, "Didn't Coach tell you not to move the ball into the coffin corner? And didn't she tell you to step the dribble off just before you make that pass?" Piph smiled in amazement: "You said it in the exact same way Coach did."

Brittany Ray, who never could seem to get herself free for a shot, heard Maury Horton explain how to put her top leg on top of the defense, sit, seal with the inside hand, and explode out at an angle to catch the pass. "And be sure you show that hand the whole time," she told her. Brittany dropped her head: "Yeah, that's just what Coach said."

After what seemed like a minute, I looked at the clock, and realized that it was actually 10:30 p.m. and it was New Year's Eve! My former players had only three days at home, and yet, on the most festive night of the year, they were sweating in a gym, demonstrating, by word and by example, what it meant to have real sisterhood in the Scarlet Knight family. When I saw how much had been accomplished, I could only be grateful that these former players had given of themselves one more time. I felt the pride of a mother watching her older kids helping the younger ones. My team understood I wasn't asking them for anything I hadn't asked of these all-stars, and they saw what they could achieve if only they'd listen. They saw the love and respect I had for my former players, and I believe they wanted to know what that was like.

The next turning point took place during the game against Mississippi, when all of our starters fouled out. All of a sudden, it was the babies who had to play this game against a top-20 program -- and they stepped up. Three freshmen with three overtimes, and they managed to win that game. I was absolutely stunned. You hope your players are prepared, but you never know what's going to happen in a do-or-die situation.

After that game, the whole team dynamic changed. The upperclassmen looked at the freshmen and said, "Wow." When their backs were against the wall and they had nothing but themselves to rely on, the freshmen had come through. More important, the young players gained a great deal of confidence from seeing what I had been telling them all along: that they were capable of making a difference.

The third turning point was in a game against the University of Pittsburgh. The only way we could possibly win the game was to play the 55, our famed full-court press. I knew that they knew how to do it, but I also knew that they had never worked hard enough to master it. This particular press is very effective in forcing your opponent to make mistakes, but it is also extremely taxing for the players. If it's going to work, you can't be slow or lazy.

We stood in the huddle, and I said, "We can't allow them to set up at half-court. There's only one way to win: we have to go into the 55." I asked them if they were ready. I knew they were; I could see it in their faces. They had lost enough; now they were ready to win.

So they went back out there and they began to press. Lo and behold, they saw it work. They saw how quickly Pittsburgh fell under the pressure they were applying. Finally, they understood the "why" behind all of the hard work, the drills, the early morning runs. This was why. They saw the fear in their opponents' eyes and they heard the roar of the crowd. At long last, what they'd put in was beginning to pay off.

The next day the freshmen stood in formation, ready to run suicides rather than ask questions to delay me. "If it's going to get done, it's going to have to be done by you," I had told them over and over. "That's the only way it's going to work." Sometimes, players have to get desperate before they understand what you've been saying. Now I didn't have to convince them anymore.

Once the 55 was in place, our opponents began to fall, and our team never looked back. When the girls were finally able to get past the idea that they were going to die from the effort, they gave me everything. They were working together and completely unified; nobody had another agenda. That run was something to see; sometimes, it seemed like the girls couldn't believe it themselves. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that the early part of the season had been an opportunity for these young women: it allowed them to see who they really were.

"Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph" is published by Random House. This excerpt is run with permission of the publisher.