Commentary

Summitt's move sad for Stringer

Updated: April 19, 2012, 10:50 PM ET
By Joanne C. Gerstner | espnW

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It was painfully clear that Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, who is usually never at a loss for words, was searching and struggling to find the right way to express herself early Wednesday evening.

She had just finished a speaking engagement at the University of Michigan, discussing her career and the impact of Title IX, and was headed to the airport for a flight home.

Stringer was trying to grasp the impact of Pat Summitt's stepping down as Tennessee coach to become head coach emeritus. Longtime assistant Holly Warlick will become head coach.

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
AP Photo/Mel EvansC. Vivian Stringer and Pat Summitt, shown here in 2009, developed their friendship as young coaches in the early '70s.

This was more than Stringer analyzing a seismic shift at a rival basketball program. This is personal and clearly hit Stringer close to her heart and soul.

Summitt and Stringer have been friends since the early 1970s, when they were both young coaches trying to find their way. Their lives, and careers, have advanced together, through the milestones they shared.

Summitt is the winningest coach in women's college basketball, Stringer is third. They're both in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. And they're close friends, celebrating the births of their children, mourning the unexpected loss of Stringer's husband in 1992, and now sharing the journey of Summitt's battle with dementia.

"I can't separate that, you know, that is Pat Summitt, one of the most amazing women, coaches, leaders, teachers, friends that I know," Stringer said. "I don't want to think of Tennessee without Pat. I can't. I hate this. I don't want this to happen. This is not how it was supposed to end for her. We've done this together for so long, I don't want that to stop."

Stringer and Summitt, along with fellow coaches Colleen Matsuhara, Theresa Grentz, Kay Yow and Jill Hutchinson, got together to start the Women's Basketball Coaches Association in 1981. They were also active in the now-defunct Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).

Stringer and Summitt have been on numerous coaching committees and heavily involved with USA Basketball, giving them many chances to work together and bond.

Stringer recalled many fun times shared with Summitt, often discussing the now-unthinkable things they did as young coaches, such as driving the team van or begging administration for adequate food and facilities for their players.

"Ooh, the things that Pat and I have seen," Stringer said, adding a laugh and shaking her head. "I think that's what's made us so close; we shared something, we shared a time that you had to be there for. Pat and I have shared so many things together. That's what's hitting me, all the memories and things like that."

Stringer told a story, dating from 1995, when she was about to leave Iowa for Rutgers. She was with Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer and Summitt at a coaches meeting, privately discussing Stringer's impending big move and what it would mean.

"We all run our programs in a similar way, and we wanted to continue the standard of excellence," Stringer said. "Tara was holding down the West Coast, Pat was holding down the South, and I was going to the East Coast to hold it down. We had the U.S. covered. We laughed about that, but we were serious. That meant something for all of us to have ourselves being successful, with class and dignity. Pat, and Tara too, always does everything with class and dignity."

It still doesn't seem real to Stringer that she is hitting the road to recruit players while Summitt's career will be shifting because of her illness.

"I'll say it again, this is not the ending that Pat should have, but it shows you something deep," Stringer said. "You are not in charge, God is. You can be anybody, from powerful to on down, and you are not in charge. We are not ordaining our paths in this world. It's just too soon for me for this to be what Pat has to do. It doesn't sit right with me. I love Pat, and I want her to be healthy and strong and happy and doing what she does best. That's all I want."

Joanne C. Gerstner

Contributor, espnW.com
Joanne C. Gerstner is a staff writer with espnW. She is an award-winning sports writer, having covered the Olympics, NBA and college sports. Her work has regularly appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Detroit News. You can follow her on Twitter @joannecgerstner.