- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer jokingly suggested that since it was so difficult for DePaul to get to the East Coast over the weekend, perhaps the Blue Demons should have stuck around instead of heading back to Chicago after their game Sunday in Connecticut.
The Blue Demons fell 91-44 at Gampel Pavilion, where they didn't arrive until less than two hours before tipoff because of the Northeast's weather issues.
"I should have told Doug [Bruno] to just come down here and play," Stringer said of the Blue Demons' longtime coach. "You know, since they were already out here."
Instead, as scheduled, the Scarlet Knights will play at DePaul on Tuesday in a game that could bring Stringer her 900th career victory. You can understand why Stringer would prefer to be playing at the Rutgers Athletic Center, where the Scarlet Knights are 11-1 this season as opposed to their 2-7 road record.
Rutgers got victory No. 899 for Stringer on Saturday against Cincinnati, moving the team to 14-8 overall and 5-4 in the Big East. It has been a frustrating season at times for the Scarlet Knights, who are trying to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.
Stringer, in her 42nd year as a head coach, has been through countless highs and lows during successful runs at Cheyney State, Iowa and Rutgers. It's a career marked by professional triumphs and personal tragedies, plus a few controversies -- some of which, such as the 2007 Don Imus mess, were completely out of Stringer's control.
Others, though, she has contributed to herself. Such as when her frustration boiled over Friday as she was questioned by Newark Star-Ledger columnist Dave D'Alessandro about her team's difficulties, which follow three consecutive early-round exits from the NCAA tournament.
Stringer went on a rant, giving the writer all the fuel he needed to set fire to Stringer's legacy, casting her as an overpaid, out-of-touch, paranoid has-been who can't take the heat that a coach with her salary and expectations is bound to face.
Unfortunately for Stringer, she set herself up for the roasting thanks to quotes like this one, as reported by the Star-Ledger's Dave Hutchinson: "Just back it off. Just back the crap off. I'm not dealing with that. I know what I've done. You know and I know that this program has been the star of this university in athletics for the past 15 years. So you really think I want to hear about the last three years?"
Hardly a diplomatic response, especially as Stringer went on to disparage -- perhaps inadvertently -- other athletic programs at the university. It was a tirade that surely made her supporters cringe and her critics cackle, but both would likely agree it was vintage Stringer.
When Stringer feels challenged, she comes out swinging. In this particular case, too many of her verbal punches caused self-inflicted damage. The Scarlet Knights are having a down season, and Stringer's $1 million salary brings her scrutiny in the win-loss area that, frankly, many women's hoops programs don't get with the frequency that their men's hoops counterparts do.
By the same token, Stringer would counter that some of her harshest critics don't actually follow women's basketball and therefore don't accurately put into context her program's ups and downs. She has a valid point, but it still doesn't change that Stringer probably should have kept a lid on herself.
That said, anger has typically been a motivator for Stringer, who remains convinced that the Scarlet Knights are coming together again and have their best days ahead. She has a similar belief in her own future -- that she can still reach the pinnacle with a national championship.
That won't be this year, though. Youth and injuries have combined to make this an even more offensively challenged team than usual for Rutgers, which traditionally wins with defense. But when you have just two players -- Monique Oliver (10.7 ppg) and Erica Wheeler (10.1) -- averaging in double figures, plus 441 turnovers to 303 assists, you put a ton of pressure on your defense. No matter how much that's your specialty.
The testimony to Stringer from former players and devoted co-workers is voluminous, and their gratitude is sincere. Her impact on women's basketball is incredibly profound. She has led all three schools she has worked at to the Final Four, most recently with Rutgers in 2007.
Whether Stringer is just in a rough stretch or something more significant and ominous will play out over the remainder of this season and into 2014, when her contract is set to expire.
For the immediate future, though, Stringer and the Scarlet Knights are just concentrating on trying to have a strong finish in the Big East. Which is going to be difficult. Stringer's win No. 900 could come Tuesday night -- or it might not happen for a while.
Four of Rutgers' next five opponents -- DePaul, UConn, Syracuse and South Florida -- are ahead of the Scarlet Knights in the Big East standings. The other foe in that stretch, St. John's, is tied with Rutgers.
So a historical celebration for the Scarlet Knights could come Tuesday in Chicago. But if it takes longer, Stringer will have to keep plugging away -- just like she has for the past four decades, in the good times and the bad.
12dBonnie D. Ford