- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Sometimes it will surprise her young charges when Rutgers women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer casually drops a pop-culture reference into conversation. Beyonce this or Ne-Yo that. It's actually not calculated on her part, but rather stuff she has picked up.
"I think that in order to continue to relate well to young people, you need to be current," Stringer said. "And developing those relationships -- that's not draining to me. While the job itself can be stressful, I'm always rejuvenated by working with young people."
After Rutgers snapped a four-game losing streak Tuesday, Stringer picked up her 900th victory as the Scarlett Knights beat South Florida. It was a historical win for the Rutgers program and for Stringer, putting her in the 900-win group of women's coaches, joining Pat Summitt, Jody Conradt and Sylvia Hatchell.
Summitt and Conradt are retired from their head coaching positions at Tennessee and Texas, respectively, while North Carolina's Hatchell got her milestone victory on Feb. 7.
Stringer, who will turn 65 in March, started coaching in 1971 and has been in this business for twice as long as most of her current players have been alive. She says she has no plans to stop anytime soon, and her energy is continually replenished by the youthful company she keeps: not just her players, but her granddaughter and her niece's daughter, a pair of adventuresome 3-year-olds who both think of Stringer in "cherished grandma" terms.
The Scarlet Knights are 15-12 overall and 6-8 in the Big East; this was just their third victory in February. Yet each win pushes the Scarlet Knights closer to an 11th consecutive NCAA tournament bid.
By the same token, each loss moves them further away from that. Before Tuesday's victory, Rutgers dropped four consecutive games, falling to DePaul, Connecticut, Syracuse and St. John's. The Scarlet Knights have won just two true road games. But Stringer intends to battle for that Big Dance berth, and while it's not on her radar right now, she has also prepared for Rutgers' upcoming move to the Big Ten, a conference she previously coached in while at Iowa.
If others wonder about her coaching future, if they have begun to doubt that the Naismith Hall of Famer is still up to the task, they should be prepared to face Stringer's wrath. For Stringer, the fight-or-flight response typically gravitates to the fight. But how many rounds does she still have in her?
"You either pass or you'll pass," is one of the sayings she repeats to her players.
"It means that you're either going to pass the test that is before you," Stringer said, "or you won't. You'll just pass on through and keep going."
It's a concisely pragmatic slogan for a woman who tends to use a lot of words at times, verbiage you must wade through to get to the kernels of what she most wants you to hear. Those kernels are always there, though, even if you have to work to grab hold of them.
Stringer is multifaceted in very human ways. She can be insightful and funny. She can be testy and sarcastic. She can see the big picture and the smallest details. She can be brusque and defensive. She can be warm and abundantly kind.
"It's that side -- she's very caring and wants to make sure that everyone is OK -- that's something people outside may not see as much," said Tasha Pointer, a former player for Stringer who now is one of her assistants at Rutgers. "Especially with players from a home front standpoint, she wants to know that they're emotionally doing all right. She understands on so many levels how many obstacles they have to overcome.
"The best times, I personally think, are when we're traveling and you're able to just sit with her and talk about things. She believes if we can get our young people to keep improving, they'll be where they should be at the end. And as long as she has breath in her lungs, she's going to keep coaching."
Long winding road
If you submitted the script of C. Vivian Stringer's life to be filmed, you might be accused of pushing the dramatic melancholy too far. Surely no real person could have so many of her professional highs countered by grief or trauma. Or, for that matter, also have periods of relative personal calm disrupted by professional challenges.
Even those very familiar with Stringer's story, when they review it again, can find it amazing that she has made it through. For the full effect, it's best to read Stringer's autobiography, "Standing Tall," which was published in 2008.
That was the year after the aggravatingly absurd Don Imus controversy, when thoughtless, shock-jock remarks sparked a national conversation (of sorts) that ultimately only tangentially involved Rutgers.
The ignorant, hurtful insults embroiled the Scarlet Knights in a news-cycle frenzy that spun wildly soon after the team lost to Tennessee in the NCAA title game. Long after the media circus had moved on, Stringer and the Rutgers program still felt the sting of having been caught in the verbal equivalent of crossfire.
To have the good vibes of a championship-game appearance practically disappear in such a maelstrom likely would have embittered a lot of coaches. But it was hardly the worst thing that Stringer had been through.
She lost her father -- a hard-working man she idolized -- when he passed away on Thanksgiving 1972, shortly after she'd married Bill Stringer and began her coaching career at Cheyney State in her native Pennsylvania.
The Stringers' daughter, Nina, was afflicted with spinal meningitis when she was 14 months old in 1981. That season, Stringer's Cheyney State team would go on to the first NCAA women's hoops title game -- played in Norfolk, Va., in March 1982 -- but her heart would be heavy as her child's life was forever changed, leaving Nina in a wheelchair and developmentally disabled.
Then, after a move to Iowa, Stringer lost her husband to a heart attack the night before Thanksgiving 1992. That 1992-93 season with the Hawkeyes would bring another trip to the Final Four -- but with Stringer now a single mother of three, missing another man she'd so admired and loved.
When Stringer went to Rutgers in 1995, it was a chance to get back to her East Coast roots, and also get away from some of the memories of what she'd lost in Iowa City.
The remarkable thing is, through all of these trials, Stringer's teams kept on winning a lot of games. Players continued to flourish in basketball, and in their lives afterward.
"When she came to recruit me to Iowa, she didn't tell me all the great things I was going to do in basketball," said Jolette Law, a former player for and assistant to Stringer. "She asked me: Where did I see myself in five years?"
At the time, Law was a high school senior in Florence, S.C. She wasn't thinking five months in the future, let alone five years. The idea of going all the way to Iowa for college was daunting, to say the least.
But Law, who is now an assistant at Tennessee, laughed, remembering that there was no greater saleswoman than Stringer.
"She kept asking me: What was my purpose?" Law said. "I thought I needed a woman like this in my life. And so I left. It was a 22-hour drive to Iowa City, but she convinced me to go there.
"She's so hungry and driven, she has that passion to be a teacher of the game. She always said, 'I want to do this, even if I don't get paid a dime for it.'"
900 what's next?
But she has gotten paid quite a lot of dimes. The investment that Rutgers made in Stringer resulted in Final Four appearances in 2000 and 2007. Rutgers graduates have succeeded in the WNBA, led by 2008 Olympic gold medalist Cappie Pondexter, who won two league titles while with Phoenix.
This past season, Rutgers graduate Tammy Sutton-Brown -- one of the players from the 2000 Scarlet Knights -- won a WNBA title with Indiana. Rutgers also has sent players such as Epiphanny Prince, Essence Carson, Matee Ajavon and Kia Vaughn to the WNBA.
"Everybody wants to be a winner, and that will never change no matter what," Stringer said. "But more important is the feeling that your life has a sense of meaning.
"A great friend of mine, coach John Chaney, used to talk to me all the time about what he told his players. That sometimes the supposed 'least' important person on the team was, perhaps, actually the most important. It's the person who sits and waits to play and often never does. But they are giving the energy that the team needs. When people have that sense of being, of contributing, that makes it worthwhile."
All of that is why Stringer has hoped to impact everyone who has come through her three programs over the years. So much has changed since the 1982 Cheyney State team essentially had to plead for charitable donations to be able to travel to the Final Four.
Now, Stringer makes more than $1 million a year, a salary figure that has brought her uncomfortable attention at times, including during this season, with Rutgers hoping to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.
Stringer has seen so many peers in coaching exit the game as they've aged, including her good friend, Tennessee's Summitt. When the two met for the NCAA title in 2007 in Cleveland, they talked to the media about marathon phone conversations over the years that sometimes lasted deep into the night, two pioneers at times reliving the "olden days."
Summitt's diagnosis of early-onset dementia and her move to a head coach emeritus role has been another difficult thing that Stringer has absorbed.
This season, Stringer has a lot of young players and the Scarlet Knights have -- like a lot of teams -- dealt with key injuries. She has heard questions about dwindling attendance and if she's capable of moving the program forward.
Milestones provide an opportunity to reflect on accomplishments. But Stringer has also been confronted with doubters. Does she still have what it takes, they ask?
Can she still recruit at a high-enough level? Can she keep the stars that she does recruit? Can they excel in her system? Is her bedrock defensive philosophy being shaken?
Stringer sees this season as a microcosm of her career: high and lows, some anger and uncertainty, some frustration, some moments of beautiful promise.
"It's kind of ironic that this season would mix all kinds of those things together," Stringer said of hitting 900 in the midst of so many questions. "You go through all those things at various times in your career, but it's all there now in this one season.
"Every team has to have at least one player who personifies that we never give up. You have to be willing to step out and risk it, be that person who can inspire somebody else. So that becomes a challenge, and we're going to have to reach really far deep inside to learn that about ourselves."
Stringer's answer comes back to this: "We'll either pass or pass."