Continuing on 3 previous articles written (‘written’) during Black History Month, I thought that instead of looking back into the distant past I’d take a look at the present-day Big Ten. Turns out that for this article I can do a bit of both: reflect on a person who literally helped get a fledgling sport off of the ground 46 years ago, and who’s still coaching today. Additionally, this person coached at not just one but two Big Ten schools.
Who's the first person you think of when the topic of women's college basketball head coaches is mentioned: Geno Auriemma? Pat Summitt? Jody Conradt? One would be remiss if the name C. Vivian Stringer isn't likewise mentioned in the same context as Auriemma or Summitt. Despite not capturing a National Championship in her 46 seasons as a head coach; Stringer has led women's college teams to 994 victories and in 2009 was honored in the Naismith Hall of Fame. And Stringer, who will turn 70 in March, is still going strong as head coach of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. It hasn't been easy at times for Stringer. In addition to being one of the first coaches when women's college basketball was in its infancy in the early 1970s, she was also one of the first African-American head coaches of any major college sport.
Stringer grew up in Edenborn, Pennsylvania and at an early age showed the determination that would be her trademark. Stringer filed a lawsuit against her high school because she was denied a spot on the cheerleader squad because she was African-American. She won the case and was given a spot on her high school cheerleader team; something that even in Pennsylvania was an event of some significance in the mid 1960s.
After attending Slippery Rock State University and being a 4-sport star, Stringer got her start at Cheyney State as women’s basketball coach in 1972 (at the age of 24). Stringer got her team to the Women’s Final Four in 1982 (the first of 5 appearances), and returned to the NCAA Tournament in 1983. This made enough of an impression on University of Iowa Athletic Director Bump Elliott that Stringer was hired in 1983 to reverse the fortunes of the Hawkeyes women’s basketball that had gone 7-20 (2-16 in conference play).
Beginning in 1985, the Hawkeyes won at least 20 games and made the NCAA Tournament 9 times. This included 3 Elite Eights and a an appearance in the 1993 Final Four. Stringer’s best season was 1987-88 when the Hawkeyes went 29-2; with one of those 2 losses to Long Beach State in the 1988 West Regional Finals. In Iowa’s appearance in the 1993 Final Four the Hawkeyes lost a heart-breaker to conference rival Ohio State. But despite losing this game, the Hawkeyes won over the Iowa fanbase, including a high schooler from Cedar Rapids Washington High School named Brenda Frese, who attended Stringer’s basketball camps in Iowa City. As Stringer was quoted as saying on her (and Bump Elliott’s) desire to raise the status of Iowa’s women’s basketball, “I’m a Pisces. I dream. And I work very hard to make my dreams become realities.” This dream manifested itself in 1985 when Iowa set a record for women’s basketball attendance in an game against Ohio State.
Stringer's impact on the Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball program, and women's basketball in general in the state of Iowa cannot be underestimated. When men's basketball coach George Raveling left to take over at Southern Cal, athletic director Bump Elliott asked Stringer for advice on who should be the next coach. At the end of the conversation, Elliott asked Stringer if she would be interested in taking over the men's team. Also, Elliott thought so highly of Stringer that he suggested that she consider running for Governor of Iowa in the 1986 elections.
During this run of success at the University of Iowa, tragic events occurred that would cause C. Vivian Stringer to make a very dramatic decision. It was during the 1992-93 Final Four season that her husband Bill died of a heart attack Thanksgiving Night 1992. Despite their 3 children being born in Iowa City, the loss of her husband was too much for Stringer to remain in Johnson County. After a lackluster 11-17 1994-95 season at Iowa, Stringer left and took the Rutgers women's basketball head coach position.
Stringer took over a Scarlet Knights program that was mired in doldrums similar to Iowa was when she arrived in Iowa City. By season 3, 1997-98, Stringer had Rutgers in the Sweet 16. An Elite 8 finish occurred the next season, with the Scarlet Knights making the first of 2 Final Fours for 1998-99. Following up on the 6 Big Ten Championships earned at Iowa, Stringer led Rutgers to 3 Big East Regular Season Championships and the 2007 Big East Tournament Championship. While perhaps sounding like a step backwards, take note that Geno Auriemma's UConn Huskies were in the Big East at that time. During her tenure coaching Rutgers in the Big East, Stringer led the Scarlet Knights to 5 Elite 8's and 2 Final Fours.
Stringer’s strength was most apparent in 2007. Radio shock-jock Don Imus made a very inflammatory remark, calling the Rutgers women's basketball team a group of 'nappy-headed hos'. Showing the dignity, strength, and class of their head coach the Scarlet Knights women's basketball responded in unison - along with their head coach - at a press conference at Rutgers Louis Brown Athletic Center. Stringer's speech also described both the discrimination she personally and her team faced and the dedication her players put forth each and every day. Don Iums' comments cost him his job with CBS; C. Vivian Stringer's passionate response showed a determined and dignified strength-of-character that was and is a trademark throughout her coaching career.
Depending on how the remainder of the 2017-18 season plays out, C. Vivian Stringer could very well get win #1000, joining very elite company: UConn's Geno Auriemma, North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell, Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, and former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt in women's basketball; and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski in men's basketball. When Stringer began coaching at Cheyney State in 1972 she didn't get paid; recently Stringer signed a contract extension with Rutgers through the 2020-21 season paying her $3.4 million (minus incentives) over that period. Women's college basketball has changed considerably since Stringer got her start in 1972, or even since she and Pat Summitt appeared in the first women's Final Four in 1982. Stringer authored an autobiography entitled Standing Tall. And it can honestly be said that a true coaching and Big Ten great after all of these years is still standing tall.