C. Vivian Stringer of Rutgers, a trailblazer through coaching triumphs and personal tragedies
In C. Vivian Stringer’s 2008 book, “Standing Tall,” the legendary women’s varsity basketball coach recalled driving to a speaking engagement during a snowstorm in Iowa about a month after the sudden death of her husband. She was still shrouded in an intense fog of grief when she realized she had driven in the wrong direction. She stopped and broke down sobbing, thinking, “I can’t do this.”
But Stringer pulled himself together and turned around. Although she arrived late, the audience had been waiting for her. She told them exactly what had happened. And that sometimes we all feel lost, like we just can’t go on. But we dig deep and, with the help of others, we learn to thrive again.
That’s the essence of Stringer, who announced on Saturday that she was retiring as a Rutgers women’s basketball coach. She’s a larger-than-life figure who has achieved so much in her profession, but whose personal tragedies and triumphs have made her both relatable and an inspiration to so many – even if they didn’t know nothing in basketball.
Stringer was a trailblazer as a black woman. For many years, she and Marian Washington of Kansas were the most prominent black coaches in women’s basketball. They did not have the advantage of having role models; they had to be role models.
She was a pioneer in developing collegiate women’s athletics as a viable force in the sports world. She was a pioneer as a working mother who also had a chronically ill child. And she was a pioneer in helping to educate and help young people deal with the racism and sexism that has insidiously impacted their lives.
Stringer was all of that on top of being hugely successful as a coach: She won 1,055 games and took three schools — Cheyney, Iowa and Rutgers — to the Women’s Final Four. She was a giant in her industry who could still relate to those from all walks of life.
When parents were heartbroken and fearful for the future of their child with health issues, they could get advice from Stringer on how to navigate it. She could bring comfort to those who have struggled after losing a spouse or partner. She could offer advice to young professionals who felt they were going against systems that weren’t in place to embrace their presence, let alone enhance their success.
“When you’ve been in the game for as long as she has, you’ve seen and experienced so much real stuff,” said LSU coach Kim Mulkey, who as a player faced the Stringer’s Cheyney team at the inaugural NCAA Women’s Championship. match in 1982. “Sometimes people can forget that the coaches deal with the same things as them. They just see us on the pitch, but we are like everyone else in this world.
“Vivian has made the women’s game better and the coaching profession more attractive to men and women across the country. She’s just an iconic figure.”
Stringer was born in March 1948 in Edenborn, Pennsylvania, the eldest of six children. Women’s varsity athletics as we know it today did not exist back then, but Stringer was able to play basketball, softball, field hockey and volleyball at Slippery Rock University in the 1960s.
She met her husband, Bill Stringer, there and the couple married in 1971, the same year Vivian got the head coaching job at Cheyney. In 1981, their daughter, Nina, was diagnosed with spinal meningitis and has needed constant care ever since. Cheyney went to the NCAA Championship Game that season, but for the Stringers, real life had changed dramatically.
After one more season at Cheyney, Iowa called, wanting to bring in Stringer to transform their women’s program, but also promising that Nina would receive the best care possible. As someone who had spent much of her life in Pennsylvania, Stringer was hesitant. But it was a good decision for her and the Hawkeyes.
Stringer turned the program into a national contender. From the 1986-87 season to 1992-93, Iowa finished or tied for first in the Big Ten six times and finished second the other season.
With Stringer, the Hawkeyes were able to recruit top talent from across the country, players who might not even have considered Iowa otherwise. She was at the top of the college game when another heartache struck: Bill Stringer died of a heart attack in November 1992.
For the second time, Stringer took a team to the Final Four in a season in which they were emotionally devastated. But basketball and family, the two constant loves of her life, saved her. And when Rutgers came calling in 1995, Stringer took on another challenge.
Under Stringer, the Scarlet Knights made the Final Four in 2000 and 2007, and they had some of the best players in the college game who went on to become successful pros, including Cappie Pondexter, Tammy Sutton-Brown, Chelsea Newton, Essence Carson, Matee Ajavon, Epiphany Prince, Kia Vaughn, Erica Wheeler, Betnijah Laney and Kahleah Copper. Pondexter (2007) and Copper (2021) both earned WNBA Finals MVP honors.
Stringer was known for her teams’ stifling defense and exacting standards. But she was never just a coach. She was a surrogate, counselor, friend, disciplinarian, spokesperson who spoke hard truths and didn’t hesitate to speak her mind.
When radio personality Don Imus made racist comments about Rutgers players after their loss in the 2007 national championship game, Stringer was thrust into a public conversation about race. At a time when she would have much preferred to celebrate a fantastic season for her team, she and her players were instead engaged in painful but necessary national discussions.
Basketball is still trying to catch up when it comes to black head coach representation, but the progress that has been made has a lot to do with Stringer carrying that banner for so long. Defending NCAA champion South Carolina has become a powerhouse under Dawn Staley. She was born in 1970, around the time Stringer began her coaching career.
Other head coaches of black women in college with Staley who have risen to prominence in recent years – including Adia Barnes of Arizona, Joni Taylor of Texas A&M (formerly of Georgia), Kyra Elzy of Kentucky, Yolette McPhee-McCuin of Ole Miss and Amaka Agugua of Virginia-Hamilton – all know how important Stringer has been in helping their way.
The Saturday, Staley tweeted about Stringer, “The strength of your shoulders has kept us on our feet.”
Standing Up was the perfect title for Stringer’s book. That’s what she’s been doing in the coaching business for half a century. Its impact will continue to last much longer than that.