Stringer learns you can go home again

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- You'll recall in "Casablanca," Claude Rains' Capt. Renault needles Humphrey Bogart's Rick with: "As I suspected, you're a rank sentimentalist."

OK, I might be accused of that, too, as I write about Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer's return here to Iowa.

Of course, this is the Heartland, and we're a little corny in this part of the country -- and I don't mean just the crops we plant here. When it's 16 degrees outside -- not taking into account wind chill -- and the variance in the landscape is simply different shades of brown, we might wonder why it is that we live here in the Midwest.

Then a native East Coaster such as Stringer comes back here and reminds us. She says she spent the happiest times of her life here. And we ask how those dozen years in the Midwest impacted her.

"It was strange at first -- because people moved too slow. Everybody stopped on yellow, and I thought they were going to cause me to have an accident," Stringer said, chuckling, Sunday after her Scarlet Knights had defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes 57-51 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. "But soon I found myself at peace. It was calm, and I liked people taking time to stop and appreciate family and all the other things Midwesterners appreciate.

"And I appreciated trusting that everyone was trying to do the right thing, just because they're genuine. I've had all different kinds of experiences. And the Midwest experience -- you just can't compare it. I'd like people to come and see real warmth and how people are here. I used to say, 'If you just came to Iowa one time …' "

Many women's basketball fans know Stringer's story well. But for those who don't … Born in Edenborn, she spent the first part of her life in Pennsylvania, attended college at Slippery Rock and was the women's basketball coach at Cheyney from 1971-83. Her team played in the first women's NCAA championship game, in 1982.

In 1983, Christine Grant -- the ex-Iowa women's athletic director and a legendary administrative figure in collegiate sports -- lured Stringer to take over the Hawkeyes' program. Stringer and her husband, Bill, had a young daughter, Nina, who had been disabled since contracting spinal meningitis when she was a baby. The care that Nina could get at Iowa's university hospital was a convincing factor in the family making the move.

Stringer changed the landscape at Iowa, turning it into a national contender popular with fans at a time when women's basketball was really just starting to blossom. But what should have been Stringer's sweetest season with the Hawkeyes turned into her saddest. Her husband, an exercise physiologist, died on Thanksgiving Day 1992 of a heart attack.

That 1992-93 school year was, in fact, a tragic one for the entire University of Iowa community. The grief over Bill Stringer's death was still so fresh when, in January 1993, popular men's basketball player Chris Street was killed in an automobile accident.

In March, Stringer led the Hawkeyes to the women's Final Four, where they lost in the semifinals to Big Ten rival Ohio State. And then, with the slight distraction of basketball over, the pain nearly overwhelmed Stringer. She stayed at Iowa two more seasons … then when Rutgers came calling, she knew it was an opportunity. To escape.

Stringer also has taken the Scarlet Knights to a Final Four, in 2000. Last year, her guard-led team almost gave her a fourth Final Four trip, but fell in the regional final to Tennessee. With superstar Cappie Pondexter back for her senior season, Rutgers hopes to make another Final Four run.

This weekend, though, Stringer came back to her past. She had coached here in this state since departing in 1995 -- when Rutgers played at Iowa State in the 1998 NCAA Tournament. And Stringer has two sisters who still live in Iowa City, so she returns annually to visit.

But this was her first time back in Carver-Hawkeye Arena since she left.

I guess some might say that buildings really don't "hold" memories, that only your mind does. But that's not really true. Buildings and streets and houses and restaurants are all emotional touchstones to your past, sometimes so directly connected to your heart that to see them after a prolonged time away can almost take your breath away.

For a decade, Stringer wasn't ready to be in this building again. She didn't want to stand on the "opponents" side of the court. She didn't want to look over to where Bill used to sit. She didn't want to hear the Iowa band or see the smiling people wearing yellow and black, the ones who've been there for decades now and will still be there as long as they live.

She didn't want to look around and remember everything that happened here and everything that used to be.

But then she decided it was time to return to the building.

Saturday, the emotion was a little less acute. The Scarlet Knights beat San Jose State, and Iowa beat Vermont, setting up the designed championship-game matchup in the Hawkeye Challenge. Sunday, Stringer came through the tunnel to face Iowa -- and was greeted with a standing ovation.

"I asked my assistants to walk alongside me so no one would say anything to me -- because I knew I was on the verge of tears," Stringer said. "Just before I went out, somebody had come and shared with me how they felt about my husband and what happened, and that broke me down.

"I didn't want to burden my [team] with the fact that I was coming home. They know what I feel about Iowa. But I didn't even know myself the real pressure that I felt. I had a major headache. … I composed myself; I thought, 'I have a responsibility to coach these players.' "

Her staff, though, knew Stringer might need a little extra help on this day.

"Just watching her reaction -- it made me very emotional," said Michelle Edwards, a Boston native who played at Iowa from 1984-88 and now is one of two ex-Hawkeyes, along with Jolette Law (1986-90), on Stringer's coaching staff at Rutgers.

"Because I know she had great memories here, but the way she left -- after her husband's death … there was a reason why she hadn't come back. But the fact that she did come back now says a lot. The energy level I felt coming from her -- it was like, 'Wow, this is a big deal.' "

Coach Lisa Bluder's Hawkeyes gave the Scarlet Knights a battle to the end. But with Iowa trailing by four in the final minute, Pondexter went one-on-one and scored with her more-or-less unstoppable fadeaway jumper. That was the door-slammer.

Afterward, there were a lot of people who wanted to congratulate Stringer, to say, "Welcome back" and "Thank you for coming." Former Hawkeye player Jenny Noll, who's about twice as tall as Stringer, grabbed her in a long embrace. Someone had made Stringer one of her favorite desserts, a raisin pie.

Then Stringer came in to talk to the media about beating the Hawkeyes … and admitted that as much as she loves to win, it didn't feel all that good coming against Iowa.

She said the only other time she felt so conflicted with empathy for her opponent was when she was coaching a USA basketball team against Cuba -- and Fidel Castro was in the audience.

"The coach and I happened to step outside for a minute," Stringer said. "And I thought, 'This guy needs to win more than I do.' I thought they'd put him in the salt mines or something."

Ultimately, though, Stringer wanted the victory then, of course, just like she wanted it Sunday. But when the game against Iowa ended, she acknowledged that mostly, she was relieved it was over.

"I'm happy I came back," said Stringer, who added that Iowa will make a return trip to Rutgers. "But I can say this to you: We'll have to discuss it, but I'm not sure that I want to schedule Iowa [again]. I just love them too much to compete like that. I needed to come back for a lot of reasons. Dr. Grant asked me to come, and I needed to step in the arena one more time.

"I just want to thank all the fans for their kindness and what they've meant to me and my family. I wish I could thank them all individually."

And, then, Stringer tried to pull away from the grip of the past. You have to do that, too, when you come "home" but understand that it really isn't home anymore.

"You almost have to burn some of those memories out of your mind," she said. "That was yesterday, and this is today."

Sunday afternoon in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, though, it was both.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.