Commentary

Honored for past, ready for the future

Stringer slows down for induction, but can't wait to get back to coaching, teaching

Originally Published: September 10, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Vivian StringerAP Photo/Mel Evans. Vivian Stringer has a 825-280 (.747) career record, dating back to her first season in 1971.

Of course, C. Vivian Stringer hasn't been getting much sleep. Next to none, in fact. Her upcoming Naismith Hall of Fame induction has turned her into even more of a tightly wound stress ball than she normally is.

Asked if she could possibly find a way to just relax and try to enjoy this celebration of her career, Stringer said, "… well, you know, probably not.

"Check with me next week when it's over," she said. "Then I'll probably be able to sleep the whole week."

In the meantime, her head will be a jumble. That's not really unusual. If you see Stringer away from the sidelines, it often looks as if a hundred things are jockeying for position in her busy mind: ideas, concerns, fears, hopes, inspirations, dreads, irritations, possibilities.

It might be that Stringer's thoughts are most clear when she is coaching. She knows what she wants: a team that plays defense both instinctually and intellectually. When she really likes what she sees at that end of the court -- which is not often, because her standards are so high -- she feels a certain peace.

It allows her to be more patient about what might seem to others like a too-sluggish offense. Especially at Rutgers, Stringer has turned low-scoring games into an art form that will always remain pretty much unappreciated, at least aesthetically.

Stringer doesn't care, nor does she pay much attention to her critics in that regard. She believes defense can be controlled; it is not really subject to the whimsical bounces and spins that offense is.

And when you've faced so many bad things making your life seem out of control the way Stringer has, it's not surprising that you seek something you can always count on. Stringer came of age in the turbulent 1960s, began coaching in the 1970s, saw her baby daughter suffer a life-altering illness in the 1980s, and lost her husband/soul mate to a heart attack in the 1990s.

In the 2000s, she has still stayed at the top of the game. To try to sum it up in a matter of a short speech -- on the same night that Michael Jordan is talking, no less -- is akin to asking Stringer to make a months-long, globe-trotting voyage with only a small paper sack as "luggage."

Pretty much impossible … except she still has to try. It's like the Indigo Girls' line, "When my whole life is on the tip of my tongue…"

It's often that way with Stringer, the past and the present intermingling as if they actually coexist at the same time. And at this weekend's Hall of Fame ceremonies in Springfield, Mass., a look at the "future" will join them for Stringer.

How so? In this way: At 61, she does not see an end in sight for her coaching career. There is still too much to accomplish -- of course, she'd love the crowning jewel of a national championship -- and too many players she hopes to help.

So she'll be thinking of what's coming next, even though the very nature of a Hall of Fame induction is really just the opposite. It's about what you've already done, not about what you're still going to do.

"It's a great thing, but it's somehow like being able to live through your own funeral," Stringer said. "I don't mean to use those terms, quite. But most careers are probably done when people go into a Hall of Fame. So they sit back and reflect on everything.

"It's never been my intention to seek things like this. My excitement is still about the young people I work with, seeing them each year grow -- not only as players, but how they feel about themselves."


That all started in 1971 at Cheyney University when Stringer began her coaching career in her native state of Pennsylvania. She says now she wanted to be more relaxed with her players, a bit more like a friendly mentor than a taskmaster.

But she was afraid of not being able to fully establish discipline. She was very young, having recently gotten her undergrad degree at Slippery Rock. She was small of stature. She felt she had to keep some distance from the players and maintain a more stern countenance to make sure everyone knew who was boss.

"I needed to be sort of reserved and standoffish," she said. "There was more of a divide between coach and player. I don't have to be worried about that now. I feel like I'm more approachable. I can be more playful. I'll dance with the kids."

[+] EnlargeC. Vivian Stringer
AP Photo/The Detroit News, Daniel MearsThe 2009 Naismith class included (from left) C. Vivian Stringer, John Stockton, David Robinson, Michael Jordan and (not pictured) Jerry Sloan.

No, she doesn't have to be concerned that players these days might not think she's in charge. They know the legend in the game that she is.

"Oh, I'm very aware," said April Sykes, who will be a sophomore this season at Rutgers. "I researched all that when I was deciding to come here."

What Sykes or anyone interested in Stringer's history would see again and again is her ability to persevere through the hardest times. It's impossible to write about Stringer's career without mentioning all she has had to endure: her father's death when she was a teenager, the illness that left her daughter in a wheelchair, the sudden loss of her husband, her own battle with breast cancer.

That, in spite of all that, she was the first coach, man or woman, to coach three different programs to the NCAA Final Four … how in the world do you sum that up?

Stringer did so in very compelling form in her autobiography, "Standing Tall." She detailed with great emotion the many family and personal trials she has faced. She explained her coaching philosophy. She thoughtfully addressed the difficulties of dealing with Don Imus' hurtful remarks, which he tried to pass off as humor following Rutgers' appearance in the 2007 NCAA title game.

There was so very much to say in her book. How do you shorten that into a brief address at the Hall of Fame? Funny thing is, that might be one of the bigger challenges of Stringer's career.

"She's just someone who's never satisfied," said Debra Walker, who played for Stringer at Cheyney from 1979 to '82. "She is just driven by the success stories of her players. I think the feedback she gets from the people she's coached -- at Cheyney, Iowa and Rutgers -- keeps her going."

Walker, who lives in Detroit, will be in Springfield for the Hall of Fame ceremonies. She has never lost touch with Stringer.

"What she did for me was critical -- then multiply that by hundreds for all the players she's coached," Walker said. "When we were at Cheyney, she made the players feel we had the best of everything because we had each other. We could have been misled or misguided in our lives, but we weren't, largely thanks to her. The bond was built from the first day."

Walker does see that Stringer has changed a bit in regard to relating to players now. Not in what she teaches or how she cares for them … just in the same ways that Stringer herself acknowledges she's different.

"I think she's getting a little softer; you do change with the times," Walker said. "We were going three-a-days when I played, and working extremely hard. Although she continues to work hard with her players, she seems a little more relaxed now. A little more at ease. But kids are different than when we came through her system."


Last season was about the most "different" -- and not in a good way -- that Stringer can remember having.

She had recruited five McDonald's All-Americans to play along with junior star Epiphanny Prince and seniors Kia Vaughn and Heather Zurich. It was a team that seemed to have a great mix of older and younger players. That would provide opportunities for having teaching moments without losing games.

[+] EnlargeVivian Stringer
AP Photo/Tim LarsenC. Vivian Stringer's former standout, Cappie Pondexter, is a frontrunner for the WNBA MVP award this summer.

But it didn't play out quite as planned. The freshmen, for the most part, drove Stringer crazy. The seniors didn't always fulfill the leadership roles. Prince felt the weight of too often having to do everything.

Like her friend, colleague and rival Pat Summitt at Tennessee -- who also was inundated in 2008-09 with talented but inconsistent rookies -- Stringer found herself frequently frustrated by players just not "getting" it.

"Oh, gosh, it was stressful," Stringer said. "Aside from the normal coaching challenges, you have five [freshmen] in there trying to figure out who they are and what it is they really want.

"Needless to say, I was probably tested more than I ever have been before as a coach. I was looking at them some days knowing they didn't have a clue. And so you can't get real upset with them, you know?"

Many thought before the season began that Rutgers might legitimately challenge for another Final Four trip. But instead, it became a battle just to make the NCAA tournament.

After the first semester, one of the freshmen, Jasmine Dixon, transferred. And after a 20-point loss at Maryland on Feb. 15, it seemed the 14-10 Scarlet Knights simply were not going to get it done.

But then … some lightbulbs started coming on. Rutgers responded to that loss by winning five of its next six games, with the loss being to eventual national champion Connecticut.

"I've learned more about the game than I could ever have imagined," Sykes said. "It's not just about talent with her. It's about wisdom. She makes you think basketball, not just play it."

The Scarlet Knights did indeed make the NCAA field, and as a host team took out No. 2 seed Auburn in the second round. It was a hard but ultimately gratifying trip to the Sweet 16. Not that Stringer ever wants to experience another season like it.

[+] EnlargeVivian Stringer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIn 2000, C. Vivian Stringer became the first coach, male or female, to lead three programs to the Final Four. She ranks third in women's hoops in career victories.

"Whenever I talked to Coach Stringer, we would discuss the freshmen that she had," said Essence Carson, a New York Liberty player who was a big part of Stringer's 2007 Final Four team. "And when I had a chance to get home and go there, I would try to talk to the younger ones. Let them know that everything would be OK. To try to help her out, because there was only so much she could say.

"Sometimes a young player thinks of a coach, 'Oh, she doesn't understand.' But as a former player of hers, I felt I could relate to those players. A lot of times, everything at that age feels like trial by fire. You come out of the fire, and it's what you will be for life. You learn so much from those four years, and she will make sure that whatever lessons you learn on court, you'll be able to apply them to life. You'll be shaped and molded into a better person."

Still, when the season ended, another rookie, Brooklyn Pope, also transferred. Then, later in the summer, Prince announced she was forgoing her senior season to play professionally overseas.

Stringer has seen it all in nearly four decades in coaching … but there are things that still hurt. She knows you must roll with the punches, even if they hit you very hard.

"At the end, I think the players on that team realized that all along, we did have a team good enough for the Final Four," Stringer said. "But it was only at the end that they really came to understand it.

"I want to coach, challenge and encourage -- to do the things I've always done. There is a certain kind of receptiveness that I need from a player. We didn't have enough of that last year, and I hope I never go through anything like that again. Because there were points where I felt like I might walk away."


That might sound like quite the downer sentiment to express for someone about to go into the Hall of Fame. But it's actually a part of why she has been such a successful coach. Stringer feels her emotions about the game and her role as a teacher very deeply. There's no masquerading with her.

It tells you how much it all still matters to Stringer -- not just the results, but the process.

It was a phenomenal honor for her to get the news that she is being honored by the Hall of Fame. But it doesn't mean that her mindset would be any different. There is another season to prepare for, another set of challenges.

After all the accolades that will come her way for the induction, her career is still ongoing. Her life's work is still about preparing to do what she does every school year: shepherd a group of young people through an obstacle course.

"That woman … I'm telling you, it's unbelievable. You've seen it," Carson said. "She is just an intense coach, period. There is an everlasting desire."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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