Tough love, family atmosphere carry Rutgers far
CLEVELAND -- It's not where you're from; it's where you're going.
According to Rutgers junior Essence Carson, who spoke those words during Monday's media session at Quicken Loans Arena, the phrase is one of coach C. Vivian Stringer's most oft-repeated mantras. And no string of words better sums up why Tuesday's national championship game (ESPN, coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET) is less the end of a journey for the Scarlet Knights than a waypoint on a much longer trip for which Stringer is the guide.
So while the game between Rutgers and Tennessee is the culmination of a season of basketball, it won't mark the culmination of Stringer's coaching career, even if it ends with her standing on a ladder with a pair of scissors in her hand and her first national championship after 36 years as a basketball institution.
Defining Stringer comes down to different moments. Like when you hear about Heather Zurich showing up to support Carson at her grandmother's funeral -- the summer before Zurich even enrolled at Rutgers. Or in the story about Dee Dee Jernigan's grandmother seeking out the coach to thank her for the growth Jernigan showed this season -- not on the court, where the freshman rarely sets foot, but off the court as a young woman.
And yes, from the stories of legendary six-hour practices and predawn workouts.
In a not-so-subtle hint that one of the three verbs doesn't always add much to the equation in her mind, Stringer likes to remind those with pen and paper, or laptop and wireless card, that "players play, coaches coach and writers write."
At the expense of alliteration, she might want to add that teams live.
"That's definitely one of the main reasons I wanted to come to the school; the sense of family is so strong," Zurich said. "On the court, off the court, you just feel for each other. I mean, I love every single one of my teammates and just knowing that we have that sense of family. Coach Stringer is our mom, we have our aunts in our assistant coaches -- it's just a great family atmosphere. And when you're away from home, that's exactly what you want."
The idea of family is prevalent at just about every program in the country, but it takes on a different sensibility at Rutgers. This isn't a sitcom family, and Stringer isn't Carol Brady or Clair Huxtable. Her basketball family is a reflection of her experience in a real world, where she watched as her husband died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving 1992 and as her daughter Janine was robbed of her health. It's a world where adversity replaces laugh tracks and motherhood comes to mean something extraordinary.
"She showed me that throughout every struggle she's endured in her life, that there's a way to get over it and get through it," Carson said. "With her, basketball was a way to keep her mind off things, when she wasn't at the hospital with her daughter or when she wasn't sitting at home by herself thinking about her husband."
And when it comes to the basketball court, it's usually parenting through tough love.
"You might feel like, 'Wow! I hate this woman,'" Carson explained. "She can call you every possible name and insult you so much, but it's only going to make you stronger, to prepare you for what others might say to you or things you might go through in life, not only on the basketball court. And she does a great job of that, just like your mom would do when you're at home.
"Your parents try to prepare you for anything in the world. And the worst thing in life is to see your child struggle, so why not prepare your child beforehand, so when they get out there in the real world, everything seems so easy for them. And that's exactly what she's done."
Early this season, it wasn't a message that necessarily resonated with a roster that included five freshmen and no seniors. Rutgers opened the season with four losses in its first six games. The Scarlet Knights endured a 40-point loss against Duke and a 17-point loss at Old Dominion that cost the players the privilege of their locker room and laundry services for their practice gear. A program known for defense wasn't just losing, it was losing because it couldn't stop anyone. And nobody was especially happy.
Stringer related the story of learning from a writer that her players would sometimes return to their dorms and debate which of them she hated most. For her part, she wondered in frustration why some of the players ever chose Rutgers in the first place if they didn't want to do things her way.
"I think that they hadn't been used to being told that they're doing this wrong or that this is the way it needs to be done," Stringer said. "They probably needed to know that I wasn't a monster, and there was a reason for what we were doing."
That understanding came as the players followed the lead of veterans like Carson and reserve Katie Adams, upon whom Stringer bestows the "team mom" label that the players all give their coach, and started living up to the coach's demands on defense. And for her part, Stringer adapted to a group that she said is unlike any she has coached before.
As the wins began to pile up, the coach the players know off the court, one unfamiliar to fans who watch her stalk the sidelines, had more and more opportunities to surface.
"I think that there is a fine line between Vivian Stringer being a coach and a fun person off the court," Matee Ajavon said. "She's serious about what she's doing. Once she's on the court, she wants to get a lot of things done. When she's off the court, she's a totally different person -- she tells jokes and she's very fun. I think that there is a big difference."
Stringer's demeanor and methods on the court are about more than just implementing a defense capable of shutting down the tournament's No. 1 overall seed (Duke) or LSU All-American Sylvia Fowles. Basketball is the venue through which she can influence her players far beyond the four years they spend in Piscataway, N.J.
"It's a really awesome responsibility, and almost unbearable when you think about the responsibility that we have to these young women," Stringer said. "When they get through and they're done, they're probably not going home; they're going on to life."
And whatever others think of her methods -- just as she does in refusing to apologize for playing a brand of basketball that doesn't appeal to viewers looking for behind-the-back passes and triple-digit scores -- Stringer is convinced she's doing things in the manner most likely to produce success.
"I think that you're going to make a mistake when you think that young people want to be left alone to do their own thing, whatever that is," Stringer is. "I think young people want to be nurtured, they want to be guided, they want to be loved. They want somebody to tell them, 'Yeah, you didn't do this right.'"
She had to say that quite a few times in the opening months of this season, but as spring takes hold of Cleveland after a long winter, it's difficult to argue with the results of what she sowed.
"I would hope that they would never doubt what I'm doing, why I'm doing what I'm doing," Stringer said. "I know that they all come to understand that, that much I do know. Some of them have questions maybe as they start to go through that process, but it doesn't take long before they know that we're in this fight together."
Tuesday night in Cleveland, Rutgers' players will play and its coach will coach, all in pursuit of a national championship. But win or lose, they'll live.
That's what Stringer's teams always do.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.