Friends turn foes in women's final
CLEVELAND -- Isn't it fascinating that it turned out like this? Tennessee is facing Rutgers for an NCAA title Tuesday night (ESPN, coverage begins at 7:30 ET), which highlights this silver-anniversary reunion for coaches Pat Summitt and C. Vivian Stringer at the Final Four.
They were there at the beginning, at the NCAA era's first Final Four at an arena called the Scope in Norfolk, Va. Louisiana Tech beat Summitt's Tennessee team in the semifinals, then Stringer's Cheyney squad in the final.
Asked whether Stringer ever referenced that 1982 team to her current Rutgers bunch, Scarlet Knights junior Essence Carson smiled a bit before answering. Anybody familiar with Stringer is aware that, at any given time, she could rhapsodize for a half-hour about how neatly one of her managers folded towels 25 years ago.
"Well, Coach Stringer references a lot of things," Carson said to knowing laughter. "But she has brought up the 1982 team. She has brought up the Iowa team. She has brought up so many things that have happened to her in her life to show us that no matter when you're struggling or how much you're struggling, that there's still light at the end of the tunnel."
It was cute, really, hearing the players from Tennessee and Rutgers talk about their coaches' past. Some of them have seen those old Final Four highlight shows that always seem to open with shots of a really happy trombone player and some 95-year-old guy wearing a funny hat and shaking a pompom. The graphics are a few notches below what your average 3-year-old with access to a computer might come up with today.
"It seems like everywhere we go -- Pittsburgh, Dayton, here -- they have some channel that's just playing all that older footage, and that's been really fun to watch," Tennessee senior Sidney Spencer said. "We laugh at the hairstyles, but just to see the history "
Spencer and her peers were still a few years away from being born when Summitt and Stringer went to that first NCAA Final Four. And the thing is, that really wasn't the beginning for the two coaches. Not even close.
Stringer, a native of Pennsylvania, started at Cheyney in 1971; women's collegiate basketball had had its first recognized national tournament at West Chester in 1969. Summitt, born and raised in the Volunteer State, took over the Tennessee program at age 22 in 1974.
Their teams competed in the AIAW and, like many leaders of women's sports at that time, they had trepidation about the NCAA taking over in 1981-82. Some schools -- such as Rutgers and Texas -- played in the final AIAW tournament in 1982 rather than the NCAA event.
Those familiar with Stringer's story know its heartbreaking details well; how what should have been a season of triumph for her in 1981-82 was instead a time of great personal sadness as her baby daughter battled meningitis that left her disabled.
Stringer left for Iowa in 1983 in large part because of the medical facilities there that could help her and husband Bill in their child's care. On Thanksgiving Day 1992, Stringer lost Bill to a heart attack. Her 1993 Final Four trip was overshadowed by her grief, as were her two subsequent seasons in Iowa City. She needed to leave, and Rutgers wanted her.
So Stringer phoned Summitt. Incidentally, Iowa had defeated Tennessee in the 1993 regional final, the only time in their six NCAA Tournament meetings entering Tuesday that Stringer has won.
"I remember she called me one night. Vivian can talk -- and I don't mean for a few minutes," Summitt said to the same chuckles Carson had gotten earlier. "I think we were on the phone for like 3½ hours. It was the wee hours of the morning, and she was talking about making the decision to leave Iowa. I know when she made that move, it took a lot of courage."
Since Stringer has been at Rutgers, her squad has faced Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament four times: 1998, 2000, 2005 and 2006. All ended in defeat for Stringer. The Lady Vols also beat Stringer's Iowa team in the second round in 1986.
Last year's loss was particularly painful for Rutgers because it ended Cappie Pondexter's college career. That game was in this same arena in Cleveland. You wonder how much more full-circular things could get than Summitt and Stringer meeting here again.
Tennessee's Candace Parker talked Monday about wanting to get her program a championship so that someday she and her teammates could come back for a 20-year anniversary in Knoxville -- the way Summitt's first title team from 1987 recently did.
Spencer said of the NCAA championship, "It's in the back of my head we haven't won in 10 years, and we have a great shot to do it."
Actually, it has been just nine years, but it might seem like 90 to Tennessee. Rutgers and Stringer, however, have never won, and the Scarlet Knights players all spoke Monday about how fabulous it would feel to be the players Stringer would be telling tales about one day: "Those are the ones who gave me a championship."
Stringer also said it only seemed appropriate that if Rutgers is going to do this, it should go through the Lady Vols.
"I'm excited about playing them," Stringer said. "I'm not going to get hung up on, 'Well, they just keep on beating you.' I've lasted this many years, you know, so I've got it in me. I can persevere.
"We're coaches, but we're people. And I appreciate that we relate more [personally]. But I will try to do my best to take her out Tuesday. You can bet your last dime on that. And she will me, too. And I'll love her still, afterwards."Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.