The Spirit of Rutgers: C. Vivian Stringer

Calling C. Vivian Stringer’s coaching resume “impressive” would be the supreme understatement. Entering into her 36th year of women’s collegiate basketball, the Rutgers University coach has amassed an overall record of 750-252 (.749) and ranks third on the list of total Division I women’s victories. A three-time National Coach of the Year, in 2000 Stringer became the first coach ever to pilot three different programs to the NCAA Final Four: Cheyney State University in 1982, University of Iowa in 1993 and Rutgers in 2000.

Recently inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, her name can be found enshrined in several other Halls, including the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame, and the Alumni Hall of Fame at her alma mater, Slippery Rock University. And yet she never envisioned being a coach.

“I wanted to play,” said Stringer. “I would have played the rest of my life.”

But in the mid-60’s, organized basketball for girls in her hometown of Edenborn, Pa did not exist. Instead, girls were expected to be cheerleaders. “You were a second-class citizen,” recalled Stringer. “Not that you weren’t able to [play basketball]. You weren’t allowed to. I remember this one grandmother telling her daughter that girls would have knots in their legs if they played. That’s a shame, because it made you ashamed to play.”

The determined few, though, found a way to play — even if it required resorting to subterfuge. “I would put these pants underneath my skirt, walk through the neighborhood, and say ‘Hello,’ and then when I’d get to the courtyard, pull the skirt off and play basketball with the guys,” confessed Stringer. Those same guys who chose her first during weekday pick-up games took the court without her during the Friday and Saturday high school games. So Stringer found the only way open to her to be near the game she loved.

“I became a cheerleader so that I could get close enough to the guys to tell them what they needed to do,” she laughed, somewhat ruefully.
“I wasn’t interested in being a cheerleading. I was interested in playing. And if I couldn’t play, I wanted to tell them what they needed to do.”

Stringer did get to play pre-Title IX basketball at Slippery Rock while earning a B.S. and a M. Ed. in Health and Physical Education. (“Oh, my God,” she remembers thinking, “They have a team for girls. That’s really special.”) But it was during her tenure at Cheyney (’71-’83), a historically black college, that she began to awaken to another kind of second-class citizenship.

“By the time that I started coaching,” recalled Stringer, “I realized that what I represented as a black coach was not anywhere near as well received as an athlete.” Being a coach, explained Stringer, “means that you make decisions. It might be seen that you’re powerful. That you can influence a lot of minds.” The signs of discrimination were subtle, and yet obvious. “We ended up playing about 70% of our games away from home. Why was that? Why were we playing games back to back, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 100 or 200 miles away?”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Stringer has been active in seeking equal opportunities for women and minorities. One of the key players in the development of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and a member of the Women’s Sports Foundation Advisory Board, she’s also worked extensively with Nike’s “So You Want to be a Coach” workshops that provide a foundation for minority female basketball players interested in the coaching profession.

“There must be much more sensitivity and opportunity for minority women to coach,” stated Stringer. “And not just coach at the Sisters of the Poor University. I’m talking about high visibility opportunities. So many times an athlete’s popularity can be parlayed into job opportunities, whether you’re a broadcaster, a coach, whatever. I mean, how many black athletes really have an opportunity to do that? Maybe in a lot of instances it’s not intentional, but it happens.”

Stringer knows there can be – and have been – negative consequences in speaking up. But, she said, “I can do as my father said, not deal with controversy. Or I can stand up and recognize inequalities and speak out. Deal with criticism and make the sacrifice. It’s not about me or for me, but for future generations. I can do that. And I will do that. It’s got to be done. I just want to see everything right. In every aspect of life.”

Half way to her fourth decade as a coach, her passion shows no sign of waning. And she hopes it never does. “I was telling a friend of mine when I first took the job at Cheyney, ‘I’m watching these people walk around but I don’t feel the energy and the fire.’ Just do this for me,” she remembered saying, “If you ever see that in me, just pinch me and tell me I’ve got to go. Because I always want to be driven. I always want to ask the questions. I want to be inspired. I want to always make the changes happen. And if I don’t, if you ever see me with that glazed look and I’m just picking up a check, that’s when you let me know: I’m dead. I can’t be dead.”

“I don’t want to be a ghost,” said Stringer. “I want to be a spirit.”

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