I first met C. Vivian Stringer back in the late 1980s when she was the head coach at Iowa and I was a radio reporter covering the visiting Gophers there. She discussed at length her concerns about Proposition 48, then a new NCAA-passed measure that was controversial because of its perceived impact on incoming Black student-athletes.
Stringer’s lengthy and emotional response came after the post-game press conference, and it was just the two of us still in the room. The two of us were together again a couple of weeks ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Stringer, now the head coach at Rutgers, was the featured speaker at the SHARP Center seminar on Title IX, and this print reporter was supposedly on vacation.
We briefly reminisced about that first encounter. As though it were then again oh, those many years ago, the coach spoke passionately and lengthy whenever asked to share her thoughts, no matter the subject matter.
“I will always be a fighter — there always will be a need,” Stringer admits. “You have to continue to fight for what’s right.”
Even at times when you don’t want to.
Stringer’s “fighter” mentality was ingrained in her by her father, who taught her to fight even when you don’t feel like it.
She didn’t feel like it when she was denied a spot as a high school cheerleader. Stringer said in those pre-Title IX days there wasn’t much happening in girls’ sports back then. She excelled in the tryouts — “I was athletic,” she says proudly — but her skin color got her cut instead.
“I thought I did something wrong” and convinced herself that was the reason she didn’t make it. “I didn’t know what it was to have controversy.” Stringer grew up in a Pennsylvania coal mining town “with a real mixture of different nationalities, where people depended on each other in saving each other’s lives.”
But her high school was in another town, and a local NAACP person who saw Stringer’s effort wanted to use her as a test case against the school board in challenging discriminatory practices, something the young lady wanted nothing to do with.
“My father said to me, ‘Perhaps this isn’t for you but for generations of young women who will come after you. You have to learn to stand up for something, because if you don’t stand up for something, people will fall for anything. It comes a time in everyone’s life, and your time is now.”
She was later placed on the cheerleading team. Stringer went on to attend Slippery Rock University and played basketball and field hockey. She started her teaching and coaching career after graduation in the early 1970s at Cheyney State, a Historically Black school located outside Philadelphia.
“Perhaps this isn’t for you but for generations of young women who will come after you. You have to learn to stand up for something.”
There, when the school president asked for volunteers for coaching openings, she raised her hand several times and became the volleyball, soccer and basketball coach all at the same time. “I started coaching when I was 21,” Stringer notes.
She went from doing everything — coaching, washing uniforms, and driving the team bus for road games — to now, over four decades later, being women’s college basketball’s all-time winningest active coach. This distinction came after Tennessee’s Pat Summitt announced her retirement April 18.
The 2009 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee has been in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame since 2001.
Besides basketball, Stringer teaches her players the same lessons her father, who died when she was 19, once taught her — to stand up and stand tall, even when you don’t want to.
Her players did just that after Don Imus’ on-air “nappy-headed hos” comments following her team’s runners-up finish in the 2007 NCAA championship. She said those remarks not only insulted her Black players but “all women who played the game.”
We exchanged our last questions before she headed to the lecture room for her speech:
I asked her why she chose coaching. “I wanted to stay in sports,” said Stringer.
She asked, “You’re still in Minnesota? Wow — keep it going. Now — more than ever.”
In that brief moment, the longtime coach and teacher imparted her father’s lesson to me: Always stand up, stand tall, and fight for what is right. Even when you don’t feel like it.
Did you know…?
Coach Stringer at Cheyney State shared court time with the school’s men’s basketball coach, who also is a fellow Hall of Fame member. Name him. (Answers in next week’s “View.”)
Answer to last week’s question: C. Vivian Stringer’s Cheyney State squad finished runners-up in the first NCAA championship game in 1982, making her the first Black coach to take her team to a Division I women’s basketball title game.
More from our interview with C. Vivian Stringer can be seen on the MSR’s web edition.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]