C. Vivian Stringer, the celebrity coach of Rutgers’ women’s basketball team, lives and breathes basketball. But as a single mom with two sons and a special-needs daughter, she knows about struggling for work/life balance. As an African American from an Appalachian coal-mining town, she knows about discrimination in the workplace. Yet she came from a close-knit family where excellence was expected, so she also knows how to instill those values in an ever-changing family, her team of Scarlet Knights.
Stringer talks about her new book, “Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph” (co-authored with Laura Tucker, Random House, $24.95) and will have a signing party on Thursday, May 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble bookstore at 869 Route 1 South, in her home town of North Brunswick. 732-545-7966.
Stringer was the first coach, man or woman, to take three teams from different schools — Cheyney State, the University of Iowa, and Rutgers — to the NCAA Final Four. At dirt-poor Cheyney, the team started out owning only two regulation basketballs and went on to make sports history. Meanwhile Stringer was keeping vigil at the bedside of her toddler daughter, whose meningitis had gone undiagnosed and who would never be able to walk or talk.
With each successive triumph came tragedy. In Iowa Bill Stringer, the love of her life and her rock solid support, dropped dead at age 47. And no sooner did she get to Rutgers than she learned she had breast cancer. To protect her children, who were mourning the loss of their father, she kept that a secret. Only for this book does she reveal why she acquired a reputation of being unfriendly to the media; she had shut herself off from nearly everything but her job. And then, after her 2006-2007 team covered itself with glory at the NCAA championships, along came the notorious racist/sexist Don Imus quip that shone harsh fame on the young players.
Almost anything that has happened to anybody has happened to Stringer. She made all the mistakes that a kid can make, from failing to practice what she didn’t like (piano) to playing pranks that went horribly wrong (chopping down a neighbor’s 100-foot pine tree). When she flunked out in her freshman year at Slippery Rock she felt humiliated. “I was a fool,” she writes. “I had it all, and I’d thrown away every last bit of it.”
To earn credits and retrieve her scholarship, she went to summer school, sneaking after dark into her sister’s dorm room to sleep because she had no money to rent a room. She got benched by a coach who didn’t like her political position during the Vietnam War. Most painful is her recalling how, when her parents had to bail her out of credit card debt, they had to cash in her father’s life insurance policy, never to be replaced.
Because Stringer has made every mistake in the book and suffered multiple personal tragedies, her players can’t say “You don’t understand,” and her readers can find themselves on every page, if only by saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Stringer draws on these experiences to motivate, persuade, and pressure her players into doing their very best. This story trove also offers valuable inspiration for the workplace.
Work/life family balance. As a single mom, with a special-needs child, Stringer says she sometimes felt like she was drowning, at home and at work. Coaching “is a harder job than most to balance with a young family,” she says. “My own mom’s presence was so warm and comfortable to me. There’s that guilt of, why don’t you just stay at home. But I’m not my mom, and I have to provide for my family.”
She treasures — and passes on to others — some early advice she received from the late track star Willye White, a five-time Olympian: One can’t be the best coach all the time, nor the best mom all the time. All you can do is your best, and then forgive yourself for the rest. “It was simple advice, but it took the weight off my shoulders that day and in the years afterward. It allowed me to know that it is OK when we, as parents, fall short.”
Now, at age 60, she makes light of her hectic travel schedule, which on this day involved a recruiting trip to Iowa and a plane delay. “But I sometimes wonder at the end of the day if I can get through next Tuesday. I’m used to running, and I usually see the light at the end of the road. If I don’t, we’re in trouble.”
Communication. “My family didn’t give me riches. They gave love and security and confidence and the things that you can’t put a finger on,” she says. From her mother, she learned how to elicit hard work: “My mom was born knowing everything there was to know about getting people to work for her,” she writes.
From her father, she adopted his method of family meetings, where each of the five siblings had the chance to speak up about what was good and what could be better. “Team together” is her term for letting everyone have their say, from the star senior to the raw recruit. “Everyone is entitled to an opinion, if she has worked hard and done the best she can possibly do. We’re all equal in the family that is our team.”
One of her assistants who had played in the pros commented he had never heard truth spoken so plainly as in those meetings. “The truth may hurt, but I will always give you the tools you need to overcome and become what you want to be,” she writes.
Quality standards. She can’t abide slackers and thinks anyone who doesn’t do their very best is poisonous to a sports or workplace team. “Going halfway is disrespectful to me, to your teammates, to your opponents, and to the game. Winning and losing will never mean as much to me as making sure you honor the game and the people who worked alongside you,” she tells her players. “Anything less than your greatest effort will not be tolerated, and I don’t care how talented you are.”
Determination to succeed. At Cheyney she loved going up against a Penn State or a Maryland, “knowing that my little old school of 1,500 kids, with barely a nickel or dime to rub together, was their equal on the court. I had always felt it was my calling to rise and give to the have-nots of the world, and for me Cheyney was as good as it could get. We were the underdogs, the giant-killers. My teams are known for finding another way to get it done,” she says. “It is unacceptable to do anything less than that, to find another way to get around the corner.”
Discrimination in the workplace. Stringer grew up in a color-blind mining community and encountered racism for the first time when she was obviously the best at the cheerleading tryouts but didn’t make the team. Someone from the NAACP wanted to make an issue of it. She was afraid, but her father told her that she needed to think about future generations: “There comes a time in your life when you must stand, because if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” he said.
At the almost-all white Slippery Rock College, she rose at 4:30 a.m. for a job, sweeping the dorm lounges, so none of her fellow students would see her with a broom in her hand. And as an adult, when she arrived in a cream-colored suit to interview for a coaching job at Syracuse University, the personnel officer thought she was the cleaning woman and directed her to a broom closet. “I am more likely in my own mind to be successful when people tell me I can’t do something. I am not the person who will say woe is me,” she says. “I am going to be angry and get fired up.”
New Jersey seemed a refuge from all that. Part of her reason for moving from Iowa was because she didn’t want her sons growing up in a nearly all-white community.
Then the Imus comment roiled the 2006-2007 team that won the Big East and stopped just one game short of the national championship. Stringer realizes that neither she nor the students’ parents had prepared them for the shock and stigma of discrimination. She writes, “The team demanded the respect that was owed to them, and in so doing, they stood up for the dignity of all people. It takes a great deal of confidence to hold your head high after you’ve been humiliated. It takes a great deal of fortitude to answer hate with compassion. It takes strength to keep your moral compass when faced with derision and contempt. But that is what this team did, and that is how they inspired the country.”
In spite of all her successes, and though she has a strong Christian faith, Stringer wrestles with the past. Just as she pores over the game tapes, she revisits her decisions. At her daughter Nina’s bedside she had prayed for Nina just to be able to smile again. Nina now has a beautiful smile but needs 24/7 care. “To this day I wonder if I should have prayed for more,” Stringer writes.
In the telephone interview she focuses on the last game of the championship season, against Connecticut, and on a player who never did meet her conditioning standards. In the last four minutes of the game, when the starters had fouled out or were injured, this player could not step up to her challenge. “There was one player I felt never gave it all. She always came up short. Did she realize how much she could have helped us in four minutes? I hope that she knows that all we needed was four minutes, that every time we did this one drill she didn’t mind coming up short because she was too absorbed in herself.”
At this point in the interview Stringer ruminates on whether, next season, she can motivate that player more effectively. “So many people depend on one another. I have to be clear what I say. I will explain to her what she needs to do, and I’m hoping and praying that she won’t make excuses, that she will make the ultimate sacrifice for the team. Basketball is a discipline, and if each person must make a sacrifice in order for them to reach the Promised Land, then they must make that sacrifice.”
“If we lose but I know that we played the game right — that we were prepared, that we were intense, that we executed what we said we were going to execute — then I can sleep. If you don’t, then I can’t, and you won’t,” she says. “At the end of the day, while we don’t ever accept defeat, we can be at peace with having done our best.”