Beyond the game of hoops

By Joy Buchanan and Luke Visconti
Updated: January 26, 2011

NEWARK — Rutgers University head women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer wanted to be a cheerleader in high school to get close to the boys.

She was only the second Black cheerleader in the history of her Pennsylvania high school; she had to sue to get on the squad. No women were closer to the male players than the cheerleaders.

She wanted to be with them so the players could hear her shouting instructions to them on the field. “No one had to tell me that I wanted to become a coach,” she says.

She sat down for an interview recently with DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti, who sits on Rutgers Board of Governors. As women’s sports evolved, Stringer put her stamp on sports and leadership, not as a cheerleader but as the first NCAA basketball coach, male or female, to lead three schools to the Final Four; the third winningest coach in women’s basketball history, encroaching on her 850th win this season; and as an inductee in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“It’s always been a goal of mine to be the best coach that I could possibly be. I tried to teach the young women to be strong. Some would choose to become lawyers and some would become computer scientists and some would become teachers and the like.”

“But I’ve always been excited when any of the young women would choose to go into basketball, and then I feel that I have an opportunity to multiply myself times 10.”

For Stringer, coaching is all about being a leader and preparing women to take those same leadership skills into the world — whether on a basketball court or in a corporate board room.

“Leaders have to be people who have a clear vision and have to be willing to stand up. They can’t move and sway with the wind,” she says.

Black. Female. Head Coach.

When Stringer first started coaching women’s basketball at Cheyney State College in Pennsylvania, there were few female head coaches — and certainly few Black women coaching college teams.

While things have changed, there is a long way to go. According to a 2009 report from the NCAA, more than half of Division I women’s basketball players are Black, but only 15 percent of women’s basketball head coaches are Black women.

Overall, 32.5 percent of all women’s college basketball players are Black, while just 8.9 percent of all head coaches for women’s college basketball are Black women.

It’s important for players to be led and molded by coaches who understand where they’re coming from and what their lives are like, Stringer says. From the coaches, the players learn to be leaders.

“You’re affecting a life,” she says of coaches.

As for the players, she says, “You accept responsibilities, you understand winning and losing, you learn how to become a team player.

The world sees you when you fail or succeed. The experience that a female has isn’t something that she gets in a classroom.”

“That’s why I do believe men have had an advantage for a long time because they’ve understood you’ve either made it or you didn’t; you failed or you succeeded, but [if] you learned how to work as a team member, then you also learned to become a member of a corporation — IBM or whatever. How many times have women had an opportunity to do that?”

Because coaches enter young people’s lives at a critical point — between the ages of 18 and 22 — Stringer has tried to ensure that her pupils train others and bring them into their own programs if and when they decide to become coaches themselves.

Tasha Pointer and Chelsea Newton are Stringer’s assistant coaches; they’re both Black women and they both played for her as Scarlet Knights at Rutgers University.

“We talk about taking care of your own,” Stringer says. “We try to encourage our players who then go on to become head coaches to then hire one of those young women who have been a part of that program simply because she is going to understand her, she is going to know what she’s going through and she’s going to work that much harder and would not dare disappoint her.”

Today’s Woman

While the players she’s coached have always been tough, they’re different today than they were years ago. They’re more like Stringer was at that same age.

“I’ve always been very independent,” she says, a trait that her late father encouraged and supported. Today’s woman is the same. “Today’s woman is a lot more independent. They’ll say, ‘I am just as smart. I’m going to go to law school because I’m pretty doggone sharp.’

“I think that today this woman you’re going to see has probably had a dad who was telling her, ‘You know what? You can become president of the United States.’ And she knows that he means that and knows that’s she’s supposed to go get it!”

Today’s women, Stringer believes, are the leaders the nation has been waiting for. “We have a great need for great minds,” she says. “We have every reason in the world to encourage our young women to use their minds and be the best that they can be. And when we do that, I think that our country has a chance to be as great as I think it was always meant to be.”

Leadership Is Hard

Stringer herself is well known for that tenacity and independence.

Her father died when she was 19. Her only daughter had spinal meningitis as a child in 1982, just before Stringer took the Cheyney State women’s basketball team, an NCAA Division II squad, to its very first Division I Final Four.

Her husband, Bill, died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day in 1992 — and just months later, she led the University of Iowa Hawkeyes to their first Final Four. Stringer survived breast cancer largely alone; she kept her illness a secret from nearly everyone in her life.

She expects her players to carry themselves with dignity and courtesy — to the fans, to other teams, to the rest of the school and to the world. She expects them to give everything they have on the basketball court — whether or not they feel like it, whether or not they’re winning.

If she must be hard on them, then she will be, including practicing seven hours on New Year’s Eve or mandatory study sessions on the road and academic checks every few weeks.

“Like a child wants a parent to be firm. The child doesn’t want a parent that’s just their buddy. They need someone who holds them on a higher plane. We’ve just got to be able to stand up for the thing that we know to be right.”

“We have a responsibility as a leader to not be liked if that’s the case, but to make the right decisions, the tough decisions, and trust that the kids will come to understand later.”