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Coach's memoir blends the personal, timely: Head of Rutgers women's team overcame prejudice long before Imus' comments
Coach's memoir blends the personal, timely: Head of Rutgers women's team overcame prejudice long before Imus' comments

You may remember the racist attack that C. Vivian Stringer and her Rutgers University women's basketball team endured in April 2007. Radio shock-jock Don Imus unexpectedly handed them an out-of-left-field insult that jolted coaches, players and their families to the core.

On the air, Imus described the highly successful Scarlet Knights - none of whom he knew personally - in racist and degrading words following their 59-46 loss to perennial NCAA Division I powerhouse Tennessee Vols in a nationally televised national championship game.

Stringer stood tall alongside her ultra-talented team in a televised news conference called to counter Imus' outrageous slander. She and her ever-articulate team leaders expressed their hurt and bafflement while describing who they really are - dedicated students and talented athletes who strive for excellence. Then the coach and her players and their families met privately with Imus to set the record straight.

It took me 16 chapters in Stringer's new book, "Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph," to reach the one detailing that awful experience. She is one of a handful of pioneer women's coaches of the former AAUW league (pre-NCAA designation) who are still coaching at the highest ranks today.

But the gist of her touching memoir lies in the stunning racial challenges and personal tragedies she has overcome to become one of the highest-paid coaches in the country (she negotiated a salary of nearly $500,000 at Rutgers).

Stringer grew up as Charlaine Vivian Stoner in a close-knit family in a coal-mining town in rural Pennsylvania. A defining moment set the tone for her life and taught her to face fears while still a high-schooler in the 1960s. After she was cut from the all-white cheerleading squad, her self-educated father convinced her to take a stand for future generations. She convinced the school board that she meant business; soon she and two other black girls earned spots on the team.

Always athletic, she took up coaching collegiate women's basketball in the early 1970s when the game was in its full-court infancy. Her meager starting salary at predominantly black Cheyney State University, in Pennsylvania, barely covered expenses. Money for basketballs and pre-game meals was in short supply. Stringer, as head coach, drove the team van to away games. But she persevered for the love of the game.

After meeting future husband Bill Stringer, she began teaching at Cheyney State. They were married and had three children. Daughter Nina contracted spinal meningitis as a 14-month-old and has been severely disabled since.

The Stringers took the plunge and moved to Iowa, which was like living on a different planet. The only black family among diehard white basketball fans, they were nevertheless welcomed with open arms. They also received the best medical care for Nina.

In Iowa, Stringer led a legitimate Division I team to six Big 10 titles and nine NCAA post-season tournaments, including a 1993 berth in the Final Four. She won two NCAA National Coach of the Year Awards while in Iowa and was named one of the most 100 influential sports educators in America by the Institute of International Sport.

Then, on Thanksgiving 1992, her husband suddenly died of a heart attack, throwing her world into complete chaos. After much soul-searching and family support, she eventually decided to return east with her two sons and daughter to coach at Rutgers.

Family tragedies continued after moving to New Jersey. Oldest son David, on a football scholarship at North Carolina State, was present when an acquaintance was accidentally shot and killed. It ended his career there, but he joined the Rutgers football team.

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Younger son Justin was involved in a car accident in which he suffered a severe head injury. Miraculously, he made a complete recovery, and is one reason for Stringer's strong faith.

In 2001, her nephew, offensive lineman Korey Stringer, died of heat stroke during preseason training with the Minnesota Vikings.

Stringer describes how hopeless and lost she felt, even while gaining strength from mentor and Hall of Fame coach Don Chaney and former Georgetown coach John Thompson. At a time when many male coaches laughed at the women's game, Chaney and Thompson fully supported Stringer and her goals to prepare young women for life through basketball.

Stringer has come a long way from her birthplace, as has the underfunded, undervalued days of women's collegiate basketball. Her steady climb to the top of the coaching world has impressed Maya Angelou, Bill Clinton, Magic Johnson and Andrew Young, all of whom rave about her book.

"Standing Tall" is that rare sports memoir that integrates a pioneer's stunning career with timely issues: race, women's rights, equity, family, tragic loss and bouncing back from cruel, unexpected adversity.

Renata Birkenbuel is a freelance writer in Great Falls and former sports reporter for the Missoulian.

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