There have been a mind-boggling 901 victories in the Hall of Fame career of women’s basketball coach Vivian Stringer, though one exacted a higher mental and emotional price tag than the hundreds of others.
On Dec. 4, 2005, Stringer brought the Rutgers team she led to the 2000 Final Four to Iowa City’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
As she walked onto the floor, memories flooded back of another program Stringer led to the sport’s grandest stage — and the state she left behind a decade earlier. Iowa City was the place that opened its arms to care for her daughter, Nina, who requires special assistance due to spinal meningitis. Iowa City was the place that cried with her when her husband, Bill, died of a heart attack in 1992.
“Oh my goodness, that was painful,” Stringer said of beating Iowa, 57-51, during the Hawkeye Challenge. “Walking on the floor, I remember where my husband and children sat every game. I thought, ‘I can’t believe I agreed to play this game.’ ”
Stringer, though, wants to relive the pain, reconnect with the heart-tugging images, and feel it all over again.
That would mean she’s still the coach of Rutgers in the winter of 2014, when the university officially joins the Big Ten Conference. Stringer’s current deal, which eventually made her the highest paid public employee in New Jersey at $1.035 million per year, is set to expire next June.
Will she coach the Scarlet Knights again on the floor where she guided Iowa to one its boldest moments in program history?
“I hope. I would think that I would. And I’d hope that I would,” Stringer said in a telephone interview. “And I believe that I will. But until I get my contract situation sorted out, I’m just being honest — I don’t know.”
New athletic director Julie Hermann avoided discussing specifics of Stringer’s contract and future during a recent sit-down with the Newark Star-Ledger. That was followed by speculation about Stringer’s future by others, including the Wall Street Journal.
Big money leads to big expectations, with Stringer being no exception. Injuries and youth pecked away at momentum during a disappointing 16-14 season in 2012-13 — the first March without an NCAA Tournament bid in a decade.
Expect her to be back, though. In an email to The Des Moines Register, Hermann wrote: “I look forward to our Hall of Fame coach leading us into the Big Ten.”
On one hand, Rutgers athletics is one of the most highly subsidized Division I programs in the nation. On the other hand, those money ulcers soon will heal once the university joins its new conference — and starts cashing chunky Big Ten Network paychecks.
Stringer’s resume glistens as one of the best in history of the sport. Her career winning percentage of .731 includes a Final Four trip with a third program, Cheyney State. Only three other women’s coaches have reached the 900-win plateau, including retirees Pat Summitt of Tennessee and Texas’ Jody Conradt. North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell, the other 900-game winner, reached the mark mere weeks ahead of Stringer.
When Stringer was welcomed into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, she stood alongside fellow inductees John Stockton, David Robinson, Jerry Sloan and some guy named Michael Jordan.
The 65-year-old Stringer recalls returning to Carver-Hawkeye just as vividly as the night she shared the stage with other basketball royalty, however. The 2005 game resurrected images of all shapes and emotional sizes.
“I was so nervous, so nervous,” she said. “I remember when (former Iowa men’s coach) Lute Olson had come back, you could feel the love and energy the people had. We talked later, we were both on the NIKE board, about how difficult that was.
“Because once you’re a Hawkeye, you’re always a Hawkeye. Iowa will always claim you.”
When asked if she had visualized returning to the court in Iowa City as a member of the Big Ten, Stringer responded without hesitation.
“Thought about it?” she said. “I’ve thought about that a lot. I’ve thought about it a lot — believe me.”
Stringer said two of her sisters (Madeline Williams, Richelle Davis) live in the Iowa City area, along with her brother Jack Stoner, who operates a business there. Her son, David, also lives in the area.
“So in some ways, I’ve never left Iowa,” Stringer said.
Starting with the 2014-15 season, the reunion becomes body as much as soul.