C. Vivian Stringer launched her brilliant legacy at Cheyney State
Basketball Hall of Famer is still the only coach to lead an HBCU to a national championship game – the 1982 title appearance against Louisiana Tech
When it comes to the NCAA women’s tournament, few coaches are as interwoven into the fabric of the tournament’s history as coaching legend C. Vivian Stringer.
Stringer has guided teams to 28 of 40 NCAA tournaments and remains the only coach to have coached three different programs to the Final Four – including Rutgers and Iowa.
Before Stringer built those dominant programs, the foundation of her coaching legacy began on the campus of what was then known as Cheyney State College, where she catapulted a tiny historically Black college and university (HBCU) onto the national stage as one of the top programs in college basketball.
But it’s her first Final Four appearance — during the first NCAA tournament — that holds a special place in her career.
Forty years ago, on March 28, 1982, Cheyney State made history when it appeared in the inaugural NCAA championship game against top-seeded Louisiana Tech in Norfolk, Virginia. To this day, Cheyney is the only HBCU program, women’s or men’s, to appear in either Final Four or national championship games.
On that afternoon, the Cheyney team, made up entirely of Black women and led by a Black female coach in Stringer, etched their names in the annals of women’s basketball.
Even decades after Stringer had departed the Cheyney State program, her incomparable impact on the university remained.
“When I walked in Cope Hall gymnasium every single day for practice, you still felt that presence there even 30 years later,” said Niagara University head coach Jada Pierce, who was the coach at Cheyney from 2004 to 2006.
“You felt that presence of C. Vivian Stringer.”
Even four decades later, former Cheyney player Yolanda Laney remembers details of Cheyney’s historic run.
She can readily tick off the teams the Lady Wolves toppled on their way to the championship game: First Auburn, then NC State, followed by Kansas State and Maryland.
And Laney remembers the starting five who stepped on the court in front of a sold-out audience at the Scope Arena to witness history.
Laney, an All-American who would be named to the all-tournament team, at point guard; Rosetta Guilford, a tournament all-regional selection, started at shooting guard; Valerie Walker, another All-American named to the all-tournament team, at small forward; Debra Walker at power forward; and Sharon Taylor at center.
As the Lady Wolves prepared for the title game, Stringer told them to expect a mirror image of themselves. But Cheyney was a smaller team than Louisiana Tech. While Cheyney had shooters and quick guards on its side, Louisiana Tech could counter.
“We did not have anything. But we believed in ourselves. And we were talented. … We went with what we got.”— Former Cheyney State coach C. Vivian Stringer on her team vs. Louisiana Tech in 1982
First, with its own guard in All-American Angela Turner. Then, with 6-foot-3 forward Janice Lawrence, who would be named the tournament’s most outstanding player and go on to win the United States’ first Olympic gold medal in 1984 with Louisiana Tech teammate Kim Mulkey. There was also 6-2 Debra Rodman, older sister to NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman.
And if that wasn’t enough firepower, add three-time All-American Pam Kelly, the 1982 Wade Trophy winner.
“Louisiana Tech was something I heard about, but not really experienced,” Stringer said. “That’s where the difference is, the mystique of who they were. I was surprised, yeah. They were big, they were strong and they were very, very good.”
Cheyney was able to dominate on the court despite competing with a team budget that paled in comparison to the big universities it defeated. The team didn’t have the same equipment. Its training staff was made up of students from local Westchester College studying to become trainers.
The team also couldn’t afford a bus. Stringer said that when the team defeated Maryland in the Final Four, administrators were overcome with joy as the money they would receive due to the win could help fund their bus ride home.
“We didn’t even have a band,” Stringer said. “If you look at the band, our colors are blue and white. It was the team from Norfolk State. They were green and white. We didn’t even have our same band.
“We did not have anything. But we believed in ourselves. And we were talented. … We went with what we got.”
To Cheyney, it didn’t matter that Louisiana Tech had ended the regular season a spot ahead of them in the AP poll as the No. 1 team in the country. Or that the Lady Techsters had won the AIAW championship the year before and had lost just one of their last 68 games.
This was a fearless and proud Lady Wolves team that practiced against Cheyney’s men’s basketball team, coached by the legendary John Chaney. Size didn’t intimidate Cheyney State. Big crowds didn’t scare them — they packed their home court every time they played, outdrawing the men’s program. The Lady Wolves themselves entered the championship game on a 23-game winning streak.
“I believed that we could play anybody,” Stringer said. “That was my mindset and that was their mindset. They weren’t afraid of anyone. The bigger they come, the harder they fall, and we believed in that.”
Win or lose, the impact of Cheyney’s mere presence in the first championship game was monumental. The magnitude of such a moment was never lost on Cheyney players.
Leading up to the matchup, the team spoke about the importance of its presence in the inaugural championship game.
“We felt it at the time,” Laney said. “We discussed it as a team … about us getting to the championship game as a small HBCU. It was very significant to us.”
Ultimately, the firepower of Louisiana Tech, coupled with early foul trouble and an eventual shooting cold spell, would keep Cheyney from hoisting the championship trophy.
While the Lady Wolves held a 16-8 lead through the first eight minutes, the Lady Techsters would respond by outscoring Cheyney 32-10 to take a 40-26 lead into the half. Behind a 20-point performance from Lawrence, the Lady Techsters would win the game 76-62. Cheyney finished its season with a 28-3 record.
“We thought we were going to win that game going in and coming out. It just didn’t come out in our favor,” said Laney, who is now the chief municipal public defender of Atlantic City.
Stringer left Cheyney following the 1982-83 season after making a second consecutive appearance in the Sweet 16. It concluded an 11-year, 251-win tenure at the HBCU for the legendary coach, who, before becoming coach at Cheyney, had been turned away for a coaching position at Syracuse University by a department head who believed she had wanted to apply to be a janitor.
“Cheyney will always be in my heart because they were the ones who gave me a chance first,” said Stringer, who coached Syracuse’s first Black head coach, Marianna Freeman, who played at Cheyney before graduating in 1979.
Stringer made history 40 years ago as the first Black head coach in the national championship game when few Black coaches got opportunities to lead teams. And while Stringer and her Cheyney team may have fallen short of hoisting the trophy that afternoon, she leaned on a lesson she learned from a young age and has carried throughout her pioneering career.
“It’s not about you. Perhaps, it’s not for you,” Stringer said. “It’s for generations of those that will come after you. That’s who you have to be.”
As Stringer looks at the progress made by Black head coaches in women’s college basketball today – where Black women now make up 21% of all head coaches, five Black women lead SEC teams and 14 Black head coaches had teams in this year’s NCAA tournament – she’s overwhelmed by a sense of pride.
“This whole thing is amazing,” said Stringer, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. “It speaks to the changing times that we have now. We have a lot more outstanding minority coaches and I think, maybe, if I had anything to do with it, I thank God. I’m so happy and proud that I could persevere. That’s what I tried to do, persevere.”
Stringer mentioned the success of South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley in particular. In 2017, Staley became the second Black head coach to win a national championship. Her Gamecocks, the No. 1-ranked team in the country, will compete in the Sweet 16 of this year’s tournament on Friday. It’s Staley’s eighth straight appearance in the regional semifinal.
“She carried the banner,” Stringer said of Staley. “She’s gone on to show that, you know what, give us a chance and we’ll demonstrate that we can do these things as well.”
Laney, who led the Lady Wolves to another Final Four appearance in 1984, is still in contact with her teammates from that historic 1982 team. With the arrival of every anniversary, the group will rehash its historic run, the memories still as strong as the bond that has kept them connected over the last 40 years.
“When you look back at it, no HBCU [team], men’s or women’s, did what we did,” said Laney, mother of New York Liberty star Betnijah Laney, who played for Stringer at Rutgers.
“We made history.”