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Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer is ready to embrace career-win milestone

Stringer will be the first African-American college hoops coach to record 1,000 wins

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Just after notching her 999th win, Rutgers women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer was asked about the people who helped her to the verge of becoming the first African-American college basketball coach to reach 1,000 wins.

Stringer gave thanks to John Chaney, her main mentor, and to John Thompson and Nolan Richardson, who always offered support. Then she told the story of an early career meeting with Grambling’s legendary football coach, Eddie Robinson.

Stringer had taken her Cheyney State team to Louisiana Tech, and Robinson requested a meeting while she was in town. Impressed with how Stringer had made a historically black college team into a national basketball power, Robinson delivered a message that always stuck with her.

“He told me, ‘As a coach, I have more guys in the NFL than anybody else and I could have gone anywhere,’ ” Stringer recalled. “ ‘Just remember that this game is not about us. It’s about who these young people are, what they are to become in life and our responsibility to help get them there.’ ”

The players who have suited up for Stringer during her 46 years of coaching have never, in her eyes, been commodities that are considered expendable when their shelf life — or eligibility — is up.

They have always been family.

The group includes a long list of former players, former assistant coaches and a few current college coaches who are expected to be at the Rutgers Athletic Center on Tuesday night as she attempts to win her 1,000th game when the Scarlet Knights face Central Connecticut. She would join the 1,000-win club, which includes Pat Summitt (Tennessee), Tara VanDerveer (Stanford), Geno Auriemma (Connecticut), Sylvia Hatchell (North Carolina) and Barbara Stevens (Bentley).

How much of an impact has Stringer, 70, had on the game?

A large number of coaches — including Dawn Staley, who in 2017 became the second African-American coach to win a women’s national title — look up to Stringer as a mentor.

And many of Stringer’s former players have ended up working with her, including Nadine Domond, who played for Stringer at Iowa and is an assistant at Rutgers, and Michelle Edwards, the National Player of the Year at Iowa and a 2014 inductee into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame who is now an assistant athletic director at Rutgers.

“She’s just a legendary coach, and there’s so much that you can learn from her,” said Charise Wilson, who is playing her first year at Rutgers as a graduate transfer. “She gives us more than just being a coach; she’s a mother figure. That’s what I appreciate most about her.”

Stringer has approached this milestone with a bit of trepidation. After Stringer won her 899th game on Feb. 9, 2013, against Cincinnati, her team lost four straight games before beating South Florida.

That proved to be a financial burden for a lot of people who wanted to be in attendance for the 900th win.

“I saw my sister [after Friday’s win over Stony Brook] and she said, ‘You know, you better get this game now, I came all the way from Iowa to see it,’ ” Stringer said. “I get headaches just thinking about the expenses people have to try to see this. I really just want to get this over with.”

To appreciate Stringer’s path to get here, you have to go back to where she started.

The bottom, literally, at Cheyney State, where she asked for the responsibility to coach the women’s basketball team with a very limited budget when she was hired as a teacher in 1971.

As coach at the nation’s first historically black college, Stringer shared an office with an assistant, collected and washed the team uniforms on some occasions, and often drove the team’s rickety bus to practice at a nearby reform school on days the heat wasn’t working properly at the school’s gym.

“It was one of those old Army trucks, and it didn’t have good brakes,” Stringer said. “I’d get up to the stop sign and be careful not to let the clutch go because if I did, it would stall. It was something out of the old Our Gang TV show.”

Under those conditions, Stringer built a national power. She had a desire to play the best, and, more often than not, her teams beat the best. “We had no problems playing against a big school like Penn State,” Stringer said. “People saw big against small. To me it was nothing more than your five against my five.’

Stringer led the tiny school to the first Division I women’s national championship game in 1982 against top-ranked Louisiana Tech, an amazing feat considering the resources she had to work with.

That team lost the national championship game, but Stringer gained respect, which led to offers from major programs around the country.

The offers were beyond attractive. But Stringer had a concern that was bigger than basketball. Her daughter, Nina, contracted spinal meningitis when she was a baby and needed special care, and any move would have to come with her in mind.

“Everyone was telling me go to UCLA, USC, Kentucky — they had everything you would want in terms of basketball,” Stringer said. “At Iowa, they took me to a room where there were doctors and department heads, and they said, ‘We’ll take care of your daughter.’ ”

It all led to her 1983 decision to go to Iowa, which had suffered through three straight losing seasons. Stringer was able to attract some of the nation’s top basketball talent to the Midwest and in 12 years led the Hawkeyes to nine trips to the NCAA tournament, six Big Ten titles and one trip to the Final Four.

The Final Four trip, in 1993, came the same season her husband, Bill, died of a heart attack, which made the team’s success bittersweet. The void in her life without her husband prompted Stringer to move east in 1995 when Rutgers offered her a job.

“Iowa was an idyllic place, a wholesome community where you could leave your doors open and not worry,” Stringer said. “You want to be in a place where people care about you, and they did that. After my husband died, it just became lonesome and hurtful to be there. I needed to leave.”

Her magic touch continued in New Jersey. Within three years she had led Rutgers to the Big East championship, and by 2000 Stringer had led her third school to the Final Four (which she repeated in 2007).

Stringer’s been a finalist for the Naismith National Coach of the Year five times at Rutgers. In 2009, she was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in the same class that featured Michael Jordan, John Stockton and David Robinson.

And, for Stringer, her excitement level for the game hasn’t changed since her first day as a head coach in 1972.

“Just walking into the gym, smelling new sneakers and hearing the ball bounce, I still get excited,” Stringer said. “It’s important you enjoy what you do. I love what I do.

“I was watching Nancy Pelosi on TV the other night and the anchor asked her why she wanted to be the speaker of the House with all the headaches,” Stringer added. “And she answered, ‘I look forward to it because it drives me.’ I said to myself, ‘I know that feeling. I know exactly what she means.’ Basketball is my life.”

As Stringer walked off the floor after Friday’s win over Stony Brook, she smiled, acknowledging the four fans holding handmade signs that spelled out: “999 Wins — We Love CVS.”

One of those fans, Nancy Foulks, was wearing a white T-shirt commemorating Stringer’s 900th win and said it’ll be a game-day decision what she’ll sport when the coach goes for 1,000. “I think it’ll be my Vivian Hall of Fame shirt,” said Foulks, a Rutgers graduate. “I plan what I wear carefully.”

Foulks and one of her friends who held the signs, Kathy Duff, are members of the Cagers Club who have traveled the East Coast to support the Rutgers women’s team.

“When you see how many former players come back to support her, and you look behind the bench and see the past parents who are here, that says a lot for the following she’s built,” Foulks said. “I can’t even imagine the challenges she faced as a black woman being able to sustain her level of success all of these years as a coach, and it’s a testament to her fortitude, both personally and professionally.”

Duff nodded her approval, adding, “I can’t imagine Rutgers women’s basketball without Stringer.”

Stringer, looking fierce in her stylish scarlet jacket while sitting comfortably in the locker room after win No. 999, can’t imagine the journey to 1,000 without the people who have passionately supported her.

“What I have with the people in this community is personal; I know what happens to their husbands, wives and kids, and we’ve gone through happy times and sad ones together,” Stringer said. “I’m busy and I don’t have a chance to establish relationships outside of basketball, so these are the people that I care about, and I sense that they care about me as well. That’s important because I don’t have too many friends.”

Stringer acts, on the surface, like reaching 1,000 wins isn’t a big deal.

But over the course of 45 minutes reflecting on her career, Stringer finally lets on that No. 1,000 will be special.

It’s a big deal.

“I’ve tried to be subdued because I didn’t want to put any added pressure on my players,” Stringer said. “I was thinking today that opportunities like this don’t come often and, for most people, don’t come at all.

“I guess I can take time to reflect because, now, the moment is here in front of me. I’m excited … I’m excited.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.