Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Still No Title for Stringer

By Kate Burkholder

CLEVELAND – It’s starting to feel like C. Vivian Stringer just can’t catch a break.

At the beginning of this season, the Rutgers women’s basketball head coach struggled to put together the pieces of a team so young and inexperienced it couldn’t understand her “55” press. The same “55” press that makes Stringer teams tick. The early part of the 2006-07 season for Stringer’s bunch was bumpy – the low point coming when the coach locked the team out of its own locker room and refused to wear school colors until she was pleased with what she saw.

But Stringer’s young, senior-less Scarlet Knights showed resilience, and slowly things started to fall into place. The freshmen started making key contributions, sophomore center Kia Vaughn made huge strides in becoming the star she should be, and lynchpins Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson, both juniors, led the team as it would go on to build itself back up and eventually capture the Big East Tournament title with a 55-47 win over rival Connecticut.

The Knights continued the hot streak through the NCAA Tournament, rolling past East Carolina and Michigan State before then besting overall No. 1 seed Duke in the Sweet Sixteen March 24. After posting easy wins over Arizona State and LSU to advance miraculously to the title game – a place nobody would have imagined this team would ever be back in December – Stringer found herself in an all-too-familiar location.

She would be tackling Pat Summitt and the Tennesseee Lady Volunteers in March Madness for the third straight year. And despite referring to her team as a “team of destiny,” Stringer and the Scarlet Knights (27-9, 12-4) fell to the Lady Vols, 59-46, Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena – eliminated by Summitt’s squad for the third year in a row.

The Lady Vols also defeated Stringer and the Knights in their other Final Four appearance in 2000.

It almost seems unfair.

The Tennessee win gave the school its national-record seventh title, and snapped a seven-year “drought” by the Vols in terms of women’s basketball championships in Rocky Top. But that’s nothing compared to the dry spell Stringer has going: she’s never won any.

She’s easily the best coach in the game who’s got nothing to show for it.

Stringer made one other appearance in the national championship – in 1982, when she was at the helm of a Cheyney State team that dropped the title game to Louisiana Tech. Stringer is the only coach in the women’s game to lead three teams (Cheyney State, Iowa, Rutgers) to the Final Four, and her only male counterpart is Rick Pitino, now at Louisville.

Stringer has just completed her 36th season of head coaching, 12th at Rutgers, and sits on every major list there is when it comes to coaching accomplishments, including three National Coach of the Year awards. She has worked with some of the game’s greatest players, and some – Tasha Pointer, Tammy Sutton Brown, Cappie Pondexter – have gone on to WNBA careers.

Her recruiting classes are always among the nation’s best, as top high school talent comes to Piscataway to work with her and be taught by the best.

She grabs players’ jerseys during games, holds their chins while she talks to them and commands their utmost respect. And she gets it, for what she has done and what she preaches. To listen to her talk about high screens and backdoor cuts is like listening to an algebra teacher break down the quadratic formula. She loves the game and she injects that in her players.

With 777 career wins – third best in women’s college basketball – it is almost unbelievable that Stringer has never won it all. She deserves a title more than anyone, for what she has given to the game and the time and energy she gives to her players. The lines in her face show the years of hard work, and her smile after the team’s Final Four win told it all.

Quoted before the LSU game as saying, “I just want to know what [a national championship] feels like,” it’s hard to imagine why she hasn’t given up yet. She gets so close but it always ends in disappointment. By the game’s standards, she hasn’t yet succeeded.

To watch last night’s game from the stands – easily 80% Tennessee fans – it was she you felt for most. Her team fought for the first half, but got dominated on the boards and Carson and Ajavon had only eight points each while the freshmen had only six between them.

But while it didn’t appear to be destiny after all, this team – this team that lost to Duke by 40 points in December and to no-name Pepperdine in November – shouldn’t have been there in the first place. They didn’t have to get to this point, didn’t have to get a taste of the biggest pressure situation there is. But they did.

Because of Stringer.

Maybe that’s how you measure a coach’s worth.

Next year the Scarlet Knights will return the entire starting line up and welcome a recruiting class that includes the Delaware Player of the Year in point guard Khadijah Rushdan, rumored to be the best Rutgers has seen in a while. So while this wasn’t supposed to be “the year,” maybe next year is.

After this, after all of this, C. Vivian Stringer deserves it.

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