Words Can't Diminish Rutgers' Achievement
A year ago this past week, the story that dominated women’s basketball immediately eclipsing the just-completed Final Four was the tragic passing of first-year Army coach Maggie Dixon.
The former DePaul assistant had brought joy to the banks of the Hudson at West Point in turning around the program and leading the Knights to a first-ever Patriot League title and ensuing appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Dixon, enhanced by her brother Jamie’s parallel success at Pittsburgh, was clearly the toast of the Women’s Final Four even as Maryland created a sensation with its first championship.
Then, less than 24 hours after the Terrapins and Duke had played a thrilling overtime contest in Boston to determine the title, Dixon had suddenly become ill back at West Point.
A day later, this vibrant young personality was no longer with us. For a little more than the following week, Dixon’s life was celebrated in several memorial services and she was finally laid to rest in an eloquent farewell service on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy.
The circumstances of all this drew news coverage that went beyond the daily sports pages and TV sports reports.
Now, it’s 12 months later and once again the Women’s Final Four has been eclipsed, but this time as a consequence of one of the schools in the championships and despicable remarks made about that team by a national radio talk show host.
Just as Dixon had done previously in terms of setting milestones, a vibrant and decidedly young Rutgers contingent carried all those associated with the program, including its passionate fan base, on an exciting ride, beginning with the stunning upset of Connecticut in Hartford to win a first-ever Big East title.
That triumph that accelerated the pace, enabled Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer C. Vivian Stringer to cut down the nets for the first time as coach of the Scarlet Knights, she claimed, after she already had gained previous achievements, elsewhere, including Final Four appearances with Iowa and Cheyney State.
In the NCAA’s opening weekend, Rutgers overcame the hardships of travel caused by an unseasonable ice storm that delayed the Scarlet Knights’ trip to East Lansing, Mich.
Not to worry.
They easily dispatched East Carolina and host Michigan State to sweep the first two rounds.
Then in a supreme test against a team that had beaten them by 40 points in December, Stringer’s bunch upset Duke, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, in the Blue Devils’ back yard in Greensboro, N.C.
True the finish was bizarre with Lindsey Harding, Duke’s top player, missing two foul shots with 0.1 seconds remaining for Rutgers to survive, 53-52. But it took great tenacity for the Scarlet Knights to rally and get to the moment that became dubious for the star of the opposition.
And so it was on to the Women’s Final Four and much to celebrate as this group had matured into a toughness that made Rutgers tough to be denied.
They proved it in Cleveland in the national semifinals when they easily beat an experienced Louisiana State team that had already reached the same game three times previously.
In the final chapter, though, there was no happy ending to the run as powerful Tennessee grabbed another of its seven NCAA titles.
But after the tears of defeat subsided, there was nothing but a sense of joy to feel at Rutgers’ overall accomplishment, perhaps a season ahead of schedule.
However, less than 24 hours later, extreme, senseless, and hurtful comments about the Rutgers team by Don Imus and his radio cohorts seemingly erased all that had been achieved. Suddenly, this young squad became caught in a national firestorm of reaction from forces beyond the daily sports pages.
It’s hard to believe that only a short time prior to Imus’ remarks, the off-the-court major stories in women’s basketball had been the $800,000 Texas had paid to lure coach Gail Goestenkors away from Duke, as well as the controversial coaching exits of LSU’s Pokey Chatman and Penn State’s Rene Portland.
That conversation quickly vanished.
Even in the newsroom here, other departments were hot to jump into a story about a team that few knew existed six weeks earlier.
``It’s a shame,’’ a colleague said to me. ``They had this great season, and all anyone is going to remember is this `Imus flap.’”
In the long run, I respectfully disagree.
This is a team that made a difference, enough so for Stringer to admit that this had been her most rewarding year.
Her comments, made at the next-to-last NCAA press conference in Cleveland, caused yours truly, who goes back to the day with her, to think, ``Good for her. She finally made it through a season without tragedy or major controversy ’’
Well, almost true.
But guess what?
The current flap does not erase this season’s achievement. The only thing that could surpass it is when Stringer finally wins that elusive championship. And this group, who all return, can still make that happen.
This team might also be remembered for making a different in ways it couldn’t imagine in society if the ``shock jock’’ crowd is a little more selective in the future as to exactly whom or what is a worthwhile target.
The tragic passing of Maggie Dixon a year ago meant future of moments of joy would have to be carried on as a legacy instead of created by her living presence.
Certainly, the emotional wounds by Imus’ remarks are painful and real in terms of those who were subject of such.
But youth is resilient. Words cannot kill. This team is still with us and it’s not about to leave the landscape of the sport anytime soon.
It showed a willingness to persevere and grow from those dark days early in the season when few believers existed over what might be achieved in the few short months ahead.
It developed a fire to compete and excel that was fierce enough to light up the Empire State Building in a splash of Scarlet Red in nearby New York.
And when all is said and done and this group returns in the fall ready to do battle again, it is that burning passion that will light the New Jersey skies once more, perhaps this time even much brighter than ever.