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The great survivor

Rutgers' Stringer fighting off adversity with spirit, tenacity

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Posted: Thursday March 18, 1999 03:29 PM

  Stringer has led the Lady Scarlet Knights to the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row. Patrick Murphy Racey

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (CNN/SI) -- In the 24 hours issued to Rutgers women's basketball coach Vivian Stringer each day, she must find time to lovingly care for her two sons and for her 17-year-old daughter, who is disabled; to diligently plan strategy with her assistant coach; and to relentlessly drill her team.

It all leaves little time for sleep. But it's the price Stringer pays, willingly.

"She always uses the phrase, Paying the price," Rutgers guard Shawnetta Stewart said. "That terminology means, really working hard for what you want in life."

Stringer is one of only two coaches in women's college basketball to take three different teams to the NCAA Tournament. Though she's been to the Final Four twice and to the finals once in her 27 years, a championship has eluded her.

But winning an NCAA title is hardly the biggest challenge Stringer has faced in life.

"Constantly we're talking about life's lessons," Stringer said, "how to find a way to get it done, the importance of assuming responsibility."

Over the years, life has charged Stringer some pretty steep prices. Ever since her beloved husband Bill died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day 1992, some 20 years after her father's death during the same holiday, Stringer has approached the last Thursday in November with mixed emotions.

"I've thought so often of how ironic it is that it would be Thanksgiving and you wonder -- you look up and you try to wonder what you're giving thanks to," Stringer said. "But you have to be strong through it all."

She had further cause to wonder this past Thanksgiving, as she comforted and counseled her 19-year-old son David. He was one of six North Carolina State students arrested following the shooting death of another N.C. State student. David, a football player, was charged with misdemeanor assault and as an accessory to larceny in connection with the shooting.

No wonder Stringer holds her breath through November, waiting until December to exhale.

"You understand that life isn't going to be easy all the time," Stringer said, "but that you can be appreciative of the little and the much that you have and go from there."

Twice, she has almost quit coaching.

At Cheyney State in 1982, after her 1-year-old daughter, Janine, was left brain damaged and disabled by spinal meningitis. And again in 1993 at Iowa, after her husband died.

Both times Stringer not only persevered, she triumphed -- taking each team to the Final Four. First, as a distraught mother. And later, as a widow.

  Stringer's beloved husband, Bill, died suddenly in 1992.

"When you talk about surviving -- yeah, that's surviving," Stringer said. "Meeting it head on and being willing to do what you need to do to stay afloat and giving yourself hope and the people that are around you."

To cope with all of her personal pain, Stringer has had to become an expert at defending herself against adversity. It's a skill she's taught her Rutgers team. Not just for use in their personal lives, but on the court as well. During the regular season, the Lady Scarlet Knights ranked among the top three squads in the country in team defense.

"Defense is personal," Stringer said. "To think that someone is going to come in your area and take a shot -- oh no, no, no. You've got to be able to control. Your attitude has to be you might shoot it, but I tell you what, my fingers are going to be scratching leather because every shot must be contested and if you get one, you're lucky to get that one because my business now is to make sure I got control."

During her first two seasons in New Jersey, Stringer's blood-sweat-and-tears philosophy paid few tangible dividends, as Rutgers won less than half its games. But last season, the coach quieted critics by leading the team to the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament.

This season, the ninth-ranked Lady Scarlet Knights have lost just five times and have made it back to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.

Itís all in the approach.

"[Coach Stringer] always says to us if you were backed into a corner, come out fighting, chest first," Rutgers center/forward Jennifer Clemente said. "I'm going to get shot in the chest. I'm not going to get shot in the back running away.

"Basically that something she has always said to us. Whatever it is, always just attack it, don't let it attack you."

The Knights have been on the attack in the NCAA Tournament so far.

Rutgers (28-5), which allowed only 55.4 points a game in the regular season, held its second-round NCAA opponent, sixth-seeded Arizona, to just 47 points.

"We embraced the notion that certain elements of the game must be managed by us in a way that we control them," Stringer said. "We were able to measure each game not so much in wins and losses but in the elements that are going to come about.

"What we're seeing now is the product of that."

Looking at this woman, just 5'3", seeing the lines that joy and sadness have left on her face and hearing her gentle voice, you wonder why she hasn't broken under the weight of it all.

But Stringer's got a secret weapon -- a ferocious strength that helps her face each foe, chest first.

 
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