That Losing Feeling: Stringer’s Quest for 900 Continues

Coach Vivian Stringer

Coach Vivian Stringer

A picture of Coach Vivian Stringer hangs high in the Rutgers basketball arena, the only face in the RAC rafters, looming near the ceiling like some stained-glass window of a saint in a church. It adorns a banner honoring her 2009 induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in a class that included Michael Jordan—and his infamous, testy acceptance speech. But like MJ, this saint has a potty mouth. And the shiny wood floor below has reflected fewer smiles from that flesh-and-blood face on the sidelines this season.

Saturday afternoon, Ms. Stringer will try for the fourth time for her 900th victory when her Lady Knights visit St. John’s. With a record of 5-7 in the Big East and 14-11 overall, this highly accomplished and much-acclaimed coach is enduring her annus horribilis.

Earlier this season, her Lady Knights stunned their fans by losing to both Seton Hall and Princeton, an unthinkable embarrassment that Jersey outsiders might not fully grasp (imagine losing to your kid sister on a backyard hoop—on television, in your underpants). Her team might not make the N.C.A.A. tournament for the first time since 2002 and the tension is showing.

In a recent outburst strident even by Ms. Stringer’s stinging standards, she criticized the skills of her players, disparaged the success of other sports on campus and seemed to challenge Athletic Director Tim Pernetti for a vote of confidence that did not come. She also called some critical fans “crazies.”

Black History month and the impending milestone should have made this February a triumphant time for Ms. Stringer, the working personification of success, a soon-to-be 65-year-old survivor raised in an era when coaching opportunities were not easily available for blacks and women and girls played a limited-zoned game of six-player teams with less running. And yet…

“It’s not supposed to be like this,” Ms. Stringer said late last week after a practice. “I want to sigh.”  As she said it, she released a long, slow breath, as if forcing herself to try to relax.

Only six other Division I coaches, people like Bobby Knight and Pat Summitt, have crossed the 900-win threshold. But Rutgers home crowds have fallen to below 2,000, on average, less than half of what they used to be when Ms. Stringer took her team as far as the 2007 national championship game.

At a Feb. 8 news conference, a question about her critics ignited the bitter rant.

“If I fall to these crazies—and that’s what I say they are—then I’m losing my mind,” Ms. Stringer said.  “That’s how people are: What have you done for me lately?” And she said much more.

Eight days after her diatribe, Mr. Pernetti spoke with Ms. Stringer at length by the team bench before a defeat against Connecticut at home. After dodging reporters for more than a week, Mr. Pernetti was persuaded to do a brief presser at halftime.

He acknowledged that he called Ms. Stringer on the phone the day after her outburst.

“It was a good, productive discussion and we’ll leave it at that,” Mr. Pernetti said. Hardly a ringing endorsement of his coach, and Mr. Pernetti was asked to assess the women’s basketball program overall.

“I don’t want to talk about the program until the season is over,” he said.

What about Ms. Stringer’s desire for a contract extension?

“I’m not having a discussion about contracts,” Mr. Pernetti said, referring to the media, adding only that contract dialogue with Ms. Stringer’s advisers has been “ongoing for an extended period of time.”

At slightly more than $1 million per year, she is said to be New Jersey’s highest-paid state employee, something frequently mentioned in the Star-Ledger. Speaking to the newspaper before Ms. Stringer’s harsh words, Mr. Pernetti said: “Vivian has built a national program and that’s what we expect—a national champion.”