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.”

When asked last week if the situation with Ms. Stringer is “sensitive or delicate,” Mr. Pernetti played dumb and said he didn’t understand the question. Perhaps comprehending the overall situation most clearly was Geno Ariemma, the legendary UConn coach.

“Coaches are human, they are subject to the same frustrations and disappointments as anyone else,” Mr. Auriemma said. “I’m sure what ‘C. Viv’ said was out of frustration. She’s usually very good at keeping everything in perspective.”

One perspective shows the loss to Connecticut was the 10th straight for Rutgers in what used to be one of the great rivalries in women’s college basketball.

Ms. Stringer—speaking of the 900-win milestone as just that—said: “I’ll be glad to get it over. I can’t even begin to share with you the stress. I don’t even want my sister to talk about it.”

One account of her verbal explosion early this month reported that Ms. Stringer clapped her hands twice for emphasis while shouting at reporters, “We’ve got people who cannot dribble to the left or to the right.”

She broke out the cuss words and even tried deflection, emphasizing how the football team has not won a championship while she has been successful at Rutgers.

“This program has been the star of this university in athletics for the past 15 years,” Mrs. Stringer said of her basketball team.

Her boss, Mr. Pernetti, is a 42-year-old former Rutgers football player who is finishing his fourth year as athletic director as the university turns toward football with an expanded stadium and a move to the Big Ten.

“Pernetti needs to be who he is supposed to be,” Ms. Stringer said. “Step up. Declare who you are. I don’t care about anybody else . . . And he knows—he should know—what time it is, and he does.”

Ms. Stringer has a flair for the melodramatic and hyperbolic, which you may have picked up on, but it’s often with good reason. She has compared herself to Sisyphus, the king in Greek mythology who was doomed to push a big boulder up a hill, only to have it fall back to renew the struggle.

Such a moment hit like a metaphoric meteor in Ms. Stringer’s best-remembered and most contentious moment in the spotlight, after she took her 2007 team to the NCAA championship game but lost, 59-46, to Tennessee.

It was her second Final Four team at Rutgers after one each from Cheyney State and Iowa before she moved to Rutgers in 1995.

But even before the 2007 players returned to campus, New York-based radio host Don Imus described them the next morning as “nappy-headed hos,” a concise blend of racism and sexism that got Mr. Imus fired by WFAN and Ms. Stringer mad.

“I couldn’t help but wonder if the fact that I was black had made our team seem blacker and therefore more open to ridicule and hatred,” Ms. Stringer wrote in her memoir, Standing Tall.

Ms. Stringer and her players landed on Oprah and Mr. Imus soon landed at WABC, where he provides a comic edge and lots of Fox News guests to the Right Wing Entertainment complex that dominates that powerful spot on the dial.

Ms. Stringer felt that Mr. Imus robbed her players of the praise they had earned and wrote in her book that his words were “vile, venomous, sexist, racist and hurtful . . . those words had stirred up a lot of old, unresolved feelings.”

Ms. Stringer rebounded with a season of 27-7 and an NCAA regional final; the next season slipped to 21-13 and three games deep into the tournament. And in the three seasons since, Ms. Stringer’s teams have won just one of four NCAA tournament games.

Just trying to make the tourney this season is the latest of her public struggles that began when she was a high-school student from Edenborn, in Western Pennsylvania, in 1964.

With the backing of the NAACP, she protested to the school board that her exclusion from the cheerleading squad was based on race. She won her case.

However, in her Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Ms. Stringer insisted she’s really not one for pom-poms and jazz fingers. “I’m not a cheerleader,” she said. “You know, ‘2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate?’ That’s not my thing.”