Old friends meet in final
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
CLEVELAND -- They've been dear friends -- extended basketball family -- for nearly as long as they've been college coaches.
For three decades, on separate trails that led both to the Hall of Fame, C. Vivian Stringer and Pat Summitt have consoled each other through hardships. They've even shared fashion tips.
When her phone rings and Summitt sees it's Stringer on the other end, Tennessee's coach knows it's time to settle in.
"Vivian can talk," Summitt said of Stringer, who has Rutgers one win away from its first NCAA title. "And I don't mean for a few minutes."
Soon, they'll have something new to discuss.
Tonight, the coaching giants who have combined for 1,723 victories in 69 seasons, will share college basketball's grandest stage as the Scarlet Knights (27-8) meet the Lady Vols (33-3) in the championship.
For Summitt, this is familiar territory. Appearing in title game No. 12, she's going for her seventh national crown, hoping to end a nine-year drought in Knoxville, where cutting down nets and hoisting banners inside Thompson-Boling Arena are seen as birthrights.
For Stringer, this could be the final chapter in an improbable season in which she didn't expect a happy ending. After a 2-4 start, Rutgers, without a senior on its roster, has scrapped its way to the top with a defense every bit as tenacious as its fiery coach.
"Her kids, they just bring it," Summitt said. "They love their coach."
The only void on Stringer's impressive resume is a national championship, and now she'll have to beat Summitt to get it.
"I just want to experience it," Stringer said. "It would be nice."
The two have met six times in the NCAA tournament, with Summitt winning five. Since Stringer took over at Rutgers 12 years ago, her teams have had their seasons ended by the Lady Vols on four occasions, including each of the past two seasons.
Rutgers earned a spot in the final by dominating LSU and its star Sylvia Fowles, the Lady Tigers' 6-foot-6 center, in a semifinal. The Scarlet Knights made eight 3-pointers in the first half, built an 18-point lead by halftime and rolled over their more heralded Southeastern Conference opponent.
Fowles was swallowed whole by Rutgers' defense, which double-, triple- and quadruple-teamed her in the post. She finished with five points on 2-of-10 shooting, not the kind of night LSU needed from "Big Syl."
Tennessee's Candace Parker will be Rutgers' next challenge. The 6-foot-4 sophomore's versatility presents a whole new dilemma for Stringer, who is concerned about being able to slow the leading Lady Vol.
"I don't know what we're going to do," Stringer said. "I've been up all night thinking about it."
That's Stringer in a nutshell: She can be both a worry wart and supremely confident. It's how she's always been during a coaching career that began at tiny Cheyney State in 1971, moved to Iowa in 1983 and to Rutgers in 1995.
In 1982, Stringer led Cheyney to the first women's Final Four, which also included Louisiana Tech, Maryland and Tennessee. It took her 25 years to get back to the title game, which is why she's having so much fun with a young team she's called "naive" and "very much like no other team that I've coached."
Earlier this season, Stringer was so upset with her players that she kicked them out of their locker room, took away their red-and-black Rutgers gear and basically told them they weren't worthy of representing the school.
Summitt remembered seeing Rutgers play against No. 1 Duke on TV earlier this season and worrying about her close friend and confidante.
"I was like, 'Oh, it's going to be a long year for Vivian if she can't get this young group to step up and believe in her system,"' Summitt said. "But knowing Vivian, I'm not surprised she has. She's very persistent. Very persistent."
Stringer's diligence paid off with this year's group, which would like nothing more than to be the team that finally wins it all for its leader.
"It's been the talk since the beginning of the season," junior guard Matee Ajavon said. "Coach Stringer is a very special person to us, and I think it would be one of the best things I can do in my life."
Stringer's own life has been filled with tribulations. Her husband, Bill, died from a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day in 1992, and she spent months in the hospital when her daughter contracted spinal meningitis as a baby.
In 1995, when she was considering the move from Iowa to Rutgers, Stringer needed advice. She turned to Summitt for some.
"I think that we were on the phone for like three and a half hours," Summitt recalled. "And it was in the wee hours of the morning. I just knew when she made that move, it took a lot of courage. But what she's been able to do at different programs, it just speaks volumes for who she is.
"You could take Vivian and put her in three more programs and in the next 15 years she would be successful. She has great passion, and I think she's handled adversity better than anyone else I know in the profession."
The next hurdle is Tennessee, and Stringer wouldn't want it any other way.
"It's only appropriate," she said. "I can think of no more appropriate team, honestly. It started with Tennessee, and it should end that way."