By Mel Greenberg
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - As retired Slippery Rock basketball coach Anne Griffiths watched teenage tennis sensation Melanie Oudin reel off a string of upsets in the U.S. Open the last two weeks, Griffiths immediately spotted a quality of a former player she coached in the mid-1960s.
That player was current Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, who on Friday night will be inducted here into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame along with an elite group of former NBA players in Michael Jordan, David Robinson, John Stockton, and current Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
“That’s the spunk that Vivian had,” Griffiths said of Oudin, comparing her to Stringer. Griffiths spoke from her home in Western Pennsylvania before preparing to travel here with a contingent of Slippery Rock notables from Stringer’s formative years.
“When I looked at a future ballplayer, I really looked at who they are more than what they can do,” Griffiths said of a time in which recruiting was virtually nil in women’s basketball.
“Vivian was a nice surprise. I just knew that she was an athlete and she was the type of person that would give you more than a 100 percent.
“And that’s why Oudin is as successful as she is. I mean she’s just tenacious as an athlete and that’s the way I would describe Vivian. We called her `V.I.’ at that time.”
“She learned that from her dad.” Griffiths continued of Stringer’s character. “I didn’t know her family at the time, but she knew what she wanted and she got it throughout life, except she had tragedies along the way.”
Stringer’s daughter Nina was stricken with spinal meningitis as an infant that left her handicapped for life in 1982 around the same time Stringer was guiding Cheyney to the first NCAA Women’s Final Four and title game.
Just before Thanksgiving and the start of the 1992-93 season when Stringer was coaching Iowa, her husband Bill died suddenly of a heart attack. The two had met in college where he was a member of the gymnastics squad.
In the spring of 2007 just after taking Rutgers to a second Final Four, Stringer and her team drew unwanted national attention caused by racial and sexual innuendos from national radio talk show host Don Imus, who had watched the Scarlet Knights’ loss to Tennessee on television.
However, Stringer and her Scarlet Knights drew praise for the way they conducted themselves reacting to the slurs.
“Her speech at the press conference was outstanding and everyone in the nation also so it that way,” Griffiths said.
Stringer has also battled breast cancer.
When Stringer led Rutgers to a sentimental first-ever NCAA Final Four appearance in 2000, when the event was in Philadelphia, she became the first-ever men’s or women’s coach to take three different teams that far into the tournament.
Stringer arrived on the collegiate scene at Slippery Rock from her coal-mining home town of Edenborn in the summer of 1966 at about the same time the Beatles had invaded the American music scene on their tour from England.
Both occurrences were impact events in their respective worlds.
Griffith recalled not knowing Stringer initially, but she has been a mentor to her former star throughout Stringer’s illustrious career.
“I didn’t know her in the summer because I wasn’t teaching at that time. But I saw her and said, `Well, this one might be a good one.’ She just always had a basketball in her hand and was on the field house court all the time,” Griffiths continued.
When Stringer and her husband stayed an extra year at Slippery Rock to obtain masters degrees, Griffiths, who had no assistant coaches, was able to get a graduate position available so Stringer could join her on the sidelines.
Moving On To Cheyney
“She always knew she wanted to coach and then she went to Cheyney,” Griffiths of the small black university located in the Western Philadelphia suburbs.
“In the beginning we were able to beat them,” Griffiths said of the new rivalry against a former player. “But then we were at an AIAW playoff in Monmouth, New Jersey -- she probably doesn’t remember this -- I knew by then her teams were quite good.
“And I went up to her and said, `Now, Vivian! Don’t you dare run us off this court!’ And she just laughed, but of course she won.
“It got to a point with her teams -- we would beat them and they would beat us. And that’s when she went on with that team to the nationals.
“She brought that Cheyney up from absolutely minimal in what they had. She performed miracles – well, each school she went to, she always performed miracles.”
The Chaney-Stringer Friendship
Cheyney is where Stringer first met Wolves men’s basketball coach John Chaney, also the former Temple coach and Hall of Famer, who will present her at Friday night’s ceremony. The two were also to be at a dinner here Thursday night which features a reunion of former inductees along with media and other preliminary awards.
At Cheyney, the two quickly struck up a friendship and their teams would practice together. In one ironic twist of their long relationship, the week that Cheyney’s Temple team earned a first-ever No. 1 national ranking in the mid-1980s, Stringer’s Iowa team earned a first-ever top spot in the women’s poll, which made their dual success an instant national story.
Griffiths recalled Stringer’s earliest mention of her then-new friend and colleague in the early 1970s.
“He means so much to her,” Griffiths said. “From the time she got to Cheyney and when I talked to her and so forth, she would talk about John Chaney because he was so supportive. He wasn’t competing for the facilities, he just embraced her and supported her and I think that was significant for Vivian throughout her coaching career.
“He’s always been there.
“The nice thing is they’ve helped support each other through the good times and tough times and it’s so critical to have someone like that,” Griffiths explained.
The Slippery Rock coach was one of the few to know in 1983 that Iowa was taking an interest in luring Stringer to coach the Midwest school which was not much of a factor in the national picture.
Iowa Comes Calling
“Vivian was so devoted to Cheyney and you do, you get devoted to a place. The athletic director of Iowa, Christine Grant (a pioneer in the movement to pass Title IX legislation), was a very good friend of mine. And she called me and said, `How do I get Vivian Stringer?’
“I said, `You pray a lot. But the first thing you have to do before she even thinks about coming is you have to show her you have a very good pediatric facility for Nina.’ And of course, they did. They had the best Nina could have had.
“And of course that was No. 1 for Vivian and Bill. And then Christine just started to work on her for that.
“And Christine was a very good athletic director. She was in tune with her coaches. She doesn’t just hire them because they’re going to be winners or something,” Griffiths related.
“And I think that impressed Vivian. But it took her a long time to decide. She called me and I don’t know how long she talked on the phone in trying to decide what she’s going to do. And then she and Bill decided to go to Iowa.
“And it was a very good move on their part, but very hard. It was hard for her to leave Cheyney.
“I went out to quite a few of the games and every time I went out there, there was another sister or brother, and she said,`I think my whole family is out here.’ And they were.
‘“One sister and her husband are still there because they liked Iowa so much,” Griffiths continued.
“There weren’t many African American families in Iowa. She was worried about the boys (Stringer’s two sons) adjusting to their own African American culture. But the boys loved it. They really liked it out there in Iowa.
“When she and Bill were at Slippery Rock, I think they may have been the only two African Americans. But they weren’t in that way, they were just Bill and Vivian.
“It was wise of her to think about her heritage and culture for her children in wanting them to understand.”
Griffiths recalled the time Stringer’s team had gotten so good that it’s Big Ten game at home against Ohio State also became a national showdown and drew a jammed crowd of more than 15,000 persons in a snowstorm, which also set the stage for attendance to begin to boom for those type of matchups.
“I recall talking to Christine, and she said, `I had to go on the radio and tell the people please turn around and go back home because we were over the fire marshal’s limit. We were 5,000 over the limit and they said don’t let one more person come in here.’ So she didn’t want them to be upset.”
Rutgers Makes Its Bid
Eventually Rutgers began trying to lure Stringer back to the East coast for what will be a 15-year run this season.
“But then it was very hard to leave Iowa,” Griffiths recalled that deliberation. ”Cheyney, the university, embraced her. But in Iowa, the entire state embraced her. You could see the difference. When she walked down the street, she was the star in the state of Iowa.
“As much as they thought the world of the football coach out there, they loved her too. When she decided to leave Iowa, Christine told me the people, her supporters, they went through a grieving process, they thought so much of her.
“I never thought of Rutgers as a destination when she called me and said, `What do you know about Rutgers,’ and then I had to do my homework and find out.
“She’s made good moves. Every place she sets a goal and she achieves that goal. I think today, the goal’s just to get there (at the final four) and then come what may, because then you really go against some really good teams.”
Griffiths said Stringer had been fortunate in terms of administrative support at Iowa and Rutgers.
“The one thing she’s always had is support from the public relations director and they work together to achieve these goals,” Griffiths observed. “And you can’t do it without support from the athletic office. I think she has that.
“Getting Vivian where she needs to be media wise is a hard job, so I’m glad to hear they have a good one (Stacey Brann) there for her.
“Her time schedule is so outrageous she needs someone like that.”
Griffiths is familiar with Stringer’s trait of being so unhappy with her team’s performance in an easy win that she’s been known to keep deadline-frantic reporters waiting while she went over fine points of the game plan with her players.
“She’s needed someone strong enough to say, `Vivian, come on, let’s go out and talk the media and then let’s go back in.’
“But many of them never challenged her on that. But I think she would have done that if someone would have said, `C’mon, let’s get out there.’”
“But she has a routine and she doesn’t usually bend.”
Brann and Stringer were rumored to be working deep into Wednesday night here trying to get Stringer’s acceptance speech firmed up with all the points covered in the limited time allowed.
Since there is a deadline to get to the ceremonies, bets were called off over which would take longer to complete – the health legislation in Washington or Stringer’s speech.
Griffiths laughed over the suggestion.
“If Vivian was ever going to be concise, she would be concise by now.”