HAWKEYES TAKE WING : Under the Leadership of Coach C. Vivian Stringer, Iowa’s Women’s Basketball Team Has Become No. 1
Something is happening here. It is a gathering storm.
Soon, it will be raining basketballs onto the plains of Eastern Iowa. Farmers and families will rejoice. Not for saved crops but for salvaged pride. Iowa pride.
For at last, their women’s basketball team--their undefeated Hawkeyes--are No. 1. And that makes them all No. 1.
All of which makes C. Vivian Stringer, 39, the No. 1 prophet of basketball rejuvenation. She said it would happen like this.
Stringer stood up there at the first press conference for women’s athletics at the University of Iowa and told all the snickering sportswriters how she was going to fill the Carver-Hawkeye Arena and win a Big Ten Conference title and, gulp, bring the national championship to Iowa!
After the sports reporters from the Des Moines Register and the Iowa Press Citizen and the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Quad City Times got up off the floor, naturally they all rushed back to their desks to write about the dream.
“I have come halfway across the country because of the school’s commitment to revitalize the program,” Stringer said at that introductory press conference on April 6, 1983. “I’ve always been one to accept a challenge. I dream. I’m a person who wants to make my dreams a reality. Why not Iowa?”
Why not, indeed. How about six months of winter, travel logistics better suited for dog sledders, three consecutive losing seasons--the previous coach quit--attendance hovering about 500 and more local interest in hog futures than wither goest the women’s basketball program.
Then there was the 6-on-6 question.
In Iowa high schools, the girls who figure to be Stringer’s potential recruits play an antiquated, six-player game that does not translate to the five-player game the rest of the basketball world plays.
A simpler translation? Don’t expect any of the thousands of girls who play basketball around Iowa to come to your school and play for you and certainly, whatever you do, don’t count on those thousands of rabid 6-on-6 fans to care one whit for your team.
So imagine the guffawing when Stringer blithely recounted her dream to Iowa. Dream? Well of course. This woman was plainly still asleep.
“She floored me at the press conference,” said Dr. Christine Grant, the Iowa women’s athletic director. “Vivian talked about her dream. I’m not sure anyone believed her. The press was snickering. I think I was one of the few people who knew what we were getting.”
When Iowa’s women’s sports information director reviewed a transcript of the press conference, he found himself underlining that word, dream. That SID, Rick Klatt, now the director of sports promotions at Iowa, admits to some skepticism about Stringer’s gospel.
“I’ll say this, when she first came here, I thought, ‘We’ve heard this before,’ ” Klatt said. “You hear it from every coach. But that’s her. That’s Vivian, speaking from the innermost recesses of her heart.”
Klatt didn’t know it then, but he now identifies Stringer’s arrival at Iowa as “the takeoff point for women’s athletics here.”
“She came with impeccable credentials,” said USC Coach George Raveling, Stringer’s male counterpart at the time at Iowa. “It was a gigantic step forward for Iowa athletics, not just for women’s athletics.”
They were hired within days of each other, they were brought in with some fanfare and soon became sturdy friends.
“Vivian and I acted as an internal support system for each other,” Raveling said. “We talked the game. We talked about personal problems that we could identify with. I always felt we were partners in a mission--to prove we could get the job done.
“There were times when I felt that--we are out here in the middle of this lake, in a boat by ourselves and there was no one to row us but ourselves. Sometimes we were the only people who empathized with each other.”
Stringer and Raveling were high-profile black coaches, each from the East--although Raveling had most recently been at Washington State--each with problems. Raveling, for instance, was having a difficult time adjusting to the limited social opportunities in Iowa City.
Stringer had a number of problems. Her family, and her husband’s, were in Pennsylvania, and the Stringers missed the closeness they were used to.
Even within their immediate family, they had adjustments to make. Bill Stringer was busy trying to put his doctorate in exercise physiology to work. Yet, the burden of caring for the couple’s two children fell to him.
The couple also had to sort out problems with their daughter, Janine, who is seriously handicapped.
Then, almost as soon as she got to Iowa, Stringer became pregnant. “Talk about about bad timing,” she said.
In a way, though, the very public pregnancy of Vivian Stringer was the ice breaker she needed with the Iowa fans.
“This is a very family oriented state,” Klatt said. “I think when the fans saw Vivian out there, very pregnant, and coaching, it was something they could understand. A mother, a wife. I think it endeared her to the fans.”
Soon, Hawkeye fans were in the stands at the games, knitting baby blankets and booties. “I had so much yellow and black stuff . . . " she said.
Things were clicking with Stringer’s dream, too. The season before, the team had finished with a 7-20 record. Stringer was to finish her first season at 17-10. Along the way, she found her toughest task was to make believers out of her players, who had grown accustomed to losing and unfamiliar with winning.
“When we first took over the program, the first thing we had to change was the attitude,” Stringer said. “It was a practice here to lose. I lost more games that first year than I ever had. It was sickening.
“I had players who were saying, ‘Wow, Drake is coming, oh no!’ I was used to players who would say, ‘Drake, yeah, we’re gonna send them home.’
“I remember one game at Wisconsin, the kids were so nervous. My seniors forgot their place in the layup line.
“I went in the locker room and wrote on the board, ‘Iowa basketball.’ I told them, ‘I want you to look at this and remember. It will happen that, if people are talking about women’s basketball, they will talk about Iowa. There will come a time when all roads will lead to Iowa. Remember that.’ ”
After that first season, people all over Iowa were buying into the dream. Attendance shot to an average of 3,381 a game. The next year, the team went 20-8, Stringer was a finalist for coach of the year, home games were averaging 4,363 fans. And, in one incredible night, 22,157 fans were shoehorned into the 15,500-seat arena to watch Iowa play Big Ten rival Ohio State. That was a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. single-game attendance record, although it was broken at Tennessee this season.
The fans come to watch Iowa win, and Stringer obliges. The Hawkeyes have won 91% of their home games under her.
It has been an exciting time at Iowa, where excellence in men’s athletics was well established but, outside of field hockey, the women didn’t used to have much to say for themselves.
Grant, the athletic director, pinned the program’s hopes on Stringer. Knowing that excellence tends to beget excellence, Grant was betting that the basketball team’s success would support her trickle-down theory for the rest of the sports: fans, attention, and donations might, eventually, come in for the other Iowa women’s sports.
Grant had risked more than her credibility when she wooed Stringer away from tiny Cheyney State in Pennsylvania, where Stringer’s teams had taken on myth-like proportions. The last team she coached there went 27-2 and made the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament.
To get Stringer to Iowa, Grant had to make profound changes in the basketball program, starting with the budget. The travel allowance had to be increased. The recruiting budget had to be increased.
What would the other Iowa women’s coaches think of this and how would they react?
“I was fully comfortable about telling our other coaches what I was going to do,” Grant said. “I felt that if I wanted to bring in a top coach, I had to give (her) things they didn’t have. They were supportive. They knew it would be for everyone’s benefit.”
Grant’s gamble paid off. The basketball team may be the centerpiece of women’s athletics for Iowa at the moment, but Grant is more interested in sharing the wealth. Let them all be good teams. What Iowa wants is a dynasty.
And Iowa can afford it. Grant has a $2.87-million budget for all her women’s sports. Basketball is lavished with $192,837, exclusive of scholarships and coaches’ salaries.
With this, the Hawkeyes have awarded themselves plush digs. The women’s basketball locker room has a carpeted lounge, with a color TV and very loud stereo. In another room is the state-of-the-art dressing room. At each player’s locker is a vanity and in front of that a stool with her name and number on it.
Basketball spends money but basketball also generates money. The Hawkeyes pulled in $120,000 at the gate last season, helping the team inch toward Grant’s goal of a self-sufficient department.
Also at Iowa is Lucy Broadston, a full-time fund raiser for women’s sports, one of only a few in the country. Broadston raised $300,000 for women’s sports at Iowa, mainly by tapping into an overlooked segment of Iowa sports fans--women.
“There were a lot of women here who could have been good athletes if they had the opportunity or encouragement,” Broadston said. “They want to help now. Women had never been approached to give. It was always the husbands. A lot of the I Clubs (booster clubs) were still stag. These men never invited their wives to join. Now, the women have their own cards.”
Broadston found Stringer a valuable fund raiser and together they barnstormed the state, spreading the word and sharing the dream.
The money began coming in, dollar by tight dollar.
“Remember that Iowa is a very different place,” Broadston said. “We don’t have an Orange County here. We don’t have that many wealthy people. For example, our top level of giving is $1,000, the Golden Hawks. Compare that to USC, where the top level is $7,500, and you see what we’ve got here.”
Hate to tell Lucy this, but the top level of giving at USC is the Scholarship Club, and it costs $15,000 to get in. Why dampen the dream?
Stringer runs a quiet practice. There are no whistles, no yelling or arm waving. There are many minutes of intense watching by Stringer and her two assistants, followed by brief bursts of instruction.
She is a coach of understatement and eye contact.
“She’s small and her voice isn’t very deep, but she can get through to you,” Michelle Edwards, a senior guard said, rolling her eyes. “You know she means business.”
In her fifth season at Iowa, Stringer has a .739 winning percentage, the winningest basketball coach ever at the school.
“She knows the game as well as any coach in the country, be he male or female,” Raveling said. “I always told her she’s one of the greats of coaching. She has an amazing feel for people. She has good people skills. The kids believe in her.”
Stringer is a strong recruiter, too. Possibly too strong for Iowa high school girls. Her high-powered program, instead of acting as a magnet, has intimidated them. There are only two native Iowans on the Hawkeye roster.
“I think a lot of the kids are intimidated, they lack confidence that they can play here,” said Shanda Berry, a junior center from Oelwein, Iowa. “Plus, the kids who come out of a 6-on-6 program really don’t have the skills.”
Stringer said she has an obligation, as a state school, to recruit Iowans first. She’s not so sure she’ll get them, though.
“I know that in Texas and Tennessee, the coaches there are sure they’ll get the top players out of the state. I don’t have the same confidence,” she said.
To the players she does get, Stringer offers not just her coaching skills, but her vision of what her athletes will become. In her 14 years of coaching, she has a 97% graduation rate among her players.
Edwards, who came from Boston, hadn’t heard of Iowa but knew about Stringer. “She used to talk about what she wanted to do here,” Edwards said. “I didn’t doubt her. I was a believer. But I didn’t know all this could happen. Being No. 1, it means a lot.”
Stringer will not let her team, 13-0, dwell on its top ranking, now in its fourth week. She didn’t even tell the team about the No. 1 ranking. They read it in the local papers.
“To be No. 1 is fine,” Stringer said. “But the proof of No. 1 is to be able to sustain it over a time. We haven’t done that. Texas has done that. Tennessee has done that. I am looking to build and I want to develop a tradition here. We are not a tradition yet.
“I feel good, I want to be a giver. I want the people here to be happy and proud. When people laughed at my dream, they laughed out of ignorance. But I know we can do it here. We will.”