Legendary Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer learned about burnout the hard way, but now she's back to winning while putting her health first

DeArbea WalkerContributor
Yahoo Sports
Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer was forced to take a leave of absence in spring 2019. She returned later that year and got the school off to its best start since 2005. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer was forced to take a leave of absence in spring 2019. She returned later that year and got the school off to its best start since 2005. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer stands silently near halfcourt, embodying a rare persona. Engaged with relaxed broad shoulders, feet shoulder-length apart as associate head coach Tim Eatman runs drills. Not planted in the thick of practice, as her sharp tongue makes an appearance only when necessary, but her stamp on the team still unmistakable. 

Point guard Alexis Morris starts jogging at half court before making a cut to the right at the three-point arc.

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Bounce. Bounce. Screech. Bounce. Bounce. Pass … swish.

“Stop,” Eatman says, as he walks from the baseline into the center of the court during a recent scrimmage.

“There is a cut there,” he says, pointing to where grad transfer Danielle Migliore should have been as the team practices a game pattern.

By this point, the Scarlet Knights had run through this particular play three times, but the execution was still off. They would try a handful of other patterns over the next 20 minutes, with other new faces finding themselves in a similar position to Migliore — a few steps behind where they should be on the floor. 

But for what purpose?

“Getting them to understand this is not high school,” Eatman said. “This is not another program. This is Rutgers. And this is the way coach Stringer likes to do things and we have to make sure we step up to it.” 

Stringer, 71, is the engine behind Rutgers’ women’s basketball program, the fifth-winningest women’s basketball coach of all time and enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, inducted in the same class as Michael Jordan in 2009.

She’s also a warrior in her own right, having dealt with the loss of her husband and conquering breast cancer. So she’s taken a slightly more reserved role, and Eatman does a lot of the communicating to players this season.

Looking at the results, it seems to be working. They were in the midst of their best season since 1990-1991 before Monday, going 15-2 before a loss to Michigan State. The Scarlet Knights are in second place in the Big Ten.

But something is noticeably different this season than in years past. Stringer no longer lets the job consume her. She knows when it’s time to run a drill again, but she also knows when it’s time to go home. It took her decades to strike the right balance, and a frightening reality check from doctors.

In November 2018, Stringer reached the milestone of 1,000 wins. But by February 2019, she was stepping away from the game. She says she had given everything she could. She found herself staying up until the wee hours of the morning and ingesting caffeine pills before closing up shop each night. After 40-plus years of that routine, her body had had enough. Her doctors told her things had to change quickly.

“I just needed to back off and take more care of myself and give more responsibilities to everybody else,” Stringer said. 

C. Vivian Stringer learned to reset her routine and found a healthier off-the-court balance. (AP Photo/Gail Burton, File)
C. Vivian Stringer learned to reset her routine and found a healthier off-the-court balance. (AP Photo/Gail Burton, File)

Scarlet Knights carry torch during Stringer’s absence

Eatman was notified shortly after Rutgers' February 21 loss to Michigan last season that Stringer’s doctors were pulling her away from the game. Stringer didn’t leave a plan and had zero contact with the team for six months.

Eatman says he wasn’t worried. He was prepared for this moment. In her 24 years coaching Rutgers, Stringer had developed a well-oiled machine that he could lead seamlessly during her absence.

Before she left, and before news broke to the public, Stringer made sure to contact highly touted center Maori Davenport and her other committed recruits. None of them transferred or decommitted based on Stringer’s decision. 

“To come to Rutgers, there has to be a belief in what we do,” Eatman said. “Ordinary people don't come to Rutgers. It has to be within you. Because you know that when I look at you in the eyes and tell you, ‘Coach is going to be fine,’ you trust that.”

Eatman didn’t contact Stringer once during her time off because he wanted her to focus on her health. He knew if she had an inkling of suspicion that something was going south with the team, she would be 10 fingers into the mix. 

“Coach will fight and give her life for us, but it’s a matter of what we will do for her,” Eatman said.

The Scarlet Knights ended up with a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.

The compromises of Stringer returning  

Once Stringer was ready to get back on the sideline, Rutgers gave her the freedom to restructure the way she runs the program. The Scarlet Knights bumped down their practice time and eliminated early-morning sessions. Stringer says if 7 a.m. practices continued, that would have been it for her.

This season their practices begin at 2 p.m. — guaranteeing her a full eight hours of rest each night. 

“Coaching basketball is far more than wins and losses. It's a source of pride in who they are, and we want to play the best of the competition,” Stringer said. “It’s more important to me that I demonstrate what it means to be a strong woman that they know who they are, and they get far more from basketball than just playing basketball."

Since returning to the sidelines, the Hall of Famer has had some tough hurdles to clear — a new system, lack of depth, and the addition of five faces to the rotation. 

Stringer’s emphasis right now is making sure her players are paying attention to the details and technicalities of the game.

“I'm like this; if I don't like the way we're playing, then I'll just take the whole team out and just lose, because I'd rather lose than play the game ugly,” Stringer said. 

The losses are few and far between in this new Stringer chapter, and another tournament berth is more than likely. It’s amazing what can happen on a full night’s rest.

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