Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 1, 2022

The Weekend’s Lasting Story Wasn’t The Draft

Off the field of play, the big sports story of the weekend was of course the NFL Draft.  Taking place for the first time this year in Las Vegas and covered live by the assorted television and streaming outlets of ABC/ESPN as well as the NFL Network, the weeks leading up to Thursday night’s first round were, as always, filled with analysis and multiple iterations of mock drafts by assorted pundits.  Much of what those self-styled experts offered fans in advance was rendered meaningless when teams completed a record nine trades during the first round, scrambling the draft order and thus the needs of the team making the selection at various spots.

In the end, that constant resetting of expectations probably impacted this draft’s appeal – TV ratings were down by twenty percent from last year – less than the lack of an obvious number one choice, a reality occasioned in part by the weak quarterback class and absence of a standout offensive threat.  When the Steelers took local University of Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett with the 20th pick, it was the lowest slot for the first quarterback chosen since 1997.  Long before Pickett came off the board, the first five selections were defenders, and three of the next four were offensive linemen.  All critical positions in a team sport, but decidedly not the stuff of headlines.

For all the words written in the runup to the NFL Draft and all the attention paid to the carefully staged three-day spectacle, this weekend’s lead story is about potential.  Oh sure, the collegians chosen have all accomplished a great deal at that level of competition.  But when fans cheer their team’s first round selection or moan bitterly about the franchise’s decision to reach deep into the talent pool and choose an unlikely player, they do so based on a perception of what the newest member of their team will contribute one, or two, or five seasons from now.  Opinions strongly held and loudly expressed on draft day will often be rendered moot by the passage of time.  Some top picks will have career arcs like Ryan Leaf, and the occasional sixth rounder will turn out to be Tom Brady.  Like so much of what the NFL does, its Draft is an exquisitely marketed extravaganza, but like so much of what the NFL does, it is more about style than substance.

Another story which, like the NFL Draft, was not about any of this weekend’s games or the current seasons of any sport, garnered much less attention though it was far more meaningful than the annual stocking of NFL rosters.  Appropriately enough, given the weekend’s focus, it was a story that centered on the shaping of the careers and lives of college athletes.

Charlaine Vivian Stringer, who always goes by C. Vivian, became the women’s basketball coach at Cheyney State College, a historically Black university just outside Philadelphia, in 1971, when she was barely out of college herself.  She had been a trailblazer since she was a teenager, having successfully sued her high school when she was denied a spot on the cheerleading squad because of her race.  At a time when women’s sports were still largely an afterthought (Title IX was a year away from becoming law), Stringer wasted no time raising the profile of women’s basketball and her program’s place in it.  Competing for campus bragging rights with John Chaney, who ran the men’s program in his first head coaching job before eventually moving on to become a legend at Temple, Stringer piled up winning records, with her teams never losing more than five games in any season.

After she had been at Cheyney State for a decade, the NCAA finally sponsored its first women’s Division I tournament in 1982, with 32 teams filling the inaugural bracket.  As an independent Cheyney State had no conference avenue to the tournament, but Stringer’s team won an at-large bid on the strength of its 24-2 record.  The Wolves swept through the East Region, beating Auburn, N.C. State, and Kansas State to book a date in the very first Women’s Final Four.  There Cheyney State downed Maryland in the semifinals before finally falling to Louisiana Tech in the championship game.  One of the players on the winning squad was Kim Mulkey, who would go on to build her own Hall of Fame coaching career at Baylor and, as of last season, LSU.

A year later, after a second trip to the NCAA tournament, Stringer was wooed by the athletic department at Iowa.  A deciding factor in accepting the job after always living in eastern Pennsylvania was the university’s promise of intensive medical care for Stringer’s young daughter, who had been stricken with spinal meningitis not long before her mother’s Final Four season with Cheyney State.

At Iowa she proved just as adept at winning with a large Big 10 program as she had at a small independent school.  Stringer’s Hawkeyes regularly made it to the NCAA Tournament starting in her third season, and in 1993 second-seeded Iowa upset number one Tennessee in the Mideast Regional Final, giving Stringer her second trip to the Final Four.

As if on cue, two seasons later Rutgers offered Stringer a chance to return to more familiar ground on the east coast.  The opportunity had to be especially appealing just then, for in 1992, even as she was preparing for Iowa’s best season under her guidance, her husband Bill had died of a heart attack.  To no one’s surprise, Stringer was as successful at her third coaching stop as she had been at the first two.  In 2000, when the Scarlet Knights made the first of two Final Four appearances under her guidance, she became the first coach to lead three separate programs, men’s or women’s, to college basketball’s ultimate weekend.

That is but one of C. Vivian Stringer’s many records, achievement being celebrated throughout the college basketball community this weekend, when Stringer announced her retirement after half a century as a head coach.  But she would no doubt place greater importance on the young lives she shaped, including more than twenty who went on to the WNBA, which didn’t even exist for nearly half of Stringer’s career.  It was a career that exemplified excellence and resilience in equal measure, filled with great accomplishment but also laden with the awful burden of carrying on through personal tragedy.  The career of a trailblazer. 

When she began that journey, Stringer and Marian Washington stood out as Black coaches in women’s basketball.  Last month, when South Carolina downed UConn 64-49 at this year’s national championship game, Dawn Staley became the first Black head coach, male or female, to win multiple NCAA titles.  This weekend Staley tweeted to Stringer, “The strength of your shoulders allowed us to stand tall.”  It was a single sentence encapsulating a legacy far more important than anything the NFL had to offer this weekend.

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