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HAWKEYES TAKE WING : Under the Leadership of Coach C. Vivian Stringer, Iowa's Women's Basketball Team Has Become No. 1

January 24, 1988|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

IOWA CITY, Iowa — 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."

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