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The Curious Case Of C. Vivian Stringer

NCAA Womens Basketball: Rutgers at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Rutgers women’s basketball team will play against former Big East foe St. John’s tonight in Jamaica, Queens. However, the road taken to their tenth game of the season is an unfamiliar one. Rutgers is 2-7 this season and opened 0-5, the worst start in program history. The women’s team opened the season with double digit losses at home to Chattanooga and Elon. They lost by 30 points to a Princeton team that was 0-4 at the time. They lost at home to a ranked Duke team by 36 points, on the same night many former players from those great squads from the mid-2000’s were in attendance to support former teammate and all-time great Cappie Pondexter’s jersey being retired.

One thing that remains the same with this program is the head coach, Hall of Famer C. Vivian Stringer. Since Stringer took over the program in the 1995-1996 season through the 2011-2012 season, Rutgers went to the NCAA Tournament 14 times in her first 17 seasons, including 8 Sweet Sixteen appearances, 5 Elite Eights, and 2 Final Fours. She brought Rutgers to the brink of a national title in 2007, losing the championship game to Tennessee and legendary coach Pat Summit.

The glory days of the Rutgers women’s basketball program are sadly, long gone. They’ve made just one NCAA tournament appearance in the past four seasons and failed to clinch a berth last season despite having two WNBA first round draft picks in Kahleah Cooper and Rachel Hollivay. Stringer has had teams underachieve before. She successfully recruited five McDonald’s All-American’s to the banks in 2008, but the program only made it to the Sweet Sixteen once during the careers of those class members.

This year, with the team’s best player in Tyler Scaife taking a medical redshirt, things have really bottomed out. It’s highly unlikely that Stringer’s run as coach of Rutgers will be stopped by athletic director Pat Hobbs anytime soon, who announced earlier this year he was committed to her and working on a new 4 year contract. While nothing official has been formally announced, the prevailing thought is her job security is strong, despite the struggles this season. However, it’s fair to question if it should be.

There is no doubt Stringer is a coaching legend and deserving of being in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. She is the first women’s coach to take three different Division I programs to the Final Four (Cheyney State, Iowa, Rutgers) and the fourth winningest coach of all-time in women’s college basketball history. Her resume will rank near the top of the very best college basketball coaches, both men’s and women’s, forever.

Still, there is nothing laudable about this current team and it’s inexcusable for Rutgers to have fallen this badly so quickly. They are on course for just the fifth losing season since the program began in the 1974-1975 season and the first since the 2000-2001 campaign. Losing seasons happen occasionally, even with great coaches. However, the programs Rutgers is falling to and the manner in which they are losing is the most disturbing part.

Yes, Scaife, a potential All-American, is sidelined all season and it’s possible several other starters for next season are on the bench this year, due to the program carrying four players who transferred in this summer. While the team will most likely be better next season, it’s fair to question why recruiting has been so poor in recent years? Stringer made a choice to carry so many transfer players that would be ineligible this season, leaving her roster wire thin.

Stringer certainly endured years without proper support from the athletic department, most recently from former AD Julie Hermann, who never addressed her contract issues like Hobbs just did. This definitely hurt her ability to recruit elite prospects to some degree. I still think it’s fair to question how coach Stringer allowed her program to be susceptible to such roster turnover. However, Rutgers has also experienced a lot of turnover with assistant coaches as well, which never bodes well in recruiting.

With all that being said, it’s Stringer’s behavior this season that is most concerning. I’ll admit I have admired her candor throughout her tenure at Rutgers and she has always been blunt in her assessment of her teams. However, her recent comments seem a bit out of touch with the team playing so poorly. If she is going to be brutally honest, Stringer needs to own up to her role in this season as well.

After the blowout loss to Princeton, this is what Stringer told Ryan Dunleavy of NJ Advance Media:

"It's frustrating,'' the Rutgers coach said, "because you would think that the people who can play could make a difference. It's sad. They don't have a clue about what they see.''

"I'm upset,'' she said. "I don't know what to say. I think the best thing to do is just calm my nerves. We don't have any fighters. When I said we could lose every game, that's what I meant. We are capable of that.''

Um, is it just me or does that fall on the head coach? If your players don’t know what they’re doing on the court, then you’re failing as a coach. Throwing your players under the bus doesn’t change that fact. If they aren’t playing hard and doing everything effort wise to win, that’s on you coach.

Things really boiled over after Monday’s loss in double overtime to James Madison. Stringer was blunt as usual, but also failed to hold herself accountable. Our old friend Griffin Whitmer covered her presser for the Daily Targum and in talking about Precious Hall of James Madison, who set a RAC all-time scoring record with 46 points, Stringer didn’t miss an opportunity to lace in an excuse.

“Do you think anybody could handle her? No. We just let her get the ball. We got the midgets out there and she shot over us.”

While Stringer made it clear she appreciates the fans, the opposite of what Eddie Jordan did last season when he went into full meltdown mode, she missed a chance to talk about her own performance:

“I’m speechless. Totally speechless. And sometimes things are better off not said,” she said. “We're in front of our home fans and fortunate anyone would want to come see this mess. So that’s how I feel about it. It’s not nice. It’s an honor that our fans come. They have a right to expect a certain level of play. I hope that the other people have a lot of fans and maybe we’ll pretend that they’re ours.”

You can watch her entire presser here:

At the end of the day, the head coach is responsible for the record and performance of their team. It would be great if Stringer spent less time blaming her players and more time assessing her own performance. She criticizes the effort of her players, but that falls squarely on her. If her team isn’t playing hard for her, then there is a problem. Look at the men’s team this season, who have been one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country. They are winning because they are playing hard and playing for each other. That’s not happening with the women’s team, regardless of their roster limitations, which is also on the head coach.

There is no denying Stringer will have five key players eligible next season and the team should be improved. However, that was a conscious decision to align the roster that way, other than Scaife, who is redshirting due to medical reasons. She had to know how challenging that would make this season, even with Scaife. It’s not like the team is decimated by injuries and at the end of the day, it’s her job to maximize the talent on the current roster. That isn’t happening and Stringer needs to own up to that fact.

Big Ten play isn’t going to make things easier and if she continues her recent approach after bad losses, perception is only going to get worse. She has her support from the current athletic director, so there isn’t any more room for excuses with recruiting. It’s time for Stringer to look at herself in the mirror. Rutgers has committed to her, now it’s time for Stringer to do one of her best coaching jobs of her career. Great coaches make the most of the talent they have on the roster. It’s time for Stringer to do that and if she doesn’t think there is anything left to prove in her exemplary career, then it’s time for her to question whether she should stay committed to Rutgers.