For a thoughtful and loving look at the best Rutgers men’s basketball team in school history, the “other” 1976 unbeaten team, read this New York Times piece from last year.
I’m flipping the script in my penultimate Almost Glory post and analyzing the accomplishments and ultimate just-close failings of a women’s basketball program. If I’m being honest, this is partly a function of necessity; Rutgers men’s basketball has only made the NCAA tournament six times and hasn’t posted a winning record since 2006.
Additionally, though, we don’t cover women’s basketball often.
Earlier this year, Sue Bird wrote a piece for The Player’s Tribune excoriating the sports industrial complex for its analytics gap between the men’s and women’s game.
Data helps drive conversations, strategy, decision making. But data on its own isn’t terribly interesting. It needs context. It needs a storyteller. Data helps tell the story of a player, a team, an entire career.
Shortly thereafter, Five Thirty Eight followed up by noting that the complete source for data in the women’s game disappeared almost overnight.
Exactly how a web hosting company pulls up anchor, ditches its Miami headquarters, and ends up 1,300 miles away in Chicago, allegedly waiting for its servers to find their way home, is almost certainly a fascinating story, but it’s secondary to the reality that an entire sport’s advanced metrics wing can be wiped off the map by a few nerds absconding with a few hard drives and turning off their phones. This is a corollary to the more global lack of statistical interrogation of women’s basketball — the data isn’t just shallow, it’s scarce, and that scarcity makes it fragile.
Because of what happened to this team after the games were completed, I wanted to go back and tell the story of their season the way I’d done for 12 men’s programs already: through game-tapes, stats, data, and amusing in-season anecdotes. Those are the stories that deserve to be told.
But there’s very little available.
C. Vivian Stringer is the fourth-winningest coach in women’s college basketball history. She began her coaching career at Cheyney University. Founded as the African Institute in 1837, later changed to the Institute of Colored Youth, Cheyney was the first institute of higher education for African Americans.
Despite being a Division II basketball program, Stringer’s Wolves competed in the inaugural NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball tournament in 1982 and went all the way to the championship game (before being ousted by Louisiana Tech). A year after, they went to the Sweet Sixteen.
Stringer moved to Iowa, where she took the Hawkeyes to 9 straight tournaments, featuring 4 Sweet Sixteens, 2 Elite Eights, and 1 Final Four (a game they lost by 1 point to Ohio State in OT in 1993).
The tenure at Rutgers hasn’t always been smooth. A trip to the Final Four in 2000 earned Stringer the distinction of being the first coach in college basketball history to take three different programs to the Final Four. But after a disappointing finish last year, there was some talk that the school would move on from their Hall of Fame head coach (before those rumors were debunked by the new AD).
In the mid 2000s, she spearheaded a phenomenal stretch run that saw four straight seasons of 27 wins or more and an––at worst––Sweet Sixteen finish.
In 2007, they were led by sophomore center Kia Vaughn, who posted a 12.8 PPG/9.3 REB/2.6 BLOCK stat line, and junior forward Essence Carson. In the Sweet Sixteen, as a 4 seed, they upset Duke 53-52, on an incredibly dramatic finish (with no video available anywhere) that featured a late steal and lay-up for the go-ahead score. Duke’s best player, Lindsey Harding, the ACC Player of the Year, missed two free throws that would have tied or won the game with one-tenth of a second on the clock.
“I truly believed that it was our destiny,” Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer said. “And so for 40 minutes, we sustained and won against what I consider the best team to be assembled in women’s basketball in some time.”
Destiny was diverted by a dismantling at the hands of Pat Summit’s Lady Volunteers. Led by Candace Parker, Tennessee won their seventh title (they’d repeat the following year), a late career capper to Summit’s sterling career.
But probably few people remember the Scarlet Knights if not for what happened the following day, when two completely irrelevant old white men with microphones and a broadcast platform spewed hurtful, insensitive, ignorant, mean, racist, sexist language when describing the Rutgers team.
The team displayed candor and grace in the aftermath.
"The Rutgers university women's basketball team has madehistory," said Essence Carson, a junior forward. "We haven't done anything to deserve this controversy, and yet it has taken a tollon us mentally and physically."
The team's players said they hoped the scandal would serve as anopportunity to speak up for women and give a voice to issues suchas racism and sexism, but acknowledged that it also served as areminder of just how much work needed to be done.
Don Imus was suspended by CBS and then fired. But, of course, because this is what happens in our patriarchal society, he sued the company for wrongful terminal, settled for $40 million, and then signed a syndication deal later that year.
Vivian Stringer figures to retire as the head coach for Rutgers. In the time that she’s been the coach for the women’s basketball team, the men’s program has featured seven head coaches. There’s no almost greatness in what she’s done. It’s all glory.