There were times when the grief was so strong that C. Vivian Stringer, the Iowa women's basketball coach, thought she just wouldn't be able to come back. The prospect of coaching again after her husband William's death from a heart attack last Thanksgiving Day seemed too much for her to bear.
"Sports are the ultimate expression of life," she says. "They almost make a mockery of death. To go from dealing with a tragedy to being around athletes who were so...alive was something I had to be sure I was ready for."
But Stringer's work is such a large part of her life that she used to tell players that her first initial, which stands for Charlene, stood for Coach. After missing this season's first five games, all of which the Hawkeyes won under assistant coach Marianna Freeman, Stringer returned on Jan. 2 to the Iowa sidelines, where, as usual, she has been a winner. The Hawkeyes entered the NCAA tournament this week with a 24-3 record and as the No. 2 seed in the Mideast region.
Succeeding in spite of personal sorrow is nothing new to Stringer. "In my life, tragedy and triumph have always been parallel," she says softly. She is thinking not only of this season, but also of 1982, when the joy of coaching Cheyney (Pa.) State to the Final Four was curtailed by the pain of knowing that her daughter Janine, then 14 months old, had contracted meningitis. The effects of the disease have confined Janine to a wheelchair ever since.
"She's always talked to us about coming back, about getting back up and not letting anything keep you down," says senior forward Toni Foster, the Hawkeyes' leading scorer and rebounder. "Every day she shows us how to do it."
Despite having won 485 games in her 21-year career, Stringer has been plagued by a few lingering criticisms. In her 10 seasons at Iowa the Hawkeyes have developed a reputation for underachieving in the NCAA tournament. But the biggest blast she has suffered came at the 1991 Pan American Games, where Stringer coached the U.S. women's team to third place. The bronze-medal finish didn't please Bill Wall, the director of USA Basketball at the time. Asked what the women's team needed to win the gold in the future, Wall's graceless reply was "a new coach."
"If there's anything I've learned, it's that I just don't have time to listen to those things," Stringer says. "I've seen enough to know that sometimes things happen to you that you don't deserve, and I know enough to separate what's important from what's not."
What's important to Stringer is her family and her players, who have done whatever they can to make things as easy for her as possible over the past four months. The Hawkeyes used to practice in the afternoons while William, who was an exercise physiologist in the Iowa athletic department, took care of the Stringers' three children. Now the players get up early for 8:30 a.m. practices so that Vivian can be home when the kids get back from school.
"The loss of my husband was the most devastating thing that's ever happened to me," she says. "I can't express how shattering it is. He meant more to me than anything in this world. You cry or sometimes you pray and ask, 'Why did this happen, Lord?' But you have to be resilient. It's all about getting back up."
You think of what she says about triumph and tragedy, and you wonder if the tragedy of this season will be paralleled by her greatest triumph, by a national championship. Then you watch her presiding over practice, checking her list of things to be taught that day, and you realize that she has gotten back up and that, no matter what else happens, that is triumph enough.