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Rutgers coach builds winners despite life full of adversity

Story Highlights

• Rutgers team had rocky start, ended up in championship game
• Player: Coach stresses "that there's still light at the end of the tunnel"
• Coach is the third-winningest women's coach in NCAA Division I history
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(CNN) -- After a 2-4 start, C. Vivian Stringer's Rutgers University team hardly looked like a squad capable of reaching the NCAA women's basketball tournament.

But the coach, who has endured many personal tragedies, pulled her young squad together, reminding them that they could get through any adversity on the court. The Scarlet Knights went on a surprising run to the national title game.

The smooth run hit turbulence with a loss to Tennessee in the national championship and got even worse when two days later, radio talk-show host Don Imus called the Rutgers players "nappy-headed hos."

On Tuesday, Rutgers held a news conference and Stringer said the comments did some damage, but her team was not defeated. (Read Stringer's complete comments)

"We have all been physically, mentally, emotionally spent, so hurt by the remarks that were uttered by Mr. Imus. But you see, we also understood a long time ago, you know what, no one can make you feel inferior unless you allow them," she said. "We can't let other people steal our joy." (Watch Stringer describe her team as women who are future leaders)

Stringer has faced adversity many times before. Her daughter, Janine, is brain-damaged from spinal meningitis she contracted as an infant and uses a wheelchair.

When Stringer was coach at Iowa, her 47-year-old husband, William, died of heart failure on Thanksgiving 1992. The event led her to leave the powerhouse program a few years later for Rutgers, in Piscataway, New Jersey.

She told Sports Illustrated in 1997 that "Iowa began to signify for me the best of times and the worst of times. I knew as long as I stayed there I'd continue to feel sorry for myself, and people would feel sorry for me."

By the time she moved to Rutgers in 1995, Stringer was well on her way to the college basketball hall of fame, but it took her a few anxious years to rebuild the program. Her salary was reportedly the largest of any women's basketball coach and more than any Rutgers coach. It was an issue for fans and the media.

She told Sports Illustrated that the criticism stung and said she saw a lot of resentment.

"It's been a trying time because I want so badly to hush the people questioning whether I deserve what I'm paid," she told the magazine.

In 2000, Stringer became the first college coach to take three teams (she started with Cheney State, a historically black college near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) to the women's Final Four. She is the third-winningest women's coach in NCAA Division I history.

One of the ways she tries to inspire her teams is to use lessons she learned from the hard times in her past, which also included her son, David, being involved in a case in which a fellow student was shot in North Carolina. Her other son was involved in a car accident and suffered a head injury. One of her nephews, Korey Stringer, died from heatstroke at a Minnesota Vikings practice.

"She has brought up many things that have happened to her in her life to show us that no matter when you're struggling, or how much you're struggling, that there's still light at the end of the tunnel," Essence Carson, a junior guard from Paterson, New Jersey, said at the Final Four. "But most importantly coach Stringer's our motivator just simply because we exemplify her character. Her teams are known for tough defense and her practices are often intense. Other coaches say that attitude shows up in games."

At Tuesday's new conference, Stringer painted a picture of her young athletes in contrast with Imus' comment.

"My role as a coach is one to love, nurture, discipline, teach and prepare our young women for leadership roles in this society. That I am sure of," a quiet but impassioned Stringer said. "And all that we do and all the travels that we have had, this group of young women have been presented as nothing less than class in every aspect of all that they do." (Transcript of Stringer's remarks)

Legendary coach Pat Summitt, whose Tennessee Volunteers won the national title by beating Rutgers, told reporters, "I think she's a great motivator. And I think her kids just bring it. And they bring it for her. I think they really they love their coach."

This year, the Scarlet Knights, with five freshmen and two sophomores on the 10-woman roster, lost their home opener to No. 1 Duke -- by 40 points. But the players credited their coach with leading them to the championship game.

"The worst thing for a parent is to see their child struggle. So, why not prepare your child beforehand, so when they get out in the real world, everything seems so easy for them. That's exactly what coach Stringer has done this year for us," Carson told reporters at the Final Four.

"We went through the struggles in the beginning, but right now things just seem to be running so smoothly and we thank her for that."


Should Don Imus' apology be enough to end the controversy over his remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team?
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