NEW YORK -- In high school, Pokey Chatman and Dawn Staley got recruiting letters from C. Vivian Stringer, a high-profile coach at Iowa who had taken Cheyney State to the 1982 Final Four.
Each turned down Stringer and went on to become an All-America guard -- Chatman decided to stay close to home at LSU, while Staley led Virginia to three straight Final Fours.
Some 20 years later, all three are coaching in the NCAA Tournament. They continue to orbit each other, the only black female coaches in the Top 25.
"They both have had great playing experience and a number of outstanding coaches over the years,'' said Stringer, who's now at Rutgers. "There's a lot to be said about guards because of the mindset. In March, guards rule.''
Chatman has guided LSU to the No. 1 seed and into the Sweet 16, and Staley took Temple into the second round before losing to Stringer's Scarlet Knights.
Stringer, in her 10th season at Rutgers and 33rd overall, is the only coach -- male or female -- to take three different teams to the Final Four. She has kept in touch with the players she attempted to recruit.
"She was the only Top 25 school that would play us in my first year at Temple,'' Staley said. "She said, 'We can do this every year.' ''
The Scarlet Knights (27-6) paid for it this season, losing at Temple by 11 points on Dec. 13. The Owls (28-4) went on to win their second straight Atlantic 10 title and had won 25 straight games -- the nation's longest winning streak -- before losing to Rutgers.
After 12 seasons as an assistant at LSU, Chatman took over for legendary coach Sue Gunter last season and led the Tigers to the Final Four. Chatman, 34, sees someone familiar when she looks at Stringer.
"For a long time, I was intimidated by Vivian because she looks like my mother,'' she said. "We always joke about that.''
They don't laugh about the lack of black colleagues, however.
Thirty-three black females made up 11.8 percent of head coaches in Division I women's basketball in 2003-04, according to the most recent NCAA report on race and gender. If numbers from historically black colleges are excluded, there were only 20 black females coaching that season.
There are currently 324 women's programs in Division I, and the report indicates little change in hiring over the past decade.
Black men made up 28 percent of Division I men's basketball coaches. Tubby Smith (Kentucky), Al Skinner (Boston College), Lorenzo Romar (Washington) and Kelvin Sampson (Oklahoma) coach teams in the Top 25.
"The thing it's going to take is the continual awareness and evaluation of the search process,'' said Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association (BCA). "African-American women have never fared well in terms of gender-equity issues.
"When you look at the makeup of athletic directors, you're going to find that mostly it's a male-dominated area. The comfort level of candidates is restricted to those who they immediately know. So either they have to expand their knowledge or be willing to do that.''
Stringer called it "a wipeout'' when eight black female coaches were fired in 2003. Among those teams were Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Texas A&M, Minnesota and St. John's.
"Those coaches had the capability of hiring three or four other people,'' Stringer said. "So that means more opportunities, perhaps, were not afforded to minorities to get an opportunity to be successful. There are so few.''
About 25 percent of assistant coaches in Division I are black females. Chatman realizes the issue won't be solved overnight, but is hopeful more assistants will land head coaching jobs.
"As an assistant coach, I thought about it in terms of 'let me work my tail off and put myself in a position to one day become a head coach,' '' she said. "When and if that happens, let me do everything to make sure I'm successful and maybe somebody will take notice. Maybe it will make more opportunities for someone else. That's the part I can control.''
Staley, a three-time Olympian and current WNBA star, began her player-coach role in 2000. Debbie Ryan at Virginia and Olympic coach Tara VanDerveer were her major influences.
"I think if you're a leader by nature, you can do OK,'' Staley said. "I'm living proof. But I also had a lot of basketball experience to help deal with people and situations that might arise.''
Chatman recognizes that mentoring athletes is an important part of her job.
"Basketball is probably the easiest of what we do, if you polled us,'' she said. "Don't misunderstand me, it's the most important, that's how we make a living, that's how we're judged. But it's the people, the process, the respect, relationships. It's the delivery, if they get it. I can know all the basketball in the world, but if I don't have that line of communication and respect from the players, it's not going to happen.''
Stringer offers her assistants a variety of jobs to get ready for prime time. Jolette Law has been at her side for 10 years.
"I give experience with coaching the posts, guards, budgets, recruiting, scheduling, everything,'' Stringer said. "So when they have an opportunity to get a job, they know they are fully prepared. I know and they know.''
The Women's Basketball Association and the BCA provide annual clinics and seminars for assistant coaches. The BCA offers a résumé and job bank as a resource for athletic directors.
This time of year, basketball firing and hiring is a rite of spring. Keith understands retention rates are all about winning.
"That's always the bottom line,'' he said. "If you win, you keep your job. If you don't win, you won't. That has nothing to do with race, color or creed. Or gender.''