It was 46 years ago, so Antoinette Burton didn't think she would recall very much. But once she started talking, her memory fired up.
"We had these ugly uniforms," Burton said, laughing. "They had vertical blue and white stripes. Ugh, I'll never forget those."
Burton was on the first team that C. Vivian Stringer coached at Cheyney University (then known as Cheyney State), about 22 miles west of Philadelphia, in 1972-73. That was where the legendary basketball coach launched her career, at the country's oldest historically black college, which was founded in 1837.
Tuesday against Central Connecticut State, Stringer will be going for her 1,000th victory as a collegiate women's coach, joining former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, UConn's Geno Auriemma, North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell and Bentley's Barbara Stevens.
Now in her 24th season at Rutgers, Stringer has taken the Scarlet Knights, Cheyney and Iowa to the Women's Final Four. Some of her Rutgers standouts, including Cappie Pondexter, Tammy Sutton-Brown and Essence Carson, have won WNBA championships.
But it all started the year that Title IX was signed into law with a team made up of some players who'd previously competed only at 6-on-6 basketball. In 1972, Stringer got a teaching job at Cheyney, and then she volunteered to coach multiple women's teams at the school, including basketball. She became close friends with the then-men's basketball coach there, John Chaney, a huge advocate of the women's team.
As different a time as that was in women's collegiate sports, in many fundamental ways Stringer hasn't changed. She's still as in love with basketball as she always has been. She's still intense and demanding, and yet caring and committed to her players. And although Iowa was a far bigger school than Cheyney, and Rutgers bigger yet, Stringer kept a close-knit, family-style atmosphere with all three of her programs.
"She's very detail-oriented," said Marianna Freeman, who played for Stringer at Cheyney and then was an assistant to her at Iowa, before becoming a head coach herself at Syracuse. "She'd tell us, 'It's never the big hole you trip over, it's the little crack.' The error was always in the small details you might miss.
"She would make sure that players knew that there was someone who cared about them. Whenever anything bad would happen, we drew closer and closer together. We knew that it was bigger than basketball, but basketball was our purpose and what had brought us together."
Freeman started her college career in 1975, and by then, Stringer was successfully recruiting top players. Burton played for Stringer just two seasons. Taking an honest assessment of her skills and the greater talent level she saw coming into Cheyney, Burton knew it was time to focus only on academics. But she appreciates the time she spent with Stringer.
"I liked her; everybody liked her," Burton said. "She had a really good personality. She wasn't much older than any of us, and when we were running drills, she'd be right there running with us. She was fast, quick and intense. She was very inspirational."
Another of Stringer's players her first season at Cheyney, Ellen Royster, said she and other players had to "catch up" to where Stringer was in regard to being in good shape, understanding the sport, and having a strong commitment to it.
"She encouraged us, but we knew we had a lot to learn," said Royster, who had played only 6-on-6 basketball before going to Cheyney. "Conditioning was her No. 1 priority. She had us running every day to get in shape. Sometimes we thought, 'This is a little bit much,' but we were dedicated. We practiced with the guys on Coach Chaney's team all the time, and they helped us.
"Coach Stringer was showing us what it takes just to play the game -- not even to win, but just to keep up with the pace. When we started out we weren't good, but losing was not an option with her. So every year, we got better and better. And it was so much fun."
Before her third season, Royster remembers Stringer giving everyone -- veterans and newcomers -- a questionnaire to fill out.
"There were questions like, 'What do you want to accomplish? Do you like basketball? Do you love basketball? Do you really want to play basketball? How much do you want to put into it?' " Royster said. "I thought, 'This is really strange. Why is she asking this stuff of all of us who want to be on the team?'
"But that was her way of finding out your real motivation and dedication, and how she needed to adapt to coach you. She always cared about who played for her, and whatever she could do to advance their growth and wisdom, that's what she did."
Stringer would take Cheyney all the way to the first NCAA championship game in 1982, which she lost to Louisiana Tech. That 1981-82 season, though, would be one of personal heartbreak for Stringer and her husband, Bill. Their baby daughter, Nina, suffered a life-altering illness, as spinal meningitis nearly killed her and took her ability to walk and speak.
"She used to tell us, 'Each one should teach one. If I helped you, you make sure you help someone else.'" Marianna Freeman, who played at Cheyney for C. Vivian Stringer
Stringer left for Iowa in 1983. Cheyney had struggled financially to send the team to the 1982 Final Four in Norfolk, Virginia. With the NCAA taking over governing women's athletics from the AIAW, the tide was starting to change in favor of big-conference schools. Iowa offered an overall upgrade in salary, facilities, travel and amenities. But more important than all that to the Stringers was the team of doctors for special-needs children from the University of Iowa hospital that was prepared to care for Nina.
Stringer spent 12 seasons at Iowa, making nine NCAA tournament appearances. That was highlighted by a trip to the 1993 Final Four, but that season also was tragic, as Bill Stringer died of a heart attack the day before Thanksgiving in 1992.
The personal struggles and professional triumphs of Stringer -- which she recounted in her 2008 book "Standing Tall" -- played out on a larger stage at Iowa, and then at Rutgers, where she went in 1995 and has twice taken the Scarlet Knights to the Final Four.
But Cheyney was where she became "Coach Stringer," and as she approaches victory No. 1,000, those 11 years and 251 wins in the early days of women's college basketball count for just as much as everything else. An aside is that no one seems to remember what team Stringer beat for her first victory -- not her, nor the former players, nor Cheyney officials. The school kept win-loss records for the early years, but few other details.
Yet the most important aspect of those years was that Stringer had found her calling, one that is still driving her more than four decades later.
"She has touched so many lives, but I think she'd say she's learned something from every player she's coached," said Freeman, who plans to be at Rutgers for Tuesday's game. "She used to tell us, 'Each one should teach one. If I helped you, you make sure you help someone else.'
"She is a lifer. In order to coach, you have to have a passion about the game. That pure love for basketball. And Vivian has that. She wants the game played the right way. She's still doing it because that is her love."