C. Vivian Stringer shares emotional letter on impact of Christine Grant: 'I will always love her'

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The life’s work of the late Dr. Christine Grant, a staunch gender-equity advocate before groundbreaking Title IX legislation in 1973 would require equal treatment in college sports, has benefitted women in sports on a global level for five-plus decades.

But perhaps the greatest single move of her time as Iowa women’s athletic director took place in the spring of 1983 when she hired C. Vivian Stringer as the Hawkeyes' women's basketball coach.

At her introductory press conference on April 6, 1983, Stringer told skeptical reporters: “I’ve always been one to accept a challenge. I dream. I’m a person who wants to make my dreams a reality. Why not Iowa?”

Grant had the vision to believe that Stringer, a Black woman with deep East Coast roots, could come into a heavily white state (that still played 6-on-6 girls basketball in high schools) and not only improve a failing women’s program (that was 25-54 over the previous three years) but turn it into a juggernaut.

More:'Trailblazer. Advocate. Mentor. Leader:' Remembering Christine Grant, a pioneer for women's sports

Grant informed other women’s coaches at Iowa that she was going to devote much of the department’s funds to basketball, timing it with the opening of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“They were supportive,” Grant would say in a 1988 Los Angeles Times article. “They knew it would be for everyone’s benefit.”

Stringer made a leap of faith, too — after leading a small, historically Black school in Cheyney State to the 1982 NCAA title game — to come to Iowa. In Stringer's first season, the Hawkeyes went 17-10 and posted a 10-2 home record.

The late Christine Grant, left, and former Iowa women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer are shown before a game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Feb. 2, 2017.

The following year, 20-8. Then, 22-7 and 26-5 and 29-2. Carver-Hawkeye Arena became impossible for opponents. Not counting Stringer’s 11-17 final year of 1994-95, as the weight of her husband’s death led her to taking a job closer to home at Rutgers, Iowa assembled an incredible 138-13 home record (.914 win percentage) in Stringer’s first 12 years in Iowa City.

She led the team to the 1993 Final Four, the only such appearance in Iowa history. Unforgettably, a crowd of 22,157 poured into Carver-Hawkeye Arena to watch a 1985 game against Ohio State.

And today, Iowa women’s basketball enjoys one of the most enthusiastic fan bases in the country under Lisa Bluder — whose hiring was one of Grant's last moves before retiring in 2000. Iowa ranked 10th in average home attendance in 2019-20 (the last full season with fans), at 7,102 per game. The Hawkeyes had a 42-game home winning streak snapped last season as they reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. They had the 2019 national player of the year in Megan Gustafson. They’re nationally relevant again, with all-American Caitlin Clark leading the way.

That’s all a byproduct of Grant’s vision to hire Stringer and make women’s basketball prominent at Iowa.

Grant passed away Dec. 31 at age 85 after long health battles. The Des Moines Register reached out to Stringer, now 73, for her thoughts on Grant’s legacy. Stringer, who is sitting out the 2021-22 season over concerns about COVID-19, agreed to share her tribute to Grant with a written statement.

Here is what Stringer wrote, as first provided to the Register.

(Note to readers: Portions of this text have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

I am deeply saddened by the passing of Dr. Christine Grant. She was one of the leading pioneers for women’s opportunities in sports during the 1960s through the '90s, in this country and Canada.

Christine was a true trailblazer, an icon in women’s sports. If there was a Mount Rushmore of impactful female pioneers in sports, Christine would be on it. She helped to organize and form the first governing body for college women’s sports, the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). The AIAW operated much as the NCAA does today, sponsoring championships in women’s sports. Christine served as a president of the AIAW. 

Every girl today who participates in sports owes a small debt of gratitude to Dr. Grant for all the roles she played as a pioneer in advancing opportunities for girls in sports.

The first time I met Christine was at an AIAW membership meeting being held to talk about stopping the NCAA from sponsoring championships in women’s sports, Division I basketball in particular. I was impressed with her leadership and outspokenness!

The next time I heard from Christine was in the spring of 1983. My Cheyney team had just finished playing in the inaugural NCAA championship game, finishing runner-up to Louisiana Tech.

The University of Iowa and several other schools — like North Carolina, Kentucky and USC — contacted me in the spring of 1983 about their head coaching position.

I agreed to meet with Christine in an interview, because two of my coaches/female mentors at my alma mater, Slippery Rock — Dr. Patricia Zimmerman and Dr. Ann Griffiths — recommended me to her, and her to me. Christine and Dr. Griffiths attended grad school together.

Christine flew to the Philadelphia airport and met with me and my late husband, Bill. In our meeting, I had several questions. I remember asking her if there will be enough money to recruit nationally. Christine replied, “Don’t worry, Vivian, you can go wherever you want to recruit.”

Then I asked about scheduling of games. Christine assured me that I can schedule any team I wanted to play.

I then asked Christine how she would handle it if I had an all-Black team, not that I intended to recruit an all-Black team, but my Cheyney State team was all-Black. Christine said, “Oh, Vivian, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that girls are getting an opportunity to play sports and get a paid education.”

When Christine talked with us, she touched my heart and soul because she demonstrated to me and my husband that she would take care of our family. Christine touched the “human element” of me as a person, and I think that’s what the others who recruited me missed!

C. Vivian Stringer, center, is shown with the late Christine Grant, right, former Iowa women's athletics director. At left is M. Dianne Murphy, a former assistant athletics director at Iowa.

I remember she flew Bill and I to Iowa City, where she introduced me to the dentist and to the people who would take care of my disabled daughter, Nina, who was stricken with meningitis the year before in 1982. She introduced me to a doctor who took a personal interest in Nina, and who thankfully coordinated all of Nina’s medical care.

Christine knew that if Bill and I moved to Iowa with our two young sons and our totally disabled daughter, we would be away from the family support we had in Pennsylvania. She knew that we would be lonely, and so she helped to facilitate my two sisters and their family’s move to Iowa City, where they still live to this day. Now I had enough family support in Iowa to help us raise our kids, which allowed me to concentrate my time and energy in coaching.

I chose to go to the University of Iowa because Christine truly demonstrated that she cared about me as a person, not just as a coach. She cared about my family and our well-being and comfort in Iowa City.

I’ve always felt very close to Dr. Grant. I trusted her with my family, and I trusted her with my career! Christine was so many things to me. She was my boss, my mentor, my female role model and my friend. Many times, we talked about my kids and my mother. There would not be a Vivian Stringer if there was not a Christine Grant.  She was perfect for me. She allowed me to have a voice as a young woman. All I wanted as a coach was to be supported and encouraged, and Christine Grant was my biggest supporter.

Whenever I brought recruits to campus, I always took them up to meet Christine. The fact that Christine was in charge of her own athletic department, and the way that Christine presented herself and the university to prospect recruits, helped me in my recruiting kids to Iowa.

Christine was a coach’s dream. Sometimes players refer to a coach as a “players' coach.” Well, Christine was a “coaches’ athletic director." Christine was the most fair-minded athletic director that a coach could hope to have.

After a few years at Iowa, Christine and I talked about increasing the visibility of and the attendance at the women’s basketball games. She arranged for me to have a radio show on WHO out of Des Moines, an AM station that could be heard way back in Pennsylvania.

Christine then set about to increase the attendance at the women’s basketball games. She and her staff began a campaign to increase season-ticket sales. She chose one particular game against Ohio State to target an all-out blitz campaign, asking Iowans to show their support for the women’s basketball program. On a Sunday in 1985, 22,157 fans came to Carver-Hawkeye Arena to watch a game between Iowa and Ohio State. This was the largest crowd to ever attend a women’s basketball game at that time.

The look on my face when my team came out of the locker room that Sunday was priceless, according to Christine. So many emotions went through me when I saw that record-setting crowd! 

Christine was such a believer in fairness and gender equity. The last contract I signed with the University of Iowa in 1993 was record-setting and made national news. Iowa agreed to pay me the same salary as the men’s basketball coach, Dr. Tom Davis!

The hardest thing that I ever had to do involving Christine was to tell her that I was leaving Iowa. I cried, she cried, and we both cried together. The decision I made to leave Iowa in 1995 and come back East was based upon several factors. The first was the death of my husband, Bill, in 1992. I, as a single mother, now had to consider how and where my two sons would grow up. I felt strongly that in order for me to allow my sons to grow up and have a more real-world experience, I had to leave Iowa.

Christine Grant was a giant among giants. She was a genuine leader and pioneer. She was the Real McCoy, and I will always love her.

Rest in peace, Christine, I will keep you in my thoughts forever.