25 years ago, a magical night


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Hawkeye coach C. Vivian Stringer wiped away tears.

Stepping out of the tunnel in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, she could hardly believe what she saw: A blur of black and gold filled every available seat and then some. People stood in the aisles and spilled out onto the hardwood as extra chairs were set up to meet the swarm of people in attendance.

That night — Feb. 3, 1985 — a record-breaking 22,157 Hawkeye fans jammed together to make history in support of the Iowa women’s basketball program, packed inside the 15,500-seat Carver-Hawkeye to watch Iowa host the then-No 8. Buckeyes.

It was the moment Stringer’s dream of her team playing in front of a sold-out crowd in Carver-Hawkeye had finally come true.

Arrival at Iowa

After seven losing seasons in nine years of existence, the Hawkeyes needed a new coach in 1983. Iowa women’s Athletics Director Christine Grant asked her friends and colleagues — including Tennessee coach Pat Summit and Texas coach Jody Conradt — to write lists of names she should consider for the job. Stringer’s name appeared on all of them.

Grant was also friends with Anne Griffiths, Stringer’s former coach at Slippery Rock University, in Pennsylvania. Griffiths highly recommended Stringer, who at the time was coaching at Cheyney State College (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania).

Griffiths’ praise was enough for Grant, who flew to the Quaker State in hopes of luring Stringer and her husband to Iowa.

That was no easy task. During the meeting, Stringer, who was quite loyal to Cheyney State, said she didn’t want to leave. If she did, it would only be for somewhere warm, not Iowa.

“I must admit, I thought my chances at that stage were not very great,” Grant said. “However, something happened just after she said that. I happened to glance at her husband, Bill, who winked at me, and I thought, ‘I might have an ally in him.’

“I said, ‘I’m not asking you to commit to anything. The only thing I’m asking you to do is to come visit our campus — that’s all.’ ”

Stringer and her husband ventured to Iowa City and were immediately won over.

“It was the people and the warmth of the athletics directors and the confidence that I had that the fans would be some of the greatest fans there were,” Stringer said. “And to know that the program had a rich history of equitable sports mixed with all of its academic programs.”

The dream

Introduced as the new head coach, Stringer said she wanted to play in front of a sold-out crowd, win a Big Ten championship, and make a Final Four appearance.

At Cheyney State, Stringer’s teams always played in front of packed crowds, albeit in a building that held between 3,000 and 4,000 students. Carver-Hawkeye, obviously, could hold quite a bit more.
Without fan support, Stringer knew it could also be a lonely place. The previous year, Iowa ranked 299 out of 302 teams in attendance.

“I knew in years past, they were lucky to have 200 people,” she said. “They told me most times, people came in to the arena to read newspapers or to get out of the cold [for women’s basketball games].”

But she saw potential in Hawkeye fans and their passion for sports.

“I considered that a challenge,” Stringer said. “I always want challenges, and I considered myself a challenger. … I just wanted to duplicate at Carver what we did at Cheyney.”

During Stringer’s first season with Iowa, the Hawkeyes went 17-10 overall and 11-7 in Big Ten play — a vast turnaround from the 7-20 and 2-16 records the previous season.

The next season, the team started off with two losses before running off five-straight victories. After dropping the Big Ten opener to Purdue, Iowa then won seven-straight against conference opponents and rose to second in the Big Ten behind No. 8 and unbeaten Ohio State. With an upcoming home showdown with the Buckeyes, it seemed the perfect time to try to sell out the arena.

The marketing race was on.

Advertisements, fliers, and TV commercials featuring Hayden Fry, Dan Gable, and Stringer urged fans to become a part of history.

Game time

Traveling on a team bus toward the arena around noon, Ohio State coach Tara VanDerveer couldn’t understand the traffic jam. With the game scheduled on a Sunday, she jokingly asked one her assistants if church had just let out.

“Tara, all these people are coming to the game,” the assistant said.

VanDerveer knew the Hawkeyes were shooting for record attendance. She had a sport-psychologist talk with her team about playing in front of a large crowd. But even then, she couldn’t imagine the type of gathering she was in store for. Twenty minutes before tip-off, fans were still trying to enter the crammed arena.

Grant admitted another 7,000 before sealing the doors. The fire marshal later reprimanded her, but she felt guilty about turning people away.

Iowa freshman guard Michelle Edwards, later named the Big Ten Athlete of the Decade, ran out of the tunnel and was astonished by what she saw.

“I looked around, and it amazed me,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this. They really are doing this.’ I didn’t know what the exact number was, but I knew it was more than we averaged. I dwelled on it for maybe five minutes, and then, I kind of didn’t think about it anymore, because I was trying to focus on the game.”

During the national anthem, Stringer and VanDerver stood together on the brink of tears.

Twenty-five years later

Despite Iowa’s losing to the Buckeyes, 57-46, that night, those who were there look upon the day fondly.

Edwards, now the women’s basketball director of operations at Rutgers (where Stringer now coaches), puts the experience high on her list of basketball achievements.

“When you’re young, you don’t realize the magnitude of accomplishing a goal like that,” she said. “But for people to actually come out and help that dream become a reality, it’s got to be one of my top three now. It’s so much bigger than just me, or my team, or even the program. It was a great moment in the history of women’s basketball. It really entailed so many different things.”

Stringer also appreciates the support Hawkeye fans showed that day.

“Even now, it makes me cry,” she said. “And I thought it was such a daunting task, because Ohio State was nationally ranked and we weren’t. And yet, how could I let the fans down? They were so special to come. And I just wanted so, so badly to show them we appreciated the fact that they came out to support us.”

But things have changed.

A quarter of a century later, the attendance numbers for women’s hoops in Carver-Hawkeye have dropped significantly. During Stringer’s time as the head coach until her departure in 1995, the Hawkeyes were among the top leaders in attendance. No longer.

Even though Iowa finished second in the Big Ten last season and tied for first in 2007-08, attendance figures have been disappointing.

In 2007-08, the Hawkeyes averaged just 2,987 fans while going 13-3 in Carver-Hawkeye. The next year, attendance rose to 3,543 as the team went 13-2 at home — still hardly matching the strong support the program once received.

With the note of reprimand from the fire marshal still framed on her desk, Grant has one message for the fans in attendance in 1985: “Come back.”

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