25 years later, 22,157 still resonates

C. Vivian Stringer
C. Vivian Stringer

KCRG video of Feb. 3, 1985 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena:

IOWA CITY — The letter of reprimand from the University of Iowa still hangs on Christine Grant’s wall.

For the former UI director of women’s athletics, it’s a badge of honor.

“I got in a little trouble,” Grant said wistfully. “We’d broken the fire code.”

And smashed a record for attendance at a women’s college basketball game.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon 25 years ago Wednesday, an overflow crowd of 22,157 filed into Carver-Hawkeye Arena for Iowa’s game against Ohio State.

“I wish I could turn out the lights and freeze that moment in time,” former coach C. Vivian Stringer said last week as the anniversary approached.

Lisa Becker Porter, a Norway native and a sophomore on that 1984-85 Iowa team said, “I’ve had a lot of amazing experiences in my life, and that was one of them.”

Stringer came to Iowa in 1983 from tiny Cheyney State. Before her arrival, the Hawkeyes were bad and the crowds were sparse — about 400 per game.

Upon hiring Stringer, Grant told her that if the program turned around, people would come. George Raveling, then the men’s coach, agreed.

“He said the shoulders of this state were broad enough to support this program, too,” Stringer said.

Shortly after Stringer arrived, she revealed her vision of a packed Carver on local television commercials.

“That’s what I remember most, all of the commercials, with Vivian talking about filling the arena,” said current Iowa coach Lisa Bluder, who was in her first year coaching at St. Ambrose in 1985.

In Stringer’s first year, 1983-84, the Hawkeyes posted their best record to that point — 17-10. Then Stringer inked a dynamite recruiting class, including Michelle Edwards from Boston.

As Stringer’s second season in Iowa City progressed, the Hawkeyes had become a player in the Big Ten race. But Ohio State was the standard.

When they met at Carver on Feb. 3, 1985, the Buckeyes were unbeaten in Big Ten play; Iowa had one league loss.

Weeks before the game, the wheels began to spin in the Iowa marketing department. The mission: Pack the place.

Grant arrived at the arena at 9 a.m. Tipoff was scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

“By 11:30, I knew we were in trouble,” Grant said. “I was slightly panicked.”

Cars were backed up all the way to Interstate 80. The state police called Grant, urging her to tell people to turn around.

They kept coming.

“I remember looking out of my office and seeing all those cars behind Carver,” Stringer said.

Still, she and her team had no idea what was coming. Not until they left the locker room.

“I thought we would have a bigger-than-normal crowd, but nothing like that,” Becker Porter said.

“They kept coming and kept coming,” Grant said. “People pleaded with us just to let us in for a minute or two to say they were there.”

The official paid attendance was 14,821. But the turnstile count, the number of folks jammed into the arena, was 22,157.

After all 15,500 seats were filled, fans began to sit in the aisles.

Hundreds watched from the concourse. Rows of folding chairs were set up behind both baskets.

Then, 20 minutes before tipoff, the Hawkeyes emerged from the locker room.

“Even in the tunnel, you could tell by the sound that it was different,” Becker Porter said.

“I remember coming out of the tunnel, seeing all those people,” said Edwards, now the director of basketball operations for Stringer at Rutgers University. “Usually in an afternoon game, you can see the (daylight on the concourse). But this day it was dark because of all the people up there.”

Tears streamed down Stringer’s cheeks as she met Ohio State Coach Tara VanDerveer at midcourt.

“VanDerveer said, ‘Oh my God. This is incredible.’” Stringer said.

“Vivian and Tara, they understood what was happening, and it had nothing to do with basketball,” Grant said.

Iowa led through most of the game, but Ohio State prevailed, 56-47.

Few remember 56-47. Many remember 22,157.

“At the time, you didn’t understand the significance of it,” Edwards said. “It was an important day for women’s basketball and for Coach Stringer’s legacy.”

"It was a very, very special day for our program and our state,” Grant said. “So many said that people weren’t interested in women’s basketball, and this proved them absolutely wrong."

Stringer has taken teams from Cheyney State, Iowa and Rutgers to the Final Four in her Hall of Fame career.

But the memory of that sunny Sunday in 1985 ranks up there with all of those accomplishments.“It’s one of my top three or four sports moments,” Stringer said. “I think about it now, even 25 years later, and I still get choked up.”

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