I knocked on the office door and wrestling coach Nate Urbach answered.
“Hi, I’m looking for coach Stringer.” I said.
“One second,” Urbach replied.
Urbach disappeared behind the door. A few moments later, a man who looked like he was type cast by life to be a football coach emerged and invited me into his office.
Stringer introduced himself and had me take a seat next to his desk.
His presence, which outweighed mine by a 9:1 ratio, fooled me at first. A big, powerful man who carried himself with quiet confidence, Stringer was intimidating, though, as I quickly learned, only on a superficial level.
I was the new guy coming in to cover PHS football and Stringer could have easily acted as the surly, curt cliche that a bad made-for-TV movie would have wanted him to be.
That was never the case, not even for a moment. Often after the publicized passing of a well-known figure, niceties are said out of politeness. We remember the good and ignore the bad, relive the ups while burying the downs and praise the person they were without begrudging who they weren’t.
Stringer is a rare exception. I have not one bad memory of Jim Stringer. Whether on or off the record, he was never anything but kind, helpful and focused on the task at hand.
The burly, bearded force who spoke with purpose was anything but frightening, though I wasn’t the first member of the media to misjudge the four-time state champion coach.
Voice of the Panthers Scott Mangold told me he made the same mistake when he began working with Stringer more than a decade ago.
“He was sort of an imposing figure and sometimes I would be almost a little scared to talk to him at times at the beginning,” Mangold said. “But after a while I looked forward to speaking with him.”
Stringer spoke to me in his office that day as kids and coaches bustled in the locker room behind another door. A few popped in and out during the interview, always needing something from their leader, but somehow none were a distraction. Fifteen minutes later I left with everything I needed for my story.
That was the through-line in my relationship with coach Stringer. He always had 1,000 things going on, and yet he always had time for me.
Sometimes that time was 6 a.m. Monday morning. We had maybe three of those early-morning phone interviews, at his request, and despite never resembling anything close to a morning person, I never minded.
I think that’s what made Stringer the successful coach he was. He would ask, and you were happy to say yes. He was a man whose respect you wanted, because of how much you respected him.
Every coach I’ve worked with in my time at the Tribune has made me better in some way. Every personality is different and every coach/sport/season is its own learning experience.
Stringer made me better because he demanded the best out of those he worked with without actually being demanding. Somehow, with a subtle touch I’m not even sure he was aware of, he inspired you to be better.
Former Panther running back Cory Heny said Stringer was always asking more of his players but avoided the overbearing excess that causes players to tune their coaches out.
“He pushed us, but it was never over the [top] and he would give you credit when you did good,” Heny said.
It would be disingenuous to call coach Stringer and me friends. We talked about Panther football as needed for the Tribune and little else. He didn’t have the time, nor did I wish to ask more from him.
Only now that I can put it into proper perspective do I truly realize how many people just like me he had in his life.
Students, players and assistants, all looking up to him, wanting to extract something from the man, his experience and hard work for their own benefit.
This on top of raising, alongside his wife, three children of his own.
Yet he never made you feel like you were the last straw, that you were stretching him too thin or that you were the five minutes he didn’t have.
He always had the time to make you a little bit better, even if you didn’t know it.
We lost Jim Stringer too early, but all who knew him can consider themselves winners.
That’s the mark of a great coach.