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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee assistant coach Jolette Law has coached women's basketball for nearly two decades, but her next game will stand out from any other in her career.
For the first time, Law will be trying to beat her mentor, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer. The 13th-ranked Lady Vols (8-3) host Rutgers (8-3) on Sunday in their final game before opening Southeastern Conference competition.
"It's going to be really different," Law said. "We've always been side by side."
Law played for Stringer at Iowa in the late 1980s. She coached on Stringer's staff for 12 seasons at Rutgers, where they worked together on two Final Four teams. During her five-year tenure as Illinois' head coach, Law never faced one of Stringer's teams.
"She's taught me about life, how to persevere, how to find ways to get it done," Law said. "She always told me that you've got to make sure you work harder than everybody else. Don't let anyone tell you (that) you can't do anything."
Stringer's importance in Law's life became particularly apparent this year.
Law, 45, was fired after posting a 69-93 record in five seasons at Illinois. Tennessee coach Holly Warlick had offered her an opportunity to join the Lady Vols' staff. Law prayed about the decision and talked it over with her family. Before making a final decision, Law sought Stringer's advice.
"I thought that was the best choice in the world," said Stringer, whose 893-321 career record gives her the most wins of any active college women's basketball coach. "There was no question about where she should be."
Law remembers what Stringer told her.
"She said you deserve to be at the top, you deserve to be on that stage," Law said. "Tennessee's a brand. It's a landmark. You can recruit everybody in the country. You don't have to beg anyone to come to the University of Tennessee. She said, 'You deserve to be on that stage. You've paid the price. You need to be there. You're the one who can help keep Tennessee up where it needs to be.' "
Law made quite an initial impression on Stringer in the 1980s as a South Carolina high school star who also drove the school bus. Law said she'd wake up at 4 a.m. every school day to drive elementary-school and middle-school kids to class before taking her own high-school peers to school.
"She said she knew I was a very responsible young lady (because) I could take care of that and be that responsible by getting up in the morning, doing my homework, getting everything done, be on time and then do sports," Law said.
Law possessed the traits of a future coaching prospect during her playing career, as she filled a vital role on four Big Ten championship teams at Iowa. After graduating from Iowa, Law played for the Harlem Globetrotters on three worldwide tours.
She stayed with the Globetrotters from 1990-94 before beginning her coaching career. After spending one season at Ball State, Law joined Stringer at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights went 257-125 during her 12 seasons there.
"She can bring out the best in everybody," Stringer said.
Even after she left Rutgers to take over Illinois' program in 2007, Law stayed in touch with Stringer. When Illinois fired her last year, Law relied on the lessons she had learned from her former coach.
"She taught me how to be strong when things knock you down," Law said. "When life knocks you down, how are you going to respond? Are you going to lay there or get back up?"
Tennessee offered Law a chance to get back in the game.
Law's head coaching experience has helped Warlick as she begins her first year stepping in for Pat Summitt, the winningest Division I men's or women's college basketball coach in history. Law's recruiting prowess and teaching skills have allowed her to make an immediate impact.
"I never want Jolette to hold back on how she feels and what she thinks," Warlick said. "Thus far, she hasn't done that. I want her to be totally honest with me and the players. It's the only way we're going to get better, and that's the only way I'm going to get better."
Before leaving Rutgers for Illinois, Law established herself as one of the nation's top assistant coaches. She now gets to work at one of the nation's top programs. Law's mentor considers it an ideal match.
"She deserves to be at Tennessee," Stringer said, "and Tennessee deserves to have her."