This is the third part of a six-part feature series on Stanford women’s sports.
“Right before [coaching] the gold-medal game, I went into a small, dark room and I laid down and I thought about being a little kid and how I played out in the neighborhood and how I would imagine this big arena filled with people, and I thought: ‘I am living my dream.’”
Tara VanDerveer has not only fulfilled her own dreams of playing college basketball and of witnessing women’s basketball become a dominant sport in the athletic world, but she is also the reason that so many young women today have had that same opportunity.
“Basketball has been an incredible thing that you never could have imagined. When I was in college, I never could have imagined that this was what it would grow into,” VanDerveer reflected. “It’s been a great life. I can’t even imagine a better life.”
Few basketball coaches, male or female, can boast the coaching career and legacy that VanDerveer has created. In her 27 seasons as head coach of Stanford’s women’s basketball team, the trailblazer in women’s athletics has led the Cardinal to a record of 742-152, 25 NCAA Tournament appearances, including two national championships (1990, 1992) and 10 Final Fours, 21 regular season conference titles, and 10 Pac-12/Pac-10 tournament crowns.
Along the way, VanDerveer has received due recognition for these accomplishments, many achieved at a time when female athletes were not taken as seriously as their male counterparts.
For the four-time National Coach of the Year (1988-90, 2011), 13-time Pac-12/Pac-10 Coach of the Year and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer, though, modesty is her policy. However, the impact VanDerveer has had on the realm of women’s sports cannot be fully comprehended without tracing her struggles and triumphs.
“All the boys in the neighborhood always played [basketball] together. So I just loved playing [with them]. For some reason I loved basketball—I can’t tell you why, but I liked the strategy of it,” explains VanDerveer. “It’s so physical and it’s fast.”
Playing with the boys wasn’t always an easy thing to break into, though. VanDerveer demonstrated her determination and savvy early on when she bought the best basketball possible, but told the boys they could use it only if they let her play—and more often than not she got her way.
Her high school didn’t have any female sports teams and she took up cheerleading instead. Even when she transferred to a private all-girls school, competition only consisted of “fun days” with different teams playing against each other—nothing like organized high school basketball today.
VanDerveer wasn’t just satisfied with a taste of basketball in her life, she wanted the whole thing and was determined to play in college.
“When I went to college I played on a college team that was like a Division III [Albany],” VanDerveer said. “That’s where I jumped center, I was the leading scorer, the leading rebounder, leading assist, leading turnover.”
After a year, she realized she wasn’t satisfied with being a big fish in a little pond and transferred to Indiana University—where she was still a big fish, but in a much bigger pond.
VanDerveer immediately thrived with her new team at Indiana. She recalls several occasions when she and her teammates would fantasize about the future of women’s basketball, but with only a nine-game regular season, the thought of any advancement was far-fetched.
“We’d joke that there would be a professional women’s league. They’d say ‘Yeah, I’ll be the general manager, and Tara, you’ll be the coach,’” VanDerveer recalled. “It was just comical talking to my teammates, because there were no scholarships. I worked in the kitchen to pay for school.”
After college, VanDerveer planned on taking a year off before attending law school, but money ran out and she was back home by Christmas. It was her father who unwittingly got the ball rolling on her coaching career when he suggested that VanDerveer coach her sister Marie’s high school basketball team.
Title IX was just starting to take effect and more high schools were adopting girl’s basketball programs. But given that her sister’s team had just lost by a 99-11 score the previous night, VanDerveer was far from eager to devote time to that team. However, her dad convinced her to be a volunteer coach and her lifelong commitment to coaching began.
“I felt I had a lot to offer because I knew a lot about basketball. I studied it all the time. When I was at Indiana, I watched every practice that Bobby Knight had at Indiana and I also took his coaching class,” VanDerveer said. “I went to the clinic and it was like 500 guys and I was the only woman there, and I sat right in front.”
After coaching her sister’s team, VanDerveer got a graduate coaching position at Ohio State, which included coaching the JV to an undefeated season, and stayed there until she completed her master’s in sports management and administration.
VanDerveer’s first head coaching stint began at Idaho (1978-1980), where she got the first of her now more than 800 career wins. VanDerveer was only the fifth Division I women’s basketball head coach to reach that milestone. In her 34 years of coaching, she has culled an overall record of 894-203.
The success continued at Ohio State (1980-1985), where she coached the Buckeyes to four Big-10 Championships and twice received Big-10 Coach of the Year recognition.
But VanDerveer was always primed for a challenge, and when she received a phone call from then-Stanford Athletic Director Andy Geiger, she considered leaving Ohio to take a gamble coaching a Stanford team that her Buckeyes had recently dismantled, 79-47.
VanDerveer was ultimately drawn to Stanford by the rich tradition of academics and athletics. As a three-year Dean’s List Scholar at Indiana, VanDerveer values education and saw this as a great opportunity to create a model of athletic and academic excellence.
The road to athletic excellence would not be easy, though. VanDerveer inherited a team that was coming off of a poor 9-19 season in 1984. She told Geiger that more effort and money would have to be put into the program in order to be competitive in the long run.
“We just had to work really hard to get the word out about Stanford,” VanDerveer said. “We had a good group of people on our team, but they just needed to be surrounded by more talent.”
VanDerveer proved her coaching prowess by turning the program around in a short period of time. The team finished just 13-15 her first season, but made its return to the NCAA tournament in 1988. In 1990, she would build the best team in the nation with a record of 32-1.
By 1992, VanDerveer had won the program’s first two national championships and won National Coach of the Year three times en route to establishing Stanford as one of the most successful programs in women’s basketball history.
One of her most gratifying basketball memories came at this time. Prior to the program’s first Final Four game in 1990, Jennifer Azzi ’90, the team’s star player, wrote VanDerveer a note saying, “Tara, this one is for you.”
“I think that the thing that is most rewarding is when I talk to Jennifer, or I see Sonja Henning, or I saw Val Whiting, or Kate Starbird, or former players, I get a text from Nneka [Ogwumike],” said VanDerveer. “It’s just so special how the relationship is, that I’m 20 years removed from some of these people…and I meant something to them.”
Her impact didn’t stop at Stanford. VanDerveer was asked to coach USA Women’s Basketball at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. She was influential in changing the organization of USA Women’s Basketball by suggesting that the team be formed sooner, so that it could train and practice for a full year, instead of just the weeks leading up to competition. From 1995-1996, VanDerveer coached Team USA, including Azzi, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoops, to an undefeated 60-0 record and an Olympic gold medal. By taking women’s basketball seriously, VanDerveer made the world respect the sport.
VanDerveer admitted that when she sat in her apartment at Indiana joking with her teammates about professional women’s basketball, never in her wildest dreams did she believe that their jokes would become a reality. Yet that same little girl—who played with the neighborhood boys and could only imagine playing in a packed arena—saw to it that women’s basketball could be more than just a game.
VanDerveer, along with coaches like Geno Auriemma of UConn and Pat Summitt of Tennessee, has opened doors for not only women’s basketball players, but also other female athletes around the nation with her consistent pursuit of excellence and high standards.
VanDerveer’s younger sister Heidi, the women’s basketball coach at UC-San Diego, credits her sister for leading the way in an area where many would have been unwilling to commit to progress.
“Any time you’ve been in a profession for that many years, you must be doing something right because otherwise you wouldn’t make it,” said Heidi VanDerveer. “She’s just been a kind of standard, along with Pat Summit, Geno [Auriemma]. Tara has really set the stage for women’s basketball for the current generation and I think for the next generation as well.”
At Stanford, VanDerveer changed the culture of women’s athletics by attracting the brightest and best athletes in the nation to the Farm to build a program of the highest quality.
“When I was first a graduate assistant [at Ohio State], I had no money for anything. My first full time job paid $13,000 and I was ecstatic. We didn’t have strength coaches, we didn’t have full-time trainers,” VanDerveer explained. “There’s so much more support for women’s programs now.”
VanDerveer additionally recognized the time commitment that maintaining a big-time program required. Whether its watching film, talking to coaches, meeting with players, or talking to recruits, she puts effort into every aspect of the team.
“I’m probably thinking about [the team] all the time. Even if I’m walking my dogs I’m on my phone talking to a coach or somebody,” VanDerveer said. “I go home and I watch video until 10 o’clock at night. During the season, it’s pretty much every day, almost all the time.”
No matter how tough of a coach VanDerveer may be on the court, it’s obvious that she enjoys what she does. She has dedicated her life to something that she cares deeply about and goes to any lengths to see to it that she does her job well.
Jeannette Pohlen ‘11 remembers that VanDerveer prepared the team extremely well for every game.
“Our practices before each game, we would have teams down to a T, we would know their plays better than they would,” Pohlen said. “She watches so much film and has so much knowledge for the game. It was an honor playing for her.”
Tara VanDerveer was able to blaze a path for women’s athletics and adapt to the ever-changing landscape of women’s basketball. She has consistently recruited the top players in the nation and won two national titles early on in her career at Stanford.
However, the national title has been elusive since then. She’s brought success and status to women’s basketball both nationally and internationally, but a big question remains: will she win another national championship? This year, the season ended at the Sweet 16, but with all players except one returning, next year could be the year.
Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Previous installments in The Stanford Daily’s women’s sports feature series: