It started with a young athletic director, hungry to balance the elite academics of Stanford University with an elite athletics program, and an even younger women’s basketball head coach who was already in the midst of something great in Columbus, Ohio.
The year was 1985, and Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger found the perfect answer to his struggling Cardinal women’s basketball program that had gone 14-42 in the previous two seasons. Her name was Tara VanDerveer, and she had been able to jolt a lackluster Ohio State program into an NCAA Elite Eight contender that brought not only on-court success but also unheard-of crowds of thousands to see her women play.
Geiger knew VanDerveer was the perfect fit: a coach who could establish a precedent of success and catapult the Cardinal — who had needed to fight the school administration for just a small share of Maples Pavilion only five years prior — into the national discussion.
VanDerveer turned down the job.
It didn’t have much to attract a coach who had already struggled to establish herself at her existing program. Starting from scratch at a nothing program immediately after taking her Buckeyes to the Elite Eight? Even an increase in pay didn’t make that offer too enticing.
Yet, after some wavering and sugarcoating from Geiger, VanDerveer took the job, moved west and the rest was history.
The following season, VanDerveer and her new squad went 13-15, including a dismal 1-7 in conference.
Following her decision to leave Columbus with so much untapped potential to come to a losing Stanford program, many let VanDerveer know about the riskiness of her coaching decision. How was she going to win at a place like Stanford, where she not only faced an uphill battle to attract recruits let alone get them acceptance?
VanDerveer recounted in a piece in Stanford Athletics, “Honestly, I got phone calls like, ‘You are crazy!’ Including [from] my parents.”
But it was VanDerveer’s intense drive and work ethic that pushed her to accept the Stanford job and take the reins of a program at the bottom. VanDerveer’s lifelong assistant head coach Amy Tucker, who also transitioned with VanDerveer from the Buckeyes to the Farm, understood that VanDerveer’s passionate dedication to basketball and ambition ultimately made her accept the Stanford job.
“For her, it was the ultimate challenge,” Tucker later recounted about the arduous and painstaking decision to leave Ohio State, “If you could win at Stanford, you could win anywhere.”
During her tenure at Stanford, it is that intense work ethic that has ultimately made her impact on Cardinal athletics so incredible.
Just three years into her tenure, the driven young head coach poured herself into her program on the Farm, on and off the court, and transformed a Stanford team with so few fans that the lower bleachers at Maples remained tucked away during games into a team that made a run at the NCAA postseason tournament, reaching the Sweet 16 in the program’s first appearance.
It only took five seasons before VanDerveer brought Maples its first NCAA championship with a squad that lit up the nation on offense under stud guard Jennifer Azzi and averaged 88 points on 50-percent shooting from the field, including an astounding 44 percent from the perimeter.
Since that first Cardinal berth in the 1988 NCAA postseason, Stanford women’s basketball has made an appearance in the tournament every year under VanDerveer’s stewardship. Twenty-nine consecutive appearances later, the Cardinal still own their respect and place in the national discussion every year, with Stanford coming off an Elite Eight run last season and standing as co-conference leaders.
Now, 31 seasons into VanDerveer’s tenure here at the Farm, the Cardinal are a staple for success nationally in collegiate women’s basketball. VanDerveer’s passionate and intense leadership not only established women’s basketball at the Farm but inspired trailblazing coaches and players for the women’s game on all levels.
The success hasn’t changed VanDerveer or her humility.
As it stands, the Hall of Fame coach is just one win away from 1,000 career wins, a mark previously attained only once, by late legendary women’s coach Pat Summitt. She will have an opportunity to achieve that feat against the Trojans tonight.
At a mention of her upcoming milestone and career success, VanDerveer looks up at the winning accolades displayed in Maples Pavilion with a smile, then responds, “It feels like a dream honestly. Is that my life? Was I a part of that?”
Then, she cracks a smile, saying, “I mean, I thought 100 was pretty good. I set out the hundred ball. I thought 500 was big. I had no idea it was halfway.”
The woman synonymous with Cardinal basketball — and specifically, Stanford women’s basketball’s success — plays down the importance of the match during a small interview session with reporters following Tuesday’s intense practice.
When asked about what “1,000” displayed in Maples will mean after her next win, VanDerveer ponders for a quick moment before masterfully collecting her thoughts:
“You do want to win games, and you keep your job because you win games. What’s much more important to me is players improving. Helping them get better at basketball and taking them to a place they couldn’t go by themselves. Playing in a team, you know. Understanding and making sacrifices for each other and having roles. Understanding the adversity you’re going to face and how to break through to the next level. The hours you’ve got to put into something to be great.”
Fittingly enough, in the background of the meeting with VanDerveer, junior guard Brittany McPhee pounds the Maples floor, working extra on isolation scoring moves one-on-one with an assistant coach.
In VanDerveer’s historic victory, she will be led by a strong senior core that has gone to battle with the legendary head coach numerous times in Cardinal uniform.
Leaders like forward Erica McCall, guard Briana Roberson and guard Karlie Samuelson took part in VanDerveer’s 900th victory and know how special it will be to lead her into her 1,000th.
“It’s going to be crazy,” McCall said. “Nine hundred was fun. We were in New Mexico when we did it. It shows how many games that is. I’m like, ‘Sheesh, a hundred wins within my four years is crazy.’ It just shows how good of a coach [we have], and it’s just going to be a big celebration.”
But VanDerveer’s high-octane, efficient Cardinal offenses, immense basketball IQ and unrivaled passion for the game are only part of her Basketball Hall of Fame legacy.
With the American women’s international basketball team slipping in national dominance and finishing third in three successive international competitions, VanDerveer stepped up and accepted the head coach position, in a pivotal moment in U.S.A. Basketball history. In her yearlong leave from the Farm, VanDerveer eventually led America to an astounding 60-0 record over the course of the year and the gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, garnering sincere national interest in women’s basketball.
VanDerveer’s head coaching guidance built a legacy for women’s basketball that ultimately elevated the game nationwide. During that same year, the WNBA was founded, and many credit VanDerveer’s entertaining and dominant 1996 U.S.A. squad for elevating the women’s game to national prominence and opening the door for the professional game.
In an interview with the WNBA at the beginning of this season, VanDerveer reflected on her trailblazing impact through U.S.A. Basketball.
“There was a lot of pressure,” she said. “Everywhere we went people were saying, ‘Bring home the gold.’ It did put women’s basketball on the map in a different way. I think people handled it really well.”
As it has always been in the basketball giant’s career, coaching has never been about the trophies or the records.
For the 38-year veteran, coaching has always been about the joy and passion to teach and to spread the beautiful game that brought her to this point in life. VanDerveer often recalls her early decision to attend law school and view coaching as merely a side job, yet now she stands as one of the most influential leaders and champions of not just the women’s game but basketball as a whole.
VanDerveer always expresses her humility and gratitude in every practice and every game. When you play each minute and each drill with love as your motivator, the battery to coach doesn’t show many signs of wearing down.
While the Stanford legend isn’t one to chase records, Pat Summitt’s 1,093 win-total record still stands out there in the dusk for VanDerveer as she hopes for another deep postseason run with this talented and experienced squad. Yet, VanDerveer perpetually focuses on chasing team success in the next couple years rather than personal milestones.
Thinking about the future, she added, “I’m just going to enjoy every day. I go year by year, and I’m very excited about this year and next year’s team. I think we’ve got a really good thing going.”
And that is Tara VanDerveer. While 1,000 will be displayed on the board, it’ll be the potential rotation adjustments or a mistaken off-ball screen that will preoccupy the Hall of Fame coach. But that just shows, for the 1,000th time in her career, that the game matters more than the result or the records.
“I’m proud of the success our teams have had,” she said. “What means the most to me is the relationships that I have with the former players and staff that I have coached or know through basketball. Basketball has provided a tremendous life for me.”
“I mean, I thought I was going to go to law school. Look at all the legal mess the world is in. I get to be in the gym all day, and I love it. I get to travel around the world because of basketball. I’m living my fantasy. This is a great experience and I love it.”
One would think that 1,000 conquests signals the achievement of a master of their craft. For VanDerveer, getting to 1,000 only testifies to her remaining a passionate student and lover of the game for life.
Contact Lorenzo Rosas at enzor9 ‘at’ stanford.edu.