T-Dawg. GOAT. Whatever you call her, Tara VanDerveer is on top of her sport. With win No. 1,099, VanDerveer passed the legendary Pat Summitt to become the winningest coach in women’s basketball history.
And she did it as the top ranked team in the country.
No. 1 Stanford (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) overcame first half nerves to race past Pacific (0-1, 0-0 WCC) in Spanos Center 104-61.
After the game, the public address announcer relayed the achievement to an empty arena, Pacific gifted VanDerveer with the game ball and the players gifted her with a sweatshirt that read “T-DAWG.”
The nickname was coined by senior guard Kiana Williams, while the fashion choice was introduced to the team by sophomore forward Fran Belibi. Around their coach, the players pick and choose the times to call her T-Dawg, avoiding the moments when they are being excoriated about their rebounding or defense.
For much of the first half, T-Dawg would have been off limits. Stanford was outscored in the second quarter and Williams called the team “out of sync.” Even though VanDerveer told her team to play its game, Williams admitted nerves were a factor.
Then halftime happened, and the coach who relentlessly adapted before it was cool challenged her team to be more aggressive. Or, as VanDerveer would say, to “not be the soft girls from Stanford.”
“We didn’t throw the first punch,” VanDerveer said. “They did.”
Six Cardinal, including all five starters, finished in double figures. Junior guard Lexie Hull led with 17, sophomore forward Fran Belibi had 15 and sophomore guard Haley Jones, Williams and fifth year guard Anna Wilson had 14 each.
It was freshman forward Cameron Brink off the bench, however, who was credited by VanDerveer with turning the tide in the third quarter. Her seven rebounds were one behind Belibi and Jones for the game high.
The game had originally been scheduled for Nov. 29, but was postponed due to the suspension of team activity within the Pacific women’s basketball program following a positive COVID-19 test.
An opportunity for win No. 1,100 is scheduled for Saturday against USC at 2:00 p.m. PT.
The night, however, was about one more in the win column. It was a celebration of VanDerveer’s career, commitment to the game and uplifting of women’s sports.
“I always tease, and I said ‘someone put my phone number on a bathroom wall or something,’” VanDerveer said. “My phone is blowing up.”
Among former players, rival coaches, University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne and provost Persis Drell, Billie Jean King also had a message for VanDerveer. The icon founded the Women’s Sports Foundation that annually names 10 recipients for the Tara VanDerveer Fund for the Advancement of Women in Coaching.
“For little girls to see, whether it’s me or my assistants Katy Steding or Kate Paye or Britney Anderson, to see those coaches and to see the women on our sideline is the best message,” VanDerveer said. “I never really say, ‘I’m gonna go to the gym and impact someone’s life today.’”
While VanDerveer once had to promise a recruit, Jennifer Azzi ’90, that Stanford would play a game in her home state of Tennessee in order to secure her commitment, high school players now tremble when they talk to her.
“The very first phone call we had I still remember how nervous I was. I was pacing up and down my hallway, and my dad was telling me to sit down,” Williams said. “I’m like, ‘I’m talking to Tara VanDerveer. I can’t sit down.’”
VanDerveer believes her now-assistant, Steding, would say she has mellowed since the former forward played for her from 1986 to 1990. VanDerveer credits her experience coaching the Olympic team to a 60-0 record while taking 1995-96 off from Stanford, putting Amy Tucker in the coach’s seat, with giving her perspective. Otherwise, much has stayed the same.
“I’m going to be in the pool tomorrow, and I’m gonna be the same person,” VanDerveer said.
“One of the greatest things that she’s taught me is to be the same every day whether it’s going your way or not,” Wilson said.
The one time when her future was in doubt, VanDerveer had a conversation with John Arrillaga ’60 — a real estate developer, men’s basketball alum and philanthropist who has donated extensively to Stanford.
“John, I’m just exhausted,” VanDerveer told him. “I need a break.”
“Well, take the summer off,” Arrillaga said.
She came back reinvigorated, and now is coaching the top-ranked team in the nation. She waterskied 93 times last summer, swims, rides a Peloton bike and plays bridge with her mom. So by the time she gets to the gym, it is exciting.
“It’s not a j-o-b job; it’s f-u-n fun,” VanDerveer said.
For all of the fun and fireworks on the court — Stanford surpassed the century mark in points for the third time this season — the postgame celebration was special. While Williams said that the weight of the victory probably would not hit her coach until the team is back at the hotel, the team staged a mini-party in the arena.
Confetti poppers were released in the draped-off corner of the arena that served as Stanford’s locker room. T-shirts were made for the occasion. A banner read “CONGRATULATIONS TARA YOU’RE OVER THE TOP.” Four silver balloons spelled out 1 0 9 9.
“They wanted this win for me, and I felt it from them the whole game, the whole bus ride up here,” VanDerveer said.
“She’s really a player’s coach in the sense that she wants to try and get the best out of her players,” Wilson said. “At the end of the game, she’s talking to us in the locker room, and she’s just talking about loving us.”
VanDerveer deepened relationships with her players by checking in on them when the team was separated over the summer amid the nationwide reckoning with racial injustice and the global pandemic.
“It’s not even about the X’s and O’s,” Williams said. “Tara cares about you as a person.”
And in that giving spirit, VanDerveer shared that she would be donating $10,090.
“This is such a hard time for so many people in our country and in our community,” VanDerveer said, unprompted. “I’m going to donate to our local food bank, Season of Sharing, $10 for each win.”